Conveyors generally have a good reputation of performance, i.e., plugging them in and letting them run. But, this perception can lull plant operators into a false sense of security. While most of today’s sanitary conveyors are extremely well built and don’t require much attention, they also still need to be maintained for optimal performance.

Take a look at your food processing or packaging lines, for instance, and consider how production would be affected if one or more of the supporting conveyors went down for maintenance. Downtime can lead to product spoilage, delays in production and cost a company thousands of dollars.

Fortunately, that scenario can largely be avoided by performing routine preventive maintenance on your conveyor system. The key to success is to first create one.

Instill preventive maintenance
One of the first things to consider when establishing a preventive maintenance program is how often the conveyors are operating. Obviously, the more hours each day they run, the more often they need to be rotated out for maintenance. Also, by their very nature, sanitary conveyors operate in a wet environment and will require more attention than a conveyor operating in a clean environment, such as automation.

Tracking and monitoring conveyor systems are critical to effectively managing a preventive maintenance program. One way to do this is through creating an inventory database of all facility conveyors containing key information such as the make and models of conveyors, dimensions (conveyor length and belt width), type of motor, type of belt, serial numbers for bearings, date of last maintenance check and date of next inspection, type of maintenance performed and the manufacturer’s phone number.

There’s no right or wrong way to create an inventory database; it can be as simple or extensive as you want it to be. The purpose is to get control of a company’s conveyor fleet and start tracking the conveyors, ultimately for improved performance.

The next step in creating a preventive maintenance program is establishing a bench stock of common replacement parts for conveyors. Items such as belts and bearings are ideal parts to keep on hand. After operating your conveyors for a while, you’ll see which areas typically require additional maintenance, so keeping extra stock of those items on hand is a good idea. With belts, a general rule is to keep at least two replacement belts for each style of conveyor operating in a plant. That way, if two belts are damaged in a matter of days, the belts can be quickly replaced with minimal downtime to the overall operation it supports.

Creating a bench stock can be a daunting task, but there’s an easy way to accomplish it. To ensure your bench stock is filled with the right parts, look for a reputable conveyor supplier that can perform a parts audit of your conveyor systems. The goal of a parts audit is to ensure you have the right spare parts in your bench stock to quickly repair your conveyors and minimize production downtime.

Audits can be performed remotely via checklists, but some suppliers can visit your facility and work with you to establish a bench stock. An advantage of in-person visits is the supplier can identify any pending maintenance concerns with the conveyors and initiate solutions.

Training is another component of the preventive maintenance program. Maintenance personnel need to be up-to-date on the latest techniques and procedures in repairing conveyors, and in turn, can train equipment operators on what to look for in detecting issues in their conveyors. This is important because the eyes and ears of employees who work alongside conveyors are often the first line of defense to detecting a potential problem. Conveyor suppliers regularly visit customers to conduct train-the-trainer sessions with staff as a way to establish their preventive maintenance programs.

Conduct conveyor inspections
Conveyors should be visually inspected before and after each shift. Perform a walk-around and look for anything out of the ordinary, such as leaking gear box fluids, fraying belts, tracking, etc. During operation, front-line workers should be aware of the warning signs of a looming problem, such as recognizing a frayed belt, belt slippage or hearing unfamiliar noises. These are signs that require further inspection and attention; early detection could minimize the problem and avoid a more costly repair and downtime.

To help reduce wear and tear on a belt, turn off conveyors when not in use. Some companies let conveyors run several hours a day or overnight, even when a line is down. These unnecessary hours of operation take a toll on the belt, bearings and motors. When the line isn’t operating, turn off the conveyors.

Most applications in food industries do require daily washdowns of their conveyors. The conveyor disassembled for cleaning is the perfect time to thoroughly inspect all components such as the belt, bearings, pulley assemblies, gear motor, stands and any accompanying accessories.

Equally important is correctly reassembling the conveyor. If parts are not properly reinstalled, it can cause numerous performance problems, including tracking issues. A common culprit is loose set screws, which can cause the entire conveyor to relax, resulting in significant damage if left undetected. Check the set screws with an Allen wrench every few weeks to ensure proper torque.

Being familiar with your conveyor system is important. Steps for properly setting up your conveyor system are found in the service manuals. Having these helpful publications on hand and reviewing them often for cleaning and service tips will go a long way toward achieving maximum performance.       

Conveyors are often overlooked when it comes to maintenance of equipment out on the shop floor. That’s because they’ve built up a good reputation through the years for plugging it in and forgetting about it. But, by establishing a preventive maintenance program, being observant and following simple maintenance procedures, conveyors will keep food products moving for years to come.