Materials Handling

Keep on moving

By Gian Schiava

July 2022

How can conveyors boost warehouse efficiency?

Not every warehouse needs robots. For many operations, introduction of relatively simple, semi-automated equipment can substantially improve performance. Gian Schiava takes a look at the first steps in replacing manual handling with mechanised systems – beginning with conveyors.

Logistics and materials handling are all about moving goods. Forklift trucks have been with us since the 1920s, but did you know that conveyor systems also originate from that same early industrialisation era? They come in all sorts and sizes and seem to play an increasing prominent role when warehouses move into a semi-automation mode. Throughout their history, they have continued to coexist happily in cooperation with our good friend the forklift truck.

Varying enormously in their shapes and dimensions, each type of conveyor system has its own distinct purpose. Some are ideal for smaller crates or boxes, but there are others designed specifically for transporting pallets. Broadly, they can be divided into four categories:


1. Belt conveyor

A belt conveyor is a fairly simple device with limited features, mainly used to move bulk materials such as sand, salt and grain. Its ease of use makes it one of the most common types of conveyor. The belt is driven in an endless loop, moving a product from A to B.

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Costo Intralogistics

2. Roller conveyor

Roller conveyors are commonly used for transporting crates, boxes and pallets. A roller conveyor can use gravity for moving the product when the system is mounted on a descending angle. It can be challenging to control the speed of the products in motion and they may end up being damaged. Pushing them along manually is a safer but slower option.


3. Powered roller conveyor

The more advanced variation of number 2 is a powered conveyor. Products move much faster and their journey is divided into many different zones. Movement from one zone to the next is allowed only when there is space. In this way, the process and its speed can be more easily controlled, and collisions avoided, so the risk of damage is lower.

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4. Overhead conveyor

The first three types can be described as floor conveyors. An overhead conveyor system, by contrast, is suspended at a higher level by a structure mounted on the ceiling or rising from the floor. Overhead conveyors tend to have more features and can often be pricier than the others. However, they reduce operating costs, as they require less of a workforce and they do not obstruct the warehouse floor. This kind of system can be easily combined with forklifts or warehouse trucks


Within this broad overview of conveyor types there are many subcategories, like chain conveyors and electric plug-and-play conveyors. Sortation systems can also be seen, in essence, as a type of conveyor system with the added functionality of directing goods toward different destinations. These modern set-ups are often controlled by a warehouse control system, which regulates the flow of goods in the most efficient way possible.

Conveyors are obviously there to move goods (pallets, boxes or smaller packages) from A to B, but more specifically they are mostly used in the following applications:

1. Goods reception area

to make sure items move quickly to their storage location.

2. Shipping area

where conveyors deliver the goods to be palletised before loading into a lorry. Sometimes items are transferred from the belt into the lorry using a pallet truck.

3. Connection of different areas within a distribution centre

for example, linking a production area to the warehouse. Those conveyors can sometimes be kilometres long.

4. Connection between multiple levels

combining conveyors with transfer units, like pallet lifts or spiral belts, for upward and downward movement of goods.

Pros and cons

Conveyors can be used in all warehouses, thanks to a versatility in design which enables adaptation to any project, course and slope. They are safe to work with and add speed to the warehouse process, especially in the case of powered versions. Reliability is another typical strength.

However, they also have their limits. There are several negatives, like the difficulty they add to keeping the warehouse clean, or the noise they make. There are also size limitations, which mean bulky goods still need a forklift. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that a fixed installation can become an obstacle for personnel or other internal transport equipment. The route must be carefully planned for current and future needs, as adjusting the installation can be costly. Modern warehouses need to adapt quickly to changing situations. Businesses with a ‘lean manufacturing’ or ‘continuous improvement’ philosophy may find that fixed equipment is not versatile enough.

Designing the warehouse process

The only 100% certain factor is that warehouse processes need adaptation from time to time. Efficiency is obtained through standardisation and structure, but at the other end of the spectrum we need flexibility. After all, at the core of the decision-making process for the logistics manager there are the order patterns, the depth and width of the product range, and the various turnover rates. That is what he or she has to deal with, and that’s why resources have to be flexible enough to be adapted.

The warehouse receives an occasional makeover to enable it to maintain the desired output level. In practice, a warehouse layout should always combine a variety of solutions, each ready and able to be altered and recombined as necessary. That applies equally to both conveyors and forklifts. They coexist and get the job done, until a new situation arises and the manager questions whether there is still a role for them in the reconfigured team. Given their great versatility, the answer is usually yes.


Lift trucks work in close co-operation with conveyors to achieve improvements in efficiency. You will typically find an electric forklift truck or a specialised warehouse truck at one or both ends of the conveyor system. Their collaboration can ensure efficient loading of goods onto the conveyor for internal transport, and efficient handling of conveyed items ready for movement to their next storage or delivery destination.

With thanks to Costo Intralogistics for the main image