Conveyor Systems: Rolling Cheese Downhill in Safety

by Marjorie Steele, Editor at IQS

Marjorie Steele

My husband and I were watching the faux-news the other night when the commentator showed a clip from a recent Amazing Race episode. This competition – which was, appropriately, located in Switzerland – involved competitors running down a hill with a two hundred pound cheese wheel strapped to their backs. Inevitably, one of the competitors tripped (tragically and hilariously), releasing the wheel of cheese from his back which then – you guessed it – rolled all the rest of the way down the hill (breaking a wooden fence at the bottom – now that’s a big cheese!).

The commentator then questioned the validity of a competition in which competitors, as he put it, try to get “a round object down a hill.”

As many Amazing Race fans and bloggers have since commented, this challenge of getting a 200 pound cheese wheel down a steep hill actually proved incredibly dangerous (don’t believe me? Watch the videos on YouTube, and be sure to laugh). While the Amazing Race has made inane tasks like this the object of entertainment for millions of people, there is another group of millions of individuals who are faced with similar real challenges every day in industrial material handling – except the material handlers aren’t being broadcast to catchy theme music.

Getting objects of all shapes, sizes, weights and levels of fragility from point A to point B has been one of the biggest – or at least most common – challenges in industrial manufacturing since the industry’s beginning. So you’ve just fabricated two tons of gray iron cast pump housings – fantastic! How are you going to move them from production to packaging and distribution? Chances are facilities for those two processes aren’t back to back, and while Amazing Race contestants may not mind carrying 200 pounds on their backs through dangerous territory, the workers in a gray iron casting plant might (and so would the company’s attorneys).

Conveyor systems manufacturers make processes like these not only possible, but easy, and they use a very wide range of conveyor designs to do so. Some of these conveyor designs, like roller skatewheels, use simple gravity to guide products along. Skatewheel conveyors, also known as “gravity conveyors” or “roller conveyors”, are made up of long, rail-guarded metal “wheels”, which roll, with minimum friction, beneath objects as they pass by; a properly designed skatewheel conveyor, such as those made by Metzgar Conveyors, allows gravity to do all the work. Others use electric or pneumatic powered mat top belt conveyors, wire mesh conveyors, chain driven conveyors and overhead conveyors to safely transport equipment and products through warehouse facilities.

One of my personal favorites is the vertical conveyor, a type of system which moves objects up or down what can sometimes be several stories. Some vertical “elevators” use buckets attached to vertical belts or chains, while others use spiraling conveyor chutes on skatewheels.

One conveyor system I saw on YouTube (yes, there are videos of conveyor systems on YouTube – another way to promote your products through the web, by the way) transported industrial fasteners up a nearly straight incline with a strongly magnetized conveyor belt; the bolts stuck to the belt until they reached the top and were then released into a bucket which was whisked off to another part of the plant. Amazing! Another YouTube video shows a group of young men discovering that skatewheel inclines can also be used as slides – human slides. Factory foremen, watch your workers around skatewheel ramps…

Conveyor systems can also be vital to the manufacturing process itself. Many powder coating applications (a polymer-based paint which is applied as a powder or liquid then cured in industrial ovens) require a part to be coated 360 degrees around, leaving no space for the part to sit on a traditional horizontal conveyor belt. These parts are often hung from hooks on overhead “monorail” conveyors. Systems like this allow for a smooth transition from fabrication to cleaning to surface finishing without parts ever having to be removed from their conveyor. Some conveyor manufacturers design systems that can handle multiple processes just like this, moving parts through washing facilities, drying facilities, powder coating booths and ovens in one step. Other conveyor systems handle fragile items, like glass bottles, as they are cleaned, filled and packaged during automated steps along the conveyor.

Material handling engineers have found a way to move an object from point A to point B in nearly any situation imaginable, from guiding objects (like cheese wheels, or teenage boys) down a skatewheel gravity conveyor to moving helicopter bolts 15 feet up a straight incline. For nearly every type of material handling that exists, there is a conveyor system that can provide solutions. If you find yourself stuck with a unique material handling situation, and you can’t seem to find an effective solution, I can guarantee there are a myriad of conveyor systems engineers and manufacturers who would be happy to create a conveyor that would efficiently cradle, carry, swing, push, pull or rock your product to wherever it needs to go. So next time you need to transport a 200 pound wheel of cheese down a steep incline, forget strapping it to your back and call a conveyor systems manufacturer.