The first conveyor belt systems were very primitive and consisted of a leather, canvas or rubber belt traveling over a flat wooden bed. This rudimentary system was successful enough to provide incentive for engineers to consider conveyors as an economical and efficient way to haul large quantities of bulk material from one location to another.
By the turn of the 20th century, conveyors were being used in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to unload wooden shingles from rail cars. Soon, conveyors were being used for other applications as well, and overhead trolleys and belt conveyors were moving items in manufacturing plants.
Hymle Goddard of Logan Company received the first patent for roller conveyor in 1908, but the conveyor business didn’t truly flourish until a few years later. Automotive production utilized powered and free conveyor lines beginning in 1919, and throughout the 1920s, conveyors became a popular tool for handling mass produced goods within factories.
During the 1920s, conveyors were devised that could carry items over longer distances. One particularly advanced installation was built underground to handle runs of mine coal over a length of eight kilometers. This conveyor belt was composed of layers of cotton and rubber covers, the main materials used to make belting at that time. Although archaic by today’s standards, this material handling system was selected instead of railcars in many subsequent mining applications.
Today, the longest conveyor belt in the world is used in the phosphate mines of Western Sahara and measures 60 miles long.
During World War II, manufacturers created synthetic materials to make belting because of the scarcity of natural components. Today’s conveyor belting is made from an almost endless list of synthetic polymers and fabrics and can be tailored to any requirements. Possible uses of conveyors have broadened considerably since the early days and are used in almost any industry where materials have to be handled, stored or dispensed.
As with any equipment that contains moving parts, user safety is always a concern. In 1947, the first standards involving conveyor safety were developed by the American Standards Association. This industry has committed itself to safe operations in recent years and has developed a wide range of safety labels and brochures.
In the 1970s, conveying systems often generated high noise levels. One of OSHA‘s first priorities upon its creation in 1970 was curtailing conveyor noise. Conveyor manufacturers responded by developing precision bearings, quiet rollers and long-lasting parts to eliminate the premature wear that caused rattling.
Other technological advancements include those in maintenance and systems control. At one time, conveyor maintenance was quite difficult because the systems were permanently configured and fixed in place. Production changes and standard maintenance usually required extensive downtime and considerable expense. Often, conveyors had to be replaced with completely new systems substantially before their expected demise. During the 70s, 80s and 90s, engineers of conveyor equipment developed and perfected internally powered conveyor rollers and motorized pulleys that eliminated costly maintenance needs.
New configurations and technological innovations have kept conveyor systems on the cutting edge, along with other automated material handling systems. Computers now control complex applications, and increased automation has helped the systems become more efficient.
Changes in technology are certain to keep the industry in motion as users look for faster throughput, diverted sorting and use of wireless technologies.