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Carts vs. Conveyors in Product Transport Operations

conveyors vs. carts for transport

When you are moving items such as cartons, bins, or components through a facility, several methods are available. Most of the time the choice is between non-powered carts & trucks or conveyors, whether power or gravity. (If you’re moving pallets, there are other methods and issues). Generally, conveyors deliver a less manual, safer operation with added efficiency across the board. Products are moved faster and fewer employees are required to accomplish the same tasks. Conveyors minimize fatigue and reduce potential manual lifting injuries. This improved handling has the potential to reduce worker compensation claims and expenses

But when do you make the leap from a manual, cart-driven system to a conveyor transport system?

  • When lean manufacturing or warehousing matters: Conveyor systems by nature flatten the “movement curve” of a load as it travels through a facility. Conveyors are an excellent way to straighten production lines and enforce lean principles, since they dictate how products are handled and moved. Roller conveyors are a key way to implement lean principles in virtually any operation.
  • When space is tighter. Product is quickly and efficiently moved through a compact area, eliminating wasted space for carts or forklift aisles. In some cases, conveyors can be ceiling mounted, completely freeing up floor space for other equipment or operations.
  • When product damage is becoming an issue. Conveyors are naturally easier on the loads than repetitive loading and unloading of carts, trucks, or forklifts.
  • When time is critical. The time lost when employees are assigned to retrieve the next cart in the process. Employees with tasks at a machine or picking area must find an empty cart, taking them (and their focus) away from the task at hand. When conveyors are the transport method, this step is eliminated. Operators searching for anything – whether it’s carts, tools, packing materials, or other needed equipment – are at a severe productivity disadvantage. The time lost is substantial.

One of our conveyor customers, after a switch from manual to conveyor, had this to say:  “When we were throwing everything into carts or baskets, we were making mistakes. We found out that some things would get put into a cart and hauled off without getting processed. Or they were thrown into the wrong cart. It was congested—we couldn’t get stuff in and out of there.”

When manual carts may make sense

  • In very low volume operations where the conveyor’s ROI is questionable.
  • Carts can be the solution for facilities with multiple elevations, although a conveyor system can be configured to work around most of the problem layouts. In older facilities where power or other restraining factors are present, carts may present some advantages.  Carts provide flexibility to move products between areas that a pre-destined conveyor line cannot. However, many operations find that flexibility to also be available within a conveyor system by implementing manual carts in instances where this is desired.
  • Carts are frequently used in conjunction with conveyor systems. Work in process areas can have a few carts assigned to help deal with situations the main conveyor layout cannot (or with changes after the conveyor implementation). Employees can use carts in situations where a temporary need must be fulfilled.
  • If you are transporting very large parts in a compact footprint, there are situations where a cart can be used more effectively than a conveyor. However, the ergonomics of loading and unloading the cart are an issue. In tight spaces, the cart may be more maneuverable than a conveyor system for large components, provided they can be loaded or unloaded safely.

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Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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