What is a conveyor system?

Carolina Monroy Last Updated: December 3rd, 2019

A conveyor system is a fast and efficient mechanical handling apparatus for automatically transporting loads and materials within an area. This system minimizes human error, lowers workplace risks and reduces labor costs — among other benefits. They are useful in helping to move bulky or heavy items from one point to another. A conveyor system may use a belt, wheels, rollers, or a chain to transport objects.

How do conveyor systems work

How conveyor systems work

Typically, conveyor systems consist of a belt stretched across two or more pulleys. The belt forms a closed loop around the pulleys so it can continually rotate. One pulley, known as the drive pulley, drives or tows the belt, moving items from one location to another.

The most common conveyor system designs use a rotor to power the drive pulley and belt. The belt remains attached to the rotor through the friction between the two surfaces. For the belt to move effectively, both the drive pulley and idler must run in the same direction, either clockwise or counterclockwise.

While conventional conveyor systems such as moving walkways and grocery store conveyors are straight, sometimes, the unit needs to turn to deliver the items to the proper location. For the turns, there are unique cone-shaped wheels or rotors which allows the belt to follow a bend or twist without getting tangled.

Benefits of conveyor systems

The main purpose of a conveyor system is to move objects from one location to another. The design allows for movement of objects that are too heavy or too bulky for humans to carry by hand.

Conveyor systems save time when transporting items from one location to another. As they can be inclined to span multiple levels, they make it simpler to move items up and down floors, a task that, when performed manually by humans, causes physical strain. Inclined belts can automatically unload material, eliminating the need for someone to be on the opposite end to receive pieces.

Types and examples of conveyor systems

Types and examples of conveyor systems

You can probably imagine a large warehouse filled with conveyors using belts and rollers to move boxes and other heavy equipment, but this is just one of several types of conveyor systems. You’ll also find conveyor systems in airports, where they’re used to transport luggage. Other examples include escalators and ski lifts. These apparatuses still use a belt or chain and pulleys to move heavy items from one point to another.

There are many types of conveyor systems, including:

  • Belt
  • Roller
  • Slat/apron
  • Ball transfer
  • Overhead
  • Pneumatic
  • Bucket
  • Chute
  • Magnetic
  • Vertical
  • Wheel
  • Walking beam
  • Vibrating
  • Screw/auger
  • Chain

Each type of conveyor serves a specific purpose. For example, a slat conveyor, made from slats or plates instead of a belt, is designed for moving heavy materials. The materials conveyed by a slat system are typically too large or heavy for traditional belt movement.

An escalator is an example of a chain-driven conveyor system. Instead of having a pulley system that pulls items along, the chain conveyor uses a towing system which pulls the steps in an upward or downward motion.

Ski lifts are an example of an overhead conveyor. These units use an electric track inclined to pull the chairs up or down the mountainside. Like an escalator, these systems use a chain-driven towing system.

Essential parts of a conveyor system

Essential parts of a conveyor system

There are three main parts of a conveyor system: the belt support, the pulley and the drive unit. Each component plays an essential role in the conveyor unit’s operation. While all conveyor systems contain these parts, designs vary in the construction materials and where each component is located.

Belt support is the component that ensures the belt moves smoothly. If the support unit is not firm, the belt sags when workers place a heavy object on top, and the sagging causes the belt not to move smoothly or swiftly as it should. Use of a firm support unit keeps the belt taut and running efficiently.

The pulley system is an external component used to control the belt movement. Each unit has at least two pulleys, one that operates under power and an idle one. More complex conveyor systems may have additional rotors throughout the frame.

The drive unit allows the system to move. The unit contains a counter bearing which keeps the parts moving efficiently. This unit also allows for the belt to move in reverse and manage the repeated adjustments in direction for some systems. Some conveyor systems are manually operated. These systems still use a drive unit; however, it is not motorized.

If you’re considering a conveyor system, consider your budget, the speed at which you need to complete your work, space and other constraints, and of course, your loading and unloading plans. For instance, conveyor systems aren’t portable and they require substantial changes to your infrastructure. However, other practical and more affordable solutions exist to automate your warehouse operations.

Download our white paper, 7 Reasons Why Warehouse Robots Beat Traditional Automation, to learn more about how warehouse robots are a smarter, more cost-effective solution compared to traditional automation solutions like conveyor systems.