Without a hitch

Parcel shipping volumes in Australia are rapidly increasing, mounting pressure on delivery networks. From 2015 to 2016, the number of parcels shipped in the country rose by 13 per cent to 794 million parcels1, representing a nine-billion-dollar spend. Research carried out by technology company Pitney Bowes found that by 2021, over one billion parcels will be shipped annually – an estimated growth of between nine and 12 per cent from 2017 to 2021.

According to Laurie Shorten, Light-Duty Product Manager for conveyor system expert Flexco, the growth of the package-handling industry puts further pressure on companies to ramp up efficiency. “With the rampant and growing success of the industry comes challenges as well,” says Laurie. “The need to be competitively productive is at an all-time-high, with every minute of lost productivity costing the industry’s major hundreds and thousands of dollars.”

Breaking tradition

Laurie shares that interrupted conveyor belt operation is one of the biggest causes of lost time in the parcel-handling industry. “Keeping a conveyor belt running smoothly is a challenge companies face daily,” he says. “Transfer gaps and hitches between belts can lead to foreign-object debris getting caught in the gap, belt damage, lost envelopes and packages and – most importantly ­– the safety of staff is heavily compromised.” He notes that companies’ options for avoiding such conveyor-belt issues has traditionally been limited. “Often, maintenance staff have had to resort to ‘homemade’ devices made from ultra-high molecular weight (UHMW) polyurethane. There are, however, serious implications involved with this practice,” says Laurie.

One common issue resulting from the use of such devices is gaps of up to 12mm between conveyor belts and transfer plates. “This is very concerning, as a lot of foreign-object debris is still able to make its way through the gap and cause blockages and damages to the belt,” says Laurie. “Traditional homemade plates are not effective at preventing foreign-object debris jams into transfers – if the debris gets caught in the gap, the friction can cause the belt to stop, resulting in a disastrous amount of damage, and hours – if not days – of downtime.” On top of this, he notes, the beveled edges of homemade plates can cause uneven wear and rips in the belts, and also the conveyed product.

Another common issue with traditional UHMW transfer plates is the cost and time required for maintenance. “Most of these plates are relatively cheap to produce but have a life expectancy of only six months,” says Laurie. Due to their short lifespan, time and resources must be allocated to replacing the plates regularly, a process that is timely and complex. “As it’s a tricky procedure, it’s not uncommon for the plates to be installed incorrectly, leading to further hours of maintenance work,” Laurie adds. “Homemade devices have long been the only option available, so companies have had to persevere with the associated unscheduled downtime, lost productivity and harm to conveyor belts.”

Moving forward

Recognising the need for a more professional and effective solution, Flexco tasked its design experts across its global network with developing an alternative for the parcel-handling industry. Following extensive testing, Flexco is now ready to reveal its complete solution – segmented transfer plates and hitch guards. “This tool has the potential to significantly impact the parcel industry,” says Laurie.

The segmented transfer plates are designed to cover the gap between conveyors that are positioned belt-to-belt, belt-to-chute, belt-to-roller and for power turns. “The plates are easy to install, they simply snap onto the support bar and can be in place in minutes,” he adds. “As such, maintenance managers can focus their time on increasing productivity proactively, rather than repeatedly reacting to the same issue.” Flexco originally designed the plates for use in parcel sortation operations, distribution centres, fulfilment centres, warehouses and airports. The main purpose of the plates is to prevent foreign-object debris from entering the conveyor path and causing jams or damaging belts. They come in a range of sizes, from 38mm to 250mm, to accommodate for a variety of gap sizes, and feature moulded-in ribs on the segment surface to reduce friction by up to 10 per cent and allow heavy packages to transition over the plates without harming belts.

“The main point of difference between Flexco’s new product and traditional homemade solutions is Flexco’s patented technology,” says Laurie. “The individual segments of the transfer plate are designed to release under extreme pressure, in the rare instance where a product may momentarily become lodged between the belt and the segment.

“A single segment section releases, but the remaining segment pieces remain intact and continue to protect the efficiency of the company’s operation.” If the same scenario were to happen with a homemade solution, the result would be catastrophic, with foreign-object debris causing the belt to seize, and the repair could take days.

“The segmented transfer plates and hitch guards will be launched to the Australian market at MEGATRANS2018, with the products being displayed on a working conveyor system, so attendees will be able to see the product working for itself,” says Laurie. “This exciting launch means there is finally a solution in Australia for one of the packaging-handling industry’s biggest conveyor pain points.”