The 12 Most Costly Conveyor Maintenance Mistakes

May 1, 2008
Conveyors—invisible links in the distribution system—are often overlooked. Avoid excessive downtime by watching for these common mistakes.

By Thomas E. Betts

Many companies don’t give much thought to conveyor systems—until there’s a breakdown. Then, a conveyor becomes a major issue. Production stops. Employees are idle. Shipments are late. Customers are upset. Often ignored, a conveyor system is a critical link in a company’s distribution system. Here are 12 of the most common material handling system maintenance mistakes and tips on how to avoid them.

1. Lack of regular inspections. If you have a belt conveyor, check the floor area underneath the conveyor while it’s operating for dust-like shavings. When you see them, it’s a sign that the belt is out of alignment and isn’t tracking properly. That means it is wearing unnecessarily and will eventually be damaged. Regular inspections also help familiarize employees stationed at conveyors to understand the equipment they are using and take ownership of its care.

2. Missing maintenance records. A log should be kept on or near the system with information on what maintenance has been performed and the date, along with anything that should be watched. This can be particularly useful in facilities where there are several shifts. Most importantly, it helps document the history of the equipment. If there is ever an issue with a manufacturer, for example, a maintenance record can support your case.

3. Failing to take the temperature of motors and reducers. A temperature spike indicates that something is causing an overload. In some cases, a conveyor is being used for materials for which it was not designed, or an inappropriate conveyor has been pressed into service. Replacing a burned-out motor during production causes downtime, particularly since most facilities don’t have a backup supply of motors.

4. Not adhering to OSHA standards. When reviewing facilities, it is easy to spot missing chain guards on conveyors. The required pans underneath belt conveyors have either come off or been removed. More often than not, safety equipment is not reinstalled after being removed. However, injuries are expensive. In many cases, investigation reveals that the cause of injuries is the direct result of missing safety equipment.

5. Lack of adequate maintenance coverage. To reduce overhead expenses, fewer maintenance personnel are on the job. Then, when a maintenance person goes on vacation, there may be no coverage. All of this increases the odds of conveyor breakdowns. A cost-effective solution is having an experienced and certified conveyor service person make periodic inspections and be available when in-house coverage isn’t available.

6. Inadequate parts inventory. There are certain key components, such as motors, couplings for line shafts, bearings and photo eyes that should be kept on hand. You should survey your conveyor system and draw up a list of key components with part numbers.

7. Not learning from repeated breakdowns. An ongoing pattern of breakdowns is a message that something is wrong. Again, production demands often require quick fixes to get the line moving. Yet, having to replace a coupling on a line shaft conveyor, for example, should be an alert that there is a problem that needs to be investigated and resolved.

8. “If it isn’t broken, just let it go, and don’t worry about it.” We spot a frayed belt or find the lacing coming apart but don’t do anything about it, even though we know these are red flags. They indicate that costly repairs will be needed, most likely at a critical moment. Waiting to make repairs until a conveyor system breaks down is a costly mistake.

9. Failing to care for the controls. Switching scanners without recognizing that each one is programmed for a particular divert can create chaos. Also, lightning strikes can knock out a control’s programming, the result of not having proper surge protection. Again, more downtime and costly emergency repairs are needed to get up and running.

10. Using a conveyor in ways it wasn’t intended. A need arises, and a conveyor system is pressed into service without consideration of its capabilities. One of the most common examples is placing large, heavy cartons on a narrow conveyor. When this happens, there is stress and wear on the entire conveyor, which will eventually result in a breakdown.

11. Avoiding those difficult places. Wherever there’s equipment, there are difficult places to get to—sometimes up high or around the back—and, most of the time, there’s too little room to maneuver. The difficult areas are breeding grounds for expensive repairs and operational issues. This is where you find loose chains and sprocket-set screws, which cause extra strain on the system and create an emergency waiting to happen.

12. Failing to train employees in the operation of conveyors. One of the major causes of unnecessary maintenance costs is failing to train employees on using conveyors. By knowing how to spot maintenance issues, employees become the first line of defense for minimizing problems and reducing costs.

Thomas E. Betts is installation and service manager at TriFactor, a material handling systems integrator based in Lakeland, Fla. Betts has more than 20 years of experience working with conveyor systems. He can be contacted at 863-577-2230 or tbetts@

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