What are some of the ways you think the industry will change in the near future?
Consumers in general adhere to three universal truths:
- They want the best
- They want it free (or the lowest price)
- They want it now
So now it’s a race for companies to best fulfill these needs. Some may offer the best prices but a penalty for quality (Walmart’s of the retail world). Others offer the highest of quality but at a penalty for higher prices (Macey’s of the retail world). Both, however, do offer it “now”.
Today we are facing an evolving economy where there is a big shift from traditional brick and mortar retail to internet shopping. This shift in consumer consumption addresses the first two universal truths of highest quality for the lowest price comparison shopping. The last truth of ”now” is the challenge for this new model.
Consumers are seeing some great benefits to online shopping. First of all, with just a few clicks and searches, you have an immense number of options of merchandise to suit your needs. In addition to the vast array of merchandise, the consumer also has a very quick way of comparison shopping to get the best price too. All this without traveling to a mall and settling for on display available merchandise. And finally, there could be additional perks, although disappearing, such as “no taxes” and “free shipping”.
This convenience, though has some drawbacks to conventional mall shopping. The first drawback is you can’t have it “now”. Usually you have to wait for it to be picked, packed and then to be shipped to you. This process traditionally took several days to a few weeks. The consumer maybe had some choices to accelerate the process with faster shipping choices but these are costly options and this just cut a few days to the process which was far from “now”. Amazon tried to address this issue by offering a special Prime membership to help get consumers close to that “now” factor with overnight options.
The second drawback is the fact that often we are seeing the merchandise for the first time when it arrives and we now are faced with issues like” it don’t fit” or “it’s the wrong color” or “it was damaged in shipping”…which are issues we normally address at the store prior to finalizing a purchase. So now we are faced with a return operation which unfortunately takes away from the pleasant shopping experience we initially started with.
This shift in consumption, however, is taking traction and has merchants scrambling to develop an infrastructure to address this new demand.
This shift from shopping at a mall or retail store to shopping on your couch with a laptop has turned the material handling world upside down. In order to meet the new demands on the infrastructure, material handling companies are seeing an explosion in sales to both courier as well as emerging companies that cater to internet shoppers such as Amazon. Many brick and mortar companies, like Walmart, have also jumped in and expanded their online presence to grab a piece of the pie.
What are some of the new challenges that have come up within the material handling industry?
Traditionally, merchandise was manufactured and brought to warehouses/distribution center to be distributed to retail stores where consumers would purchase the items (basically doing the order-assembly in a shopping cart) and in essence deliver the merchandise the last mile home to the consumer. Merchandise was neatly packed in skids and delivered in bulk with minimal damage. Store employees filled the shelves and consumers picked out the merchandise as desired.
So, what does the new model look like? To begin with the need is for rapid order fulfilment. Let’s face it, customers want their merchandise “now” so a slow order fulfilment process is a recipe for obsolesce. On-line shopping has a different path to the consumer too. Manufacturers ship merchandise to warehouses that feed order assembly operations. Finished orders are packed and then go to one of several available courier companies or the United States Post Office (USPS) that take the merchandise the last mile to the consumer.
What factors need to be considered when designing a powered conveyor system?
When designing a conveyor system to meet the new on-line demands you have to be sure it has the following characteristics:
- It must be versatile to handle all sorts of merchandise such as boxes, bags, totes and maybe even loose items such as muffler pipes or carpet rolls.
- It must be fast so that it gets from point “A” to point “B” quickly. Time is of the essence to meet the “now” requirement
So what systems are not optimal for todays new material handling conveyor system?
- Roller conveyors: It may not be desirable to rely on roller conveyors. These conveyors are great for boxes and totes but they are slow (often limited to under 200 fpm) and they do not work well with bags or loose items.
- Tray or tote systems: these systems are a compromise of tray sizes. Too large a tray and it becomes overkill for tiny items, too small a tray and you have to special handle a large percentage of merchandise manually.
- Dedicated carrier robots: these serve a purpose for sure but are limited to relative low volumes due to floor traffic and slow speeds. These systems are expensive too so it becomes a barrier for start-up companies.
The ideal material handling system could then be as simple and basic as a belted conveyor system. Conveyors can travel at very high speeds of over 600 fpm and depending on their width they can handle almost all merchandise. They do have one major drawback. They have many transfer points. Transfer points introduce possibilities for jams or lost tracking. The company that has the best transfers on a conveyor system will have the best “universal conveyor system”
- How does Flow-Turn address and solve some of these challenges?
Flow Turn, a provider of belted power turns, has tried to address the transfer issue. Traditional power turns are made with a doughnut shaped belt folded over two tapered or conical shaped end pulleys. This solution has been the staple for powered curves for decades and is still the main solution for all belted curves. The conical shaped pulleys are also oriented in such a way as to converge to the center of the curve. This geometry ends up with two main problems:
- First the diameter of the transfer across the width of the curve varies greatly from a large diameter on the outside radius to a much small diameter on the inside radius.
- And second, the edge of the transfer is far from parallel to the adjacent conveyor pulley. The gap here works to further exaggerate the gap on the outside radius.
So, in summary the transfer is double penalized from curve to straight conveyor on the outside of a curve.
Flow Turn has introduced two curves to address the gap issue. First it introduced the Square-Turn. The Square Turn has a cylindrical end roller so it has a uniform diameter across the whole width of the curve. Flow-Turn offers several diameters to best suit the merchandise size being transported. And second, in addition to the cylindrical end roller (vs tapered end roller) the Square Turn has a proprietary geometry that orients the end rollers “square” to the edge of the curve, thus a parallel same diameter transfer. These curves can be made to transport at significant speeds too. In essence the ideal transfer for a conveyor system.
To address extremely small items, Flow-Turn re-introduced a new Knife-Roll curve that has a fixed very small diameter transfer edge. The edge of the curve is made with ball bearings attached to the slider bed forming a square edge to interface with a belt conveyor. This too then is the ideal transfer for a conveyor system with a limitation for possibly speed.
These two Flow-Turn innovations to the belted curve technology are the modern way to design a conveyor system.