With UK online retail sales topping £133 billion last year the retailers look to delivery times and order picking accuracy as the key differentiator to compete successfully in a rapidly growing, fluid market. To do that, retailers’ supply chains are looking to robots and appropriate ‘intelligent’ conveyors that must be fast, product friendly, robust for reliability and safe. They must also be highly flexible to cope with changing business needs from a fickle public demanding instant gratification. To this end, many retailers are looking to achieve 15 minutes from click to ship but woe betide any who deliver on time but make picking errors. According to one consumer survey carried out a few months, ago 38% said they were unlikely ever to shop with a retailer that gave them a negative delivery experience.

The choice of conveyor will depend much on the type of product to be conveyed and throughput rates but without proper selection, which should also include choice of supplier, any automated conveying system would suffer inefficiencies, losing time and money, as well as impacting safety adversely. Owing to the many types of belt conveyors and their variety of belt materials, for example, which is driven by customer need, it is important to choose a supplier partner that will analyse a prospective client’s particular issues. Bearing in mind that some belt conveyors could be hundreds of metres long, is the fire hazard a significant issue, for example, and if so what is on the market in flame retardant belts that can reduce insurance premiums. Ammeraal Beltech points to one of its flame retardant belts that will self-extinguish within six seconds of a flame put on it.

The right belt choice can also lower maintenance times and so raise uptime and productivity. Potential conveyor belt buyers when comparing different quotes should also be apprised about the quoted conveyor’s energy efficiency, which will partly be a function of design. Forbo claims that its AmpMiser energy-saving belt saves up to 50% of the energy needed for power transmission, and in typical applications that could deliver a payback in under three years.

Conveyor buyers need to keep abreast of latest design enhancements because these can dramatically improve conveyor handling speeds and conveyed product diversity. A good example is the new omni-directional sorter from Intralox, who invented the world’s first modular, plastic conveyor belt. Its key difference is its capability to achieve higher speeds at 90 deg angles and so push up handling rates from 1,800 items per hour to 3,600 per hour.

Conveyor flexibility is not just about re-arranging conveyor routes but also enhancing their ability to sort many different, often difficultto- handle, products at high speed. As an example, Intralox points to its ARB sorter S7000 that previously conveyed only boxes and poly bags while its new S7050 can sort and merge boxes, bags and a variety of items in their primary packaging. This has been achieved by a much higher density of rollers. Other advantages include a tight footprint at a fraction of a traditional cross belt sorter.

While handling speeds are often seen as the core concern of conveyor users, given the fast changing nature of e-commerce demands one must not overlook the need for flexibility in reconfiguring conveyor layouts, especially in warehouses undergoing growth or other rapid changes. When e-commerce took hold, FMH, a global maker of rigid, flexible and telescopic conveyors, saw the need for quickly reconfigurable, mobile conveyors to improve their fluid loading and unloading processes. “There is a growing need for speed and efficiency to optimise multiple operations while minimising setup times and space requirements of conveying equipment,” says the company. Its answer was BestConnect, launched last year, a reconfigurable, castor-mounted, conveyor design that easily and quickly adapts to growing warehouse environments. “This concept serves customers who want simpler, systems without large hardware investments,” adds FMH. BestConnect’s entire system locks together solidly with similar characteristics of a bolted, rigid conveyor but offers much more flexibility.