By Kate Nadeau, engineer with mk North America
Automation and robotics are the here and now (and future) of America’s manufacturing sector, which means the time is also right for advanced conveyors. These conveyors are lean and durable as well as dependable, fast, intelligent, and adaptable.
Unlike yesteryear’s conveyors, today’s advanced conveyor systems (which will enable the future of assembly automation) are also dominated by workpiece pallet handling conveyors.
Belt conveyors of all types are the workhorses of many factories, but there’s critical need for flexible automation to serve today’s assembly and manufacturing companies. Here, pallet conveyors offer much needed versatility and more. Comprised of two or more strands of conveying surfaces, these conveyors use pallets to carry product. The pallets are not wooden shipping pallets; instead they’re typically composed of precise aluminum or steel plates with key subcomponents:
- Jigs or fixtures for holding parts
- Running or wear strips to lower the coefficient of friction with the conveyor surface (to extend pallet life)
- Accessories such as RFID tags and locating bushings to identify and track pallets
The use of pallets in conveyor systems imparts adaptability, which in turn streamlines and standardizes material-handling processes. In other words, pallet conveyors can move materials from point A to B … and they can also move materials from A to B and from Y to Z and from Z to A. Because the pallet provides a cohesive platform, assembly processes can happen on a single conveyor line. This means a robot can place a small, light, and delicate part on the pallet; then while the pallet travels along the conveyor, this part (as robots, humans, or processes build upon the part) can become heavy and bulky. Depending on the end product, pallet sizes can range from 10 x 10 inches to more than 48 x 48 inches. Pallet loading can go from less than one pound to several hundred pounds.
Processes that can be performed on pallet conveyors are nearly limitless. As mentioned, pallets and product can be carried to operators or robots. They can also be moved on and off the mainline conveyor to auxiliary operations. For operations that need precise movement or placement, any given pallet can be positively located while on the conveyor. It can also be lifted and rotated (either automatically or manually) for various purposes and then returned to the conveyor surface and workflow. Pallet conveyors also allow quality control and testing — and removal of rejected parts from the pallet or even the removal of the entire pallet from the line. Pallets can also carry a continuous stream of materials, or they can return to the beginning of the line empty and ready to accept new parts to start the process over again.
Devices added to pallet conveyors to make them smarter and more precise (including locating devices and transfers) are called modules. The modules allow for optimization of various processes while eliminating reliance on labor that doesn’t necessarily add value to the finished product. What’s more, these modules can be moved around the conveyor system to let the manufacturer quickly respond to ever-changing demands and requirements of today’s manufacturing environment.
Working in conjunction with old and new technologies, pallet conveyors can move smarter, optimize the manufacturing environment and adapt to new products and production technologies.
For more information on this topic, refer to the infographic below or download a special white paper (in the form of a PDF) from mk North America titled, Optimizing Your Manufacturing: Assembly Operation Utilizing Pallet-Handling Conveyor Systems.