Industry 4.0 Solutions Improve
New and proven digitization, automation and machine monitoring solutions offer optimal conveyor designs, improved production, and simplified, safer maintenance
By Jesse Morton, Technical Writer
Undoubtedly, when these solutions are used, conveyor performance is improved, suppliers say. Further, conveyor design, monitoring, and maintenance tasks are simplified and made safer. The latest headlines from the space show how much so.
Cut Maintenance Time in Half
Martin Engineering reported the N2 Position Indicator (PI) conveyor belt cleaner remote monitoring system is a proven tool that enables mines and processing operations to be safer and more efficient, without a significant capital investment. “There are more than 1,000 PIs already in service around the world, successfully delivering critical real-time intelligence in the form of actionable data that took days or weeks to compile in the past,” said Mark Slack, global product manager. That data is “now available literally in just seconds,” he said. “The devices can currently be found in North and South America, India, Europe, Africa and Asia.” For primary belt cleaners with a polyurethane blade, PI uses sensors to track the condition of each belt cleaner and tells users, via a cloud-based app or a computer dashboard, when servicing is needed. The system tracks and reports “automatically on the condition and remaining service life of each unit, notifying Martin service technicians and plant operations personnel when re-tensioning or replacement is required or when abnormal conditions occur,” Slack said.
Each unit is “a small, robust self-contained donut made from proprietary grade polyurethane that stands up to punishing industrial environments,” he said. “The sealed construction means they are virtually immune from damage.” The PI “slots neatly onto the end of the belt cleaner and can fit any size mainframe, whether round or square,” he said. Each PI “is a self-contained system,” Slack said. Battery powered, it does “not require an external power source.” The PI can be installed inside or outside the transfer chute. “It’s recommended that PIs be mounted anywhere up to 1,000 m from the cellular gateway, but successful connections have been established from as far as 6 km away,” Slack said. “It has also been designed to be reliable in the challenging ambient environment found at operator sites, even those conveying wet or sticky materials,” he said.
The system offers several benefits. It offers time savings, streamlines maintenance, and improves workplace safety, Martin Engineering reported. It saves time on installation, which is “straightforward,” Slack said. “A PI can typically be installed in around 20 minutes, often with the belt running,” he said. “Further, the technology can be scaled up quickly, avoiding lengthy downtime or steep learning curves.” The system requires relatively minimal communications infrastructure. “Unlike competing systems, it does not require a cellular link for each PI,” he said.
The system uses a license-exempt radio frequency that allows up to 1,000 PIs to be monitored through a single gateway. “Operating independently of any plant communications infrastructure, only the gateway requires a constant 110- to 240- VAC power supply,” Slack said. It also saves time by effectively eliminating “needless inspection visits, reducing the necessity to physically access each belt cleaner unless the system shows that servicing is required or there’s a potential problem that needs attention,” Slack said. “Managers and service technicians can quickly access info on any networked cleaner via mobile device.”
The system further streamlines maintenance by simplifying maintenance planning. “Having detailed information available on demand allows service personnel to deliver and install replacement wear parts during scheduled outages,” he said. “By monitoring the rotation of the belt cleaner mainframe, the N2 Position Indicator helps managers plan tensioner adjustments and blade replacements during scheduled outages.” Belt cleaner service can be done during scheduled downtime, with fewer unplanned stoppages.
And, critically, maintenance personnel no longer “need to physically view the cleaner to determine the tension or wear status,” he said. That reduces the possibilities for safety incidents, and frees up people to do other work. “Perhaps most important, reducing staff exposure to moving conveyors helps minimize the risk of accident or injury and the losses that can result, enhancing personal safety while contributing to greater profitability.”
Data from the system can be saved for use as “a maintenance log with service dates and work performed,” Slack said. Research and development for the system launched roughly a half decade ago. “The engineering team recognized an opportunity to dramatically impact inspection time, data tracking and personnel safety with one revolutionary product,” Slack said. “Martin Engineering started installing the PI at U.S. test sites in 2020, with global development following in 2021,” he said. “Now operating on five continents, there are more than 1,000 units currently in operation.”
Faster, Reliable Planning
BEUMER reported using a holistic approach, supported by “3D-design tools” to successfully design and supply a high-performance solution for a coal operation in the U.S. The initial plan was for a four-conveyor system. “BEUMER was able to design, deliver, install, and commission a 4-mile-long, single-flight conveyor system in less than 14 months,” said Peter Sehl, sales director for North America. “We are using the same process and tools now on multiple pre-feasibility and feasibility level studies where we support engineering consultants and owners in developing the best solutions.”
The supplier’s holistic approach in the design phase accounts for environmental constraints like topography, property boundaries or construction cost. That prevents serious setbacks in later phases. “In many projects we see a disconnect between the tasks. The disconnect leads to a sub-optimum conveyor route and layout,” he said. “Once the route of a conveyor system has been defined in an earlier project phase and the project has been permitted, it is difficult, time consuming and sometimes impossible to change it.”
Beyond allowing the supplier to be proactive, the approach, supported by automated design technology, also enables it to be accommodating when unexpected changes to plans are necessary. “We realize that especially in early project phases, customers are seeking the most efficient and reliable transporting option,” Sehl said. Typically, customers use an iterative process to identify the best transporting solution in terms of total cost of ownership.
“Here, BEUMER´s holistic approach and improved engineering tools enable us to incorporate changes to the conveyor routing, even at short notice, without delays in the planning,” he said. “This is truly ‘end-to-end’ 3D planning, drawing creation and determination of BOM, with all necessary information on earthworks as well as coordinates for installation,” Sehl said. “This leads to faster and the most reliable planning results, ultimately reducing costs and efforts for our customers.”
Benefits also include quick results during trade-off studies. “Our reports include 3D visualizations of the conveyor system in the actual terrain that can be used for permitting and engagement with local communities,” he said. The quick results include high-accuracy CAPEX and OPEX estimates, “including cut and fill calculations, even in preliminary project phases,” he said. Total engineering time during project execution is reduced. After completion, the solution will outperform competing traditional transport systems in many metrics, Sehl said. “Our solutions give an overall reduced total cost of ownership” and improved safety “while also being more sustainable, with reduced power consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and dust.”
BEUMER conveyor solutions have fewer transfer stations, which means less maintenance. “It also means reduced dust, extended belt life, fewer mechanical and electrical components to maintain, and a smaller spare parts inventory,” he said. BEUMER entered the overland conveyor business in the 1960s. “Since then it has been developing and supplying highly efficient overland conveyors with horizontal and vertical curves, making the company one of the pioneers for this technology in the industry,” Sehl said.
The advantages offered by the BEUMER approach are best actualized if the supplier is brought on early in a project. “That allows us to define the constraints, and allows us to think out of the box,” Sehl said. Out-of-box thinking is imperative to arriving at solutions that help cut costs and attain sustainability goals. “Sustainability is very important to BEUMER,” he said.
Superior Industries reported its conveyor automation packages help customers optimize stockpiles and increase efficiency. The manufacturer offers two solutions for its flagship TeleStacker Conveyor that “control the operation movement functions to optimize the stockpile,” said Travis Thooft, P.E., chief engineer, portable conveyors. PilePro Automation controls the TeleStacker Conveyor to minimize material segregation in traditional radial stockpiles. For heap leach operations, Superior offers an automation solution “for retreat stacking that creates a level pile top at a constant pile width,” Thooft said.
PilePro Automation can be used “to create either a partially or fully desegregated stockpile,” he said. “It controls the discharge drop height onto the pile off of the conveyor as well as it controls the speed and location of the discharge point to create basically a series of layered stockpiles that build up into a larger stockpile.”
The system features a zoning method that makes sure “the pile volume is filled out on the back side of the pile, where more volume is needed to achieve a true desegregated pile,” Thooft said. “We offer four different standard pile types, allowing the operator to choose the laydown option that works best in their operation,” he said. The interface has simplified controls and a limited set of input screens that help guide the operator on setup. “The user experience has been improved over time,” he said. The interface “makes it really easy for an operator to follow through and understand what information they are inputting.” It asks for specific, but minimal, information. “It is not an overwhelming set of questions you have to answer before you start running the machine,” Thooft said. “The operator can set the radial travel limits or the maximum clockwise or counterclockwise travel length,” he said. “They can program the TeleStacker Conveyor to make sure that it doesn’t run into anything.”
The operator can also key in the extension height increment. “They can set the increment that the conveyor raises in between when it senses materials,” Thooft said. The interface also offers an advanced troubleshooting screen. “It allows an operator with an understanding of the inputs and outputs to go in and verify that the program is receiving the right inputs and outputting the right outputs,” he said. If that doesn’t work, Superior engineers can be patched in to troubleshoot. “They can call up somebody in our customer service department and relay the information that they are seeing back over the phone or using video or pictures,” Thooft said. “And we have an option where we connect to their machine so we can live-read what is happening.”
“The equipment system is designed to minimize relocation time and optimize material uptime, stockpile layout, and minimize operator inputs for success,” Thooft said. “We are able to set up interlock controls and sequenced start and stop functions that automate more tasks for the equipment operator.” The system starts with the TeleStacker Conveyor fully extended and lowered. The TeleStacker Conveyor then radials back and forth, automatically, to create a base-level pile. “Then it raises the TeleStacker Conveyor, continuing to put down material, until it has achieved the top stockpile height, which is a configurable input into the automation program,” Thooft said.
“Once it has achieved that height, it will retract slightly and continue to put down material right on top of the stockpile it has created,” he said, “and continue to put material against the inside edge until it has achieved the furthest retracted setting.” The customer then rolls back the TeleStacker Conveyor. “If they have a horizontal index conveyor, they are able to continue to run material into the stockpile while they drive the horizontal index conveyor back, and then they can restart the program,” Thooft said. “It is going to go find the existing stockpile that it has already put up, and then start by nesting into that stockpile,” he said, “and then continue to start, extended, and then retract until it has put up material the full distance it is able to with the telescopic motion.” The system uses sensors on the discharge end of the conveyor that scan left and right. “They are watching to verify you are actually creating the full nested stockpile to make sure it is a consistent flat top,” Thooft said. The operator can program the height of the stockpile and the width of each line.
Benefits include ease of use, reduced downtime, and leach pile optimization. “The solution minimizes material drop as it fills in the first zone, then retracts the stinger, or extension, conveyor while adjusting the incline angle to maintain a constant pile height,” Thooft said. “When looking at a systems approach, sequenced start and stops allow an operator to push one button for each conveyor and equipment line, reducing the opportunity for spillage on start-up and shut-down, as well as integrating a level of verification that each piece of equipment has indeed been started,” he said. “When paired with equipment monitoring sensors, all equipment affected by a tripped sensor is stopped, preventing further maintenance and operational issues.”
Both solutions are designed to easily integrate into bigger material handling systems. “There are options for configurations and customization that didn’t exist even 5 years ago,” Thooft said. “We have the ability to customize any of our automation based on the customer requests.”
Superior seeks to partner with customers to take a systems-level approach to achieving goals. “Finding a partner you can trust and that understands the end goal will open opportunities to create the user interface that works best,” he said. “If you don’t see the solution as part of the initial offering, make sure you ask about options to modify the automation for your use.”
Voith Group reported developing software that can generate digital twins for conveyors. The solution was developed in parallel to and for use with the TurboBelt solutions, but can also be used for analysis of conveyors not using those solutions. “We have a program that can be used to see how a conveyor line will be in the design study phase, when it is operational, and what the startup will look like,” said Fabian Korb, product manager, Voith Turbo.
A digital twin can accurately simulate “the behavior of the system in different load scenarios,” Korb said. “This is an important point. We are not limited to an empty conveyor. We can fully load it, run overload scenarios, and simulate partial- load scenarios.” While development is expected to be ongoing, as is the case with any software solution, the program is now field proven at minimizing risk, he said. Initial development of the solution launched roughly a decade ago by the BeltGenius team when it began creating software for building a digital twin for use in optimizing belt strength, tension, and other parameters.
Ideally, production is launched “as early as possible to earn money with the conveyor,” he said. “So that means that we had to find a way to determine the optimal parameters before going on site.”
Data from reference installations was initially used in creating the program. Then the performance metrics of the digital twins were repeatedly compared to field results until the twins closely mirrored reality. “At that point it was good enough for further use,” Korb said. One of those uses was qualifying TurboBelt solutions for deployment to existing conveyor systems. “That was our next big milestone,” he said.
Another hurdle was using it to help troubleshoot. The program was used after the supplier won a consulting job to solve belt slippages and cuts. “They were not using our controller, and they used the logic from a third party supplier to start up their conveyor line and that logic had some issues,” Korb said. The issues dated back years and had accumulated over time. “We had some records and some readings for them, he said. “And we tried to simulate their records and their readings in our system,” Korb said. “With our solution, we were able to simulate the slippages and belt cuts and determine where they came from.”
Voith used the digital twin to arrive at an engineered solution. “They are now using our controller logic with our parameters,” he said. “This was more or less one of our key successes where we also saw that the clients are really interested in our consultancy work,” Korb said. “We solved a problem on site, and proved our simulation tool is really matching the reality.” The program can be used to build a digital twin at any stage in a conveyor’s life.
The data required from the customer to build a digital twin includes information on the topography, the length of the conveyor, the materials to be conveyed, and other basics. “This is our standard data and then, whenever some data is not available, we can use ISO standards,” Korb said. In the early phases, it can be used to proof a design. “We can simulate the whole system,” Korb said. “We can show the customer that his calculations will work,” he said. “That means we are a second source and help with support on how to optimize the conveyor line.”
For example, in the design phase it can be used to arrive at optimal parameters to ensure an ideal startup. “Even when you have a complex conveyor system when the dynamics show it could be a little bit tricky for starting up, with our solution we can offer some perfect engineering and we can find the optimum together,” Korb said. “For existing conveyor lines we can check if the conveyor line works most efficiently to reduce costs for energy.” A digital twin can also be used to reduce maintenance costs. “Whenever you start a conveyor and you are not doing it in a proper way, it causes too high torque or slippage, which means wear happened on the component.”
The program can be used in troubleshooting during routine maintenance. “With our simulation, we try to see where they have problems with either a too-high tension, a too-high belt strain, or a too-high start-up factor,” Korb said. “With our simulation we will try to avoid this,” he said. “That means they can extend the maintenance intervals, or they can be sure that the lifetime they expect will be reached.”
All of this translates to cost savings for the customer. For Voith, it translates to increased opportunities by offering consultancy services, which furthers one of the main missions of the company. “Our mission is to have a bigger footprint in the belt conveyor market and with the simulation we have taken a good step in that direction,” Korb said. “It helps us to be one of the leaders in offering driveline solutions for belt conveyors and especially for complicated, complex, or high-power belt conveyor solutions.”
Save Space, Cut Costs
FLSmidth reported its new pipe conveyor belt rotation monitoring system reduces labor costs and automatically detects pipe belt rotation. The system manages corrective actions through a motorized training module, and can be added to an existing conveyor management system. “In the case of the belt rotating due to any reason beyond preset limits, the LIDAR-based sensors, which monitor the belt at pre-defined locations along the conveyor, generate a signal,” said Vivek Chaturvedi, process line manager, FLSmidth. “Based on this signal, the training module is then activated to correct belt rotation.”
The motorized training module realigns the belt. If the realignment fails, an alarm is triggered. That alarm can be programmed to stop the conveyor. “The system works in real-time and is linked to the central control room for exchange of signals and controls,” Chaturvedi said. Beyond automating monitoring and realignment tasks, the system helps prevent damage to the belt and conveyor that can cause emergency shutdowns.
FLSmidth pipe conveyors also now feature innovative roller holding brackets that ensure the ease of installation and maintenance. “The design is simpler and easy to use,” Chaturvedi said. With the brackets, the gap between the belt and the bracket fixing location is increased, which improves safety. Each bracket also serves as a training bracket. “Therefore, the need to have dedicated training brackets is reduced and adds to the flexibility for maintenance personnel to pick from a wider number of rollers to do effective training,” he said.
FLSmidth’s pipe conveyors offer numerous benefits over conventional trough conveyors. “A pipe conveyor is able to transport material entirely enclosed for roughly 98% of its length,” Chaturvedi said. “So, neither the material is contaminated by external elements nor does it contaminate the external atmosphere,” he said. “The result is reduced dust spillage and pollution.” A pipe conveyor can incline 50% more, or up to 30°, compared to an open-trough conveyor. “It leads to a possible reduction in length of the conveyor and a savings in space and costs,” Chaturvedi said. “Pipe conveyors can take curves easily, thereby eliminating the need for multiple transfer points, and also adapt to given constraints much better, thereby improving productivity and saving on costs.”
Pipe conveyors require less space compared to trough conveyors. “This helps in saving on space and associated issues when it comes to negotiating environmentally sensitive areas or a brownfield expansion,” he said. FLSmidth pipe conveyors come with sensors and safety panels to detect and handle overloading. “This safety feature stops the conveyor as well as eases corrective action,” Chaturvedi said.
FLSmidth began offering pipe conveyor technology in 2000 to the Indian and African markets. “In 2006, FLSmidth bought the then-market-leader in pipe conveyors, who was active globally since 1985,” he said. “More recently, FLSmidth took over Sandvik mining systems and, now, thyssenkrupp’s mining business,” Chaturvedi said. “These acquisitions helped create an amalgamation of knowhow and improved the offerings from FLSmidth.”
Recently, the supplier commissioned a 2.2-km-long pipe conveyor with a 104° single horizontal curve to transport ore at 1,200 metric tons per hour (mt/h) at 4.5 meters/second (m/sec). “This 400-mm-diameter pipe conveyor was specially designed for the client to overcome challenges related to environment and conveyor corridor to avoid a private parcel of land and an existing set of other mine conveyors,” Chaturvedi said. “This conveyor design was pre-verified through dynamic analysis and the transfer chute was tested through discreet element modelling (DEM),” he said. “Additionally, the pipe conveyor belt was specially tested before mass manufacturing, to ensure it forms a pipe shape and also meets the conveyor requirements.” The conveyor is equipped with multiple variable-frequency-drive (VFD) motors, gravity take-up, a winch for ease of maintenance, and multiple safety devices. The supplies were from handpicked FLSmidth suppliers.
Beyond pipe conveyors, FLSmidth supplies trough conveyors up to 22 km, single flight, and up to 22,000 mt/h. Currently, the company is working on an order for an iron ore miner in Brazil for three trough conveyors with a capacity of 3,600 mt/h. “These conveyors are to run at 5 m/ sec,” Chaturvedi said. “The conveyors are meant to transport for a total length of approximately 8.4 km,” he said. “One of the conveyors uses regeneration, and shall generate power under specific running conditions, while others are routed through tough terrain.”
The designs are subject to dynamic analysis to predict performance in any operating condition. “The transfer chutes are verified through DEM to predict material transfer more accurately, as well as use it for prior identification of wear zones,” he said. Sensors and switches add layers of safety. “Belt turnovers have been added to each of the conveyors to take care of issues with spillage on the return side, as a special consideration for the environment,” Chaturvedi said. “The conveyors use the latest active winch take-up technology, VFD drives, and special brakes, and they meet international standards.”
FLSmidth also now supplies the conveyor solutions that were acquired when it bought part of thyssenkrupp. For example, the company announced in September it won a contract to supply an overland conveyor for a large copper-gold mine in Southeast Asia. The pit-to-plant conveying system will span more than 5 km, and features gearless drive technology that helps reduce OPEX and energy consumption. The conveying system design was part of the tk Mining portfolio.
These orders illustrate some of the many capabilities of the company to supply state-of-the-art solutions that answer the complex challenges of today’s mining operations, Chaturvedi said. “Be it overland, with or without horizontal curves, downhill, underground, or steeply inclined ones, FLSmidth has market-leading experience,” he said. “With the tk Mining team becoming a part of FLSmidth, we are now stronger than ever.”