Machine Intelligence Is Extending To Include Conveying Systems

Material transfer still defines what a conveyor does, but advanced controls are giving systems new levels of smart technology.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Smart machines with advanced sensors that perform condition monitoring and allow remote diagnostics and repair are at the center of the brave new digital manufacturing world, but can “smart” be combined with “conveyor” without being labeled an oxymoron?

Conveyors have carried raw materials, work in progress and finished goods from point A to point B for decades, often running continuously until someone flips a switch to off. Proximity sensors that cut off power when nothing is on the belt represent a small step forward, but that hardly qualifies as machine smarts.

Certainly, controls technology comes into play in packaging, where individual items are grouped, collated and transferred. While these systems exhibit a high level of sophistication, they usually fall short of the self-diagnostics and two-way communications capabilities of equipment that leverages the potential of the Industrial Internet of Things.

Nonetheless, smart conveying is becoming a reality in what some refer to as intelligent track technology. Using servo motors and sensors that identify the exact location, position, direction and speed of individual items on the belt, intelligent track technology allows synchronization with fillers, checkweighers, robots and other machines in a production or packaging line. Instead of setting up those machines to conform to a run of products, they adapt to individual products.

“In food and beverage processing, this track technology promotes mass customization, all the way to a batch size of one,” maintains John Kowal, business development director at B&R Industrial Automation Corp. (, Roswell, Ga. “Applications can include individually customized meal kits, confectionary assortments, pizzas and rainbow packs, including customized messaging and portion sizing.”

The systems integrator cites the new “bottling on demand” system from Krones as an example of track technology. Bottling on demand provides individual bottles with the intelligence to control themselves as they move on a race track connected to a controller. Instead of filling each bottle with, for example, 12 oz. of juice, different sized bottles can be fed through the filler, which dispenses 8 oz., 16 oz. or whatever the specific bottle’s capacity is. Different caps can then be applied, and a direct printing system can apply as many as 12 different labels.

“Intelligent tracking technology is combining the functions of transport with production,” Kowal says. “Using independently controlled shuttles operating on tracks of various configurations, this technology is based on linear motors. To put it in traditional round motor terminology, the track is one big motor stator and the shuttle is essentially a motor rotor.”

That level of intelligence isn’t found in upstream processes, but smarter conveying is making inroads, even in bulk transport. An example is the torque limiters built into some of Dynamic Conveyor Corp.’s units. Those conveyors may transfer up to 30,000 lbs. of cashews or other commodities per hour, according to Paul Kuharevicz, sales project engineer at the Norton Shores, Mich., OEM (

Infeed to those bulk conveyors varies, with motors prone to burnout when overloaded. “People are very conscious of mechanical breakdowns at the front end,” Kuharevicz notes. “If it goes down, the downstream machines are idled.”

To avoid that scenario, the torque limiter relays an alert to the central control point when the load approaches the motors’ limit. Ethernet or some other communications cable then sends a signal to lower the belt speed to reduce power draw.

Downtime prevention also is the objective with SmartArm shaker technology from Key Technology Inc. (, Walla Walla, Wash. The condition monitoring tool measures and reports stroke and speed on the firm’s vibratory conveyors, collecting trending data and wirelessly reporting deviations from acceptable performance. “It’s a smart tool that provides feedback for uptime reliability, PM planning and proactive maintenance,” according to Mark Roedl, area sales manager at Key.

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