It’s no secret that the pool of qualified maintenance professionals in the United States is shrinking, a situation that has worsened during the past two years due to a high number of unemployment claims and a rash of retirements. And the near future doesn’t hold any promises that things will get better, as the shift away from blue-collar work in North America is a decades-long trend. Yet, despite the labor shortage, manufacturers are considering or have already decided to move production back to North America from overseas due to weaknesses the pandemic has exposed in global supply chains. While most of the factories will inevitably end up in Mexico, it’s uncertain how many facilities manufacturers will opt to build in the U.S. and Canada. Whatever the numbers, corporations will recruit heavily across the continent for workers, making the talent pool that much smaller.
With a general labor shortage also squeezing manufacturers, many companies have begun to seriously prioritize labor savings by reducing cleanup and increasing the reliability of their machines.
Cleanup is an obvious point of labor that mills and other manufacturing facilities want to address, as it’s one of the most unprofitable activities an employee can engage in. Still, it’s undeniably vital. In wood-processing industries, for example, the large amount of sawdust and other wood waste that accumulates at many mills poses fire and explosion hazards if not swept up. So much of it can accumulate that it can also thwart production. What’s more, codes recently published by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA®) require manufacturers to keep accumulated dust under 1/8″ thick to prevent explosions. However, messes inconsistent with today’s NFPA®’s standards are still common across the industry due to decades of low standards for dust control, a broad lack of concern regarding material handling systems (which leak dust), and the general cost of upgrading these systems.
Attitudes are changing about conveyors due to the labor crisis, however. If companies want to reduce cleanup to better utilize their employees, they must address the sources of the messes such as bulk handling equipment. Furthermore, more industry professionals are rethinking the importance of conveyance equipment: what was once not considered “critical” machinery is being realized as such. After all, if a waste conveyor stops running, production equipment must also cease operating. (Perhaps conveyors have always been more important than some industry professionals have realized!) Professionals are therefore looking to install better conveyance systems to contain dust and debris and minimize the demands on their limited maintenance crew. (Who wants their crews spending hours on “noncritical” equipment anyway?)
In doing so, the question operations are faced with the question, “What conveyors fulfill both these requirements?” Of the many conveyance systems on the market, not many do. Consider common issues associated with different types of conveyance systems:
|Conveyor Type||Common Issues|
Dust sticks to the belt and falls off under the conveyor as it passes over the return rollers. Dust can also fall over the sides if the conveyor isn’t covered.
High wear on bottom pans, sidewalls, chains, and sprockets. Difficult to replace pan sections and retrofit the conveyor (in-field welding).
Dust falls off the bottom of the conveyor. Dust can also fall over the sides if the conveyor isn’t covered.
|Pneumatic Conveyance||Dust control.
Will cover a facility in dust when a hole forms.
Pneumatic systems have high power requirements.
Dust can fall over the sides if the conveyor isn’t covered.
Abrasive materials wear through the pan as they pass under the flights. Hanger bearings are difficult to access and maintain. Can be difficult to replace pan sections and retrofit the conveyor (in-field welding).
Vigilant maintenance is required to keep bucket elevators aligned and operating smoothly. If a bucket becomes dislodged, it can cause major damage.
Issues vary according to a manufacturer’s design, of course. The above list of common troubles is broadly brushed. However, they are issues we routinely encounter in the field and while talking to customers, and some of them are inherent to the system no matter how it’s designed. Screw flights will always grind abrasive material like biomass into and through the bottom pan. Belts can be brushed, scraped, and beaten, but some material will always still stick to them and accumulate underneath the conveyor where the belt passes over the return rollers.
Other issues can be engineered out of the system. BE&E’s SMART Conveyors™ experience much less wear than other chain conveyors due to its paddles and chain drive design. They’re also totally enclosed, so they contain dust and comply with the NFPA®’s requirements for material-handling equipment that transports explosive wood dust. The design features that make these ends possible include:
- The paddles don’t touch the sidewalls or bottom pans (reduces friction and wear).
- Paddles are equipped with “fingers” (stops materials from wedging under the paddles).
- Multiple fail points to protect the chains and shafts (1. a finger will first bend or break, 2. the paddles and frames will bend, 3. the paddles and frames will roll, then 4. the paddle frames will break).
- Chains run in UHMW-lined channels, not through the material path (reduces wear on the bottom panels and restricts side-to-side movement of the chains).
- Curve wear materials can be replaced from outside the conveyor (wear pads in S-Series SMART Conveyors™ can be replaced from outside the conveyor in minutes).
- Curves are equipped with rails to prevent wear (curves in M- and T-Series SMART Conveyors™ are equipped with rails to prevent the mains from wearing into the steel frame).
- All panels are assembled with bolts (no welding is required for maintenance).
- Conveyors are designed with spit heads (heads on M- and T-Series SMART Conveyors™ are split so crews can quickly replace a shaft if this component requires repair).
The challenges of 2022 aren’t going away. The lack of skilled personnel and a general labor shortage is forcing companies to accommodate by reducing cleanup and runaway maintenance, issues for which conveyors can bear much responsibility. BE&E is ready to supply your operation with conveyors and other material handling equipment necessary to overcome these challenges. More information about our conveyors, including videos, brochures, and technical articles, is available on our website at www.BiomassEngineeringEquipment.com/Equipment/Smart-Conveyors.
 NFPA 664