Cutting Labor Cost with Technology

It’s a regrettable fact that many businesses have difficulty maintaining a labor force of necessary size to carry out all the tasks that need to get done. Payroll costs tend to cut deeply into company revenues, and it’s not uncommon for businesses to find themselves struggling to stay afloat as a direct consequence. But an increasing number of companies are turning to automated solutions as a way of reducing the expenses related to supporting employees. As technological advances continue to develop, it’s likely that automation will play a progressively larger role in the corporate world. As things stand now, business owners already have access to many kinds of automated solutions that can cut costs substantially. Let’s take a look at a few of these solutions.

CNC machines

Many businesses use industrial machinery to create precisely crafted tools and objects—screws, for example. It may be that producing these objects for public sale is the primary purpose of the company, while in other cases the company simply creates these kinds of tools for its own internal use. Traditionally, these products were made with the help of manually operated lathes and milling machines, which allow the user to shape the raw materials by cutting it with a special tool. But any company that is serious about the quality of the products they manufacture should look into the advantages provided by Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technology.

As the name suggests, CNC lathes and milling machines use computers to guide their processes. This confers a variety of benefits, such as eliminating the possibility of human error (assuming that the machine has been properly programmed) and increased production speeds (as computers can perform actions much more quickly than people). CNC machinery is already widely used in production environments that involve large volumes of material, but many smaller shops haven’t yet made the transition from manually operated lathes and milling machines. Cost is a common reason for this reluctance—CNC machines can be fairly pricey. Yet these expenses will likely be recouped by lower labor costs, as this equipment requires minimal human involvement. In the long run, CNC automated machines save money by reducing the need for trained operators.

Automated Online Assistants

These days, most businesses have a presence on the Internet—usually a dedicated website that illustrates and explains the products and/or services offered by the organization. Many website visitors, however, have unanswered questions even after thoroughly exploring the site. For this reason, a lot of companies employ customer service agents who field calls and emails from clients. Naturally, these agents cost money, and often it’s impractical to provide these services on a 24/7 basis. Automated online assistants provide a cost-effective solution.

Essentially, an automated online assistant is a program deployed on websites to interact with customers, answering their questions and comments with the use of artificial intelligence. These assistants often take the form of an avatar that appears on the customer’s screen, inviting them to type a question into a text field. A good program will be able to supply a wide range of relevant information, in a format that mimics a conversation between two people. This means that a company doesn’t need to have a human customer service agent on staff to perform these functions—which saves money in payroll expenses. Better yet, these programs work around the clock.

Conveyor Systems

For many production and distribution facilities, optimizing workflow is an ongoing concern. It can be difficult to push products in a timely fashion through the various stages they must pass before arriving in the hands of customers. The costs of maintaining a workforce competent to perform the necessary duties—e.g., fabricating, assembling, and packaging—can be prohibitive. Once again, modern technology supplies a viable answer.

In a facility where important tasks must be carried out in a speedy manner, a top-notch conveyor system can make the difference between profit and failure. Fundamentally, conveyors use tracks to carry products from one area of a facility to another. These systems may be manual or automated, and when used properly they offer a huge number of benefits. These systems transport materials without the need for human hands; this means that there is no risk of damaged goods due to employee mishandling. It also reduces the chances of employee injury. When the systems are automated, the company also gains from the elimination of production defects caused by human misjudgment—unlike people, machines do not become fatigued from repetitive tasks. In addition, overhead conveyors allow businesses to save valuable floor space.

Most importantly, however, conveyor systems can do most of the tasks that in the past required a large workforce—and do them much faster than human beings ever could. Furthermore, conveyors can be set to operate on a 24/7 basis, performing vital actions—coating, welding, bending, storing, and much more—without the need for continual human supervision. The equipment efficiently does its duty at every station. As many types of industries can benefit from conveyor systems, this is a viable option for a lot of companies that need to save on labor costs.

Chain Conveyor Maintenance: Reducing Wear & Extending Conveyor Chain Life

Chain conveyor systems greatly improve efficiency and productivity in production facilities, but only if they’re up and running. Downtime for your conveyor system can be costly and cause your facility to fall behind on important operations. Proper maintenance of your conveyor chain will ensure this invaluable piece of equipment keeps providing a return on your investment for the long haul.

The lifespan of a conveyor chain is impacted by a number of factors, including:

  • The weight borne by the conveyor
  • The environment in which the chain operates (Extremes of temperature or exposure to corrosive substances may shorten the life of a conveyor chain.)
  • Maintenance and care

Facilities managers can address the first two factors to some degree by purchasing conveyor chains appropriate for carrying the loads they will be moving and by buying chains appropriate for their operating environment. Steps to minimize chain exposure to corrosive substances and extremes of temperature can also mitigate environmental impacts to the chain.

Regular maintenance and care is the area where facilities managers have the biggest opportunity to extend the life of their conveyor chain, as a carefully adhered-to schedule of inspection and repair can greatly extend the life of assembly conveyor systems.

Explaining Wear

One of the greatest enemies of conveyor chain longevity is wear. Chains are in almost constant motion in many facilities (such as in an assembly line conveyor), and the physical impact of metal on metal or metal on other surfaces causes the chain to deteriorate over time. On a conveyor chain, wear typically occurs in three ways:

  • Contact between the pin and the bushing when the chain goes in and out of a sprocket
  • Contact between the rollers and the bushing
  • Contact between the chain and side plates if the chain contacts a guide

Over time, wear can cause a chain to elongate. Many experts suggest that chains be replaced when they reach 1.5 to 2 percent elongation. Chains operating at 3 percent elongation run the risk of damaging sprockets or causing severe malfunctions.

Regular lubrication and other maintenance can greatly reduce wear and help facilities managers get years of life from their conveyor systems.

Why Lubrication Is Vital

Lubrication creates a slippery film on the chain and any other components that may damage the chain. This film mitigates the impact of metal-to-metal contact that occurs when the device is in operation, reducing friction and wear. Proper lubrication also helps chains and chain components to resist corrosion, as it creates a barrier preventing moisture. Lubrication also helps to reduce the noise made when conveyor systems are in operation.

How lubrication is applied is also important. Lubrication must be properly applied to protect the chain from corrosion and wear. It’s not enough to just brush the lubricant over chain plates; lubricant must be applied between inner and outer plates, above the pitch point. It must also be applied between inner plates and rollers for chain systems fitted with rollers. This will ensure that the lubricant gets to the bearing surfaces and protects them from friction and wear.

Most conveyor chains are sold pre-lubricated, providing them with protection when they begin use in a facility. In some environments, it is not possible to lubricate chains, as lubricant may be a fire or explosion risk. In these environments, regular, thorough cleaning of the chain will help increase its longevity.

A Schedule of Chain Conveyor Maintenance

The following is a basic schedule of maintenance facilities using conveyor systems may follow to help keep these systems in good repair. Further maintenance tasks may be recommended by your conveyor manufacturer.

  • On a daily basis:

To keep conveyor chains running and mostly problem-free, there are a few maintenance tasks that should be performed on a daily basis. Each day, the conveyor chain should be inspected and workers should remove debris that may have accumulated in the chain. Workers should also inspect for signs of wear or elongation. Drivetrain tensioners should also be checked and drive sprockets should be lubricated as necessary.

  • On a weekly basis:

In addition to daily tasks, there are a few once-a-week maintenance routines that should be observed to enhance system longevity. Once a week, the chain should be inspected and cleaned to remove debris and dirt. Lubrication is the key to chain longevity, and all chains, sprockets, and parts should be inspected and lubricated as needed. Check the tensioners again and make sure they are within acceptable range.

  • On a monthly basis:

Monthly maintenance tasks are also important to maintaining conveyor systems. As always, lubrication remains a priority. Workers should lubricate chains and other components of the conveyor system with light-grade oil. Workers should also remove side guards and other covers and clean these locations to ensure they are free of debris. All cooling components of the conveyor system should also be cleaned and inspected for proper performance.

  • Quarterly maintenance:

Four times per year, workers should give the conveyor chain a thorough inspection to check for elongation and wear. Checking sprockets for wear is also important, as warped sprockets can cause chain elongation. Any worn sprockets should be replaced immediately. If your chain uses an automated lubrication system, you should clean the sump and change the oil and filter on a quarterly basis.

Naturally, there will likely be more than one individual tasked with performing chain maintenance and keeping records. Because there will be many hands in the task, it’s important to make sure that all authorized employees are properly trained in performing the required maintenance tasks.

In addition to teaching the maintenance tasks themselves, team leaders should make sure all employees use the maintenance logbook appropriately. Be sure to emphasize the importance of including all necessary data; without certain information, there could be a negative impact on future maintenance an operation.

It might also be valuable to develop a schedule of internal audits, if possible. At regular points throughout the fiscal year, flip through the maintenance logs and examine the quality of the conveyor chain and overhead conveyor track. If you notice any major issues or concerning trends (e.g., missing log entries, missing signatures, etc.), bring these up with the appropriate staff. Problems with conveyor chain operation could also be a sign that regular maintenance has been neglected.

Read the Manual

To get a better idea of the maintenance tasks you’ll need to perform for your conveyor system, take the time to familiarize facilities managers with the manuals for these devices. Manufacturers of conveyor systems take great care to list what maintenance is needed and when it should be performed. Richards Wilcox Conveyor Systems has been providing efficient, durable conveyor systems to clients for more than a century.

Richards Wilcox Conveyor Systems’ chains are built to offer optimal efficiency and can provide 33 percent more throughput than other overhead chain conveyors available. With proper maintenance and care, Richards Wilcox Conveyor chains will return their installation and maintenance costs, many times over, on enhanced capacity, speed, and safety for facilities that incorporate them into their operations.