Let’s take a brief journey together, into the past to explore the fascinating history of the conveyor belt. Although it is a necessity that today is easily taken for granted on almost any production line, the belt has undergone a long and winding development over the centuries.
Unlike the invention of the light bulb, the creation of the conveyor belt cannot be pinpointed to an exact date or even attributed to a specific inventor. The term “conveyor belt” stubbornly refuses to be narrowly defined. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is simply: “One of various devices that provide mechanized movement of material, as in a factory.” Or, to rephrase: “The technology of continuous transportation”.
The term continuous production simply means that the machinery and workplaces of a factory are arranged in a way that is defined by the technological production sequence. It is not strictly necessary for conveyor belts to be used in the process.
Conveyor belt assembly lines are nothing more than the idea of continuous production taken to its logical conclusion. Here, the material is transported from one production station to the next with the aid of conveyor belts.
As a result, the individual stations are mutually dependent in terms of timing, which means that the conveyor belt speed has to be perfectly coordinated. Each work station must be designed so that the process moves forward according to the necessary intervals, known as the cycle time.
The modern conveyor belt
Initially, conveyor belts had an extremely simple design and were often used to transport sacks of grain over short distances. The basis was a wooden board, over which ran a belt made of leather, fabric or rubber. This system was more than adequate for transporting bulky objects from one place to another.
From a patent law point of view, it would be fair to view Oliver Evans from Delaware as the father of the modern conveyor belt. The American inventor made a name for himself with innovations in the textile industry and later in the development of steam engines alongside the Scottish inventor James Watt.
Today, however, his most important invention is still the fully-automated flour mill he patented in 1790. This new technical solution for the transportation of mill material incorporated bucket conveyors, screw conveyors and, of course, conveyor belts.
With the rise of industrialization, which began in the second half of the 18th century in England, conveyor belts became increasingly commonplace in industrial factories. Largely motivated by the military, a wide range of industries were equipped with these time- and money-saving transport systems, including abattoirs and bakers. Probably the first steam-operated conveyor belt was put into operation in 1804 by the British Navy — it was used to produce extremely long-lasting ship’s biscuits.
Continuous assembly line
In the automotive industry, contrary to what most people believe, it was not actually Henry Ford who introduced assembly lines, but Ransom Eli Olds, the founder of the Oldsmobile brand. His design for a continuous assembly line was patented in 1901, and his company was the first to launch high-volume series-production cars on the market. However, instead of using conveyor belts, the raw body shells in his factory were transported on wooden pallets from one production stage to the next. This pallet conveyor technology is still used today.
Ludwig Roselius was probably the first European to use conveyor belts. The production plant, opened in the port of Bremen in 1907 for his coffee production company Kaffee HAG, was able to increase daily production of coffee to 13,000 pounds.
In 1913, ten years after the Ford Motor Company was founded, Henry Ford became the first car manufacturer to use conveyor belts in the production of the legendary Ford Model-T. Henry Ford and his employees had studied the obvious breakthrough in terms of efficiency and productivity offered by the new technology in abattoirs in Chicago and Cincinnati. Adopting the new technology led to a sensational reduction in the length of time it took to build each Model-T — from twelve and a half hours down to 1 hour 33 minutes!
Of course, it goes without saying that there was more to it than simply installing a few conveyor belts from one day to the next. In fact, it took a full five years for all the necessary changes to be implemented at the Ford Motor Company- and a number of very astute minds who were put to the difficult task of optimizing the planning and development.
For every new advance in production, new belt solutions arise, and with so many evolutions over time, conveyors constantly evade any static definition. Instead, they carry every industry forward toward a future always more innovative than its past.