A conveyor belt installation is a vital part of any modern manufacturing, cargo transportation or major infrastructure project, as they allow for an autonomous movement of resources right to the point where they are needed in a particular process.
We tend to think of conveyor belts as a particularly modern invention that was the catalyst for modern industrial and manufacturing, but the conveyor belt and how much it could transform industry as we know it, dates back to the 18th century, and the dawn of a new Industrial Revolution.
Continuous Production, The Conveyor Belt And Oliver Evans
When talking about the conveyor belt, it is important to discuss its contribution to the principle of continuous production, a design concept where the machinery and layout of a factory are designed to efficiently take materials through each production step until the product is complete.
An example of this is automated pasta machinery, which starts with water and flour, makes and kneads the dough using mixing machinery, before the dough is flattened and pushed through a die to create the required shape and size before being dried out ready for QA testing and packaging.
Conveyor belts mean that the materials that make the finished product do not need to be moved to each step by hand, reducing the manual labour needed to make a product.
The first person to take steps towards using conveyor belts in this fashion was Oliver Evans, a Delaware inventor who created the high-pressure steam engine, as well as attempts at an amphibious car.
His biggest contribution, however, was the automated flour mill, a continuous process mill that used conveyor belts to move the grain to the five machines that would convert it into flour.
It used bucket conveyors, screw conveyors and conveyor belts to move the grain from one station to the next and reduced the number of people needed to run the mill from five to just one.
These original conveyor belts were relatively basic and consisted of a belt that travelled across a flat wooden surface, powered by simple gears and pulleys.
This contribution is often neglected, but this is in part due to Mr Evans’ other contributions to what would become the industrial revolution.
In fact, a steam engine that he pioneered was part of the first-ever steam-powered conveyor belt system, which was used to produce ship’s biscuits for the Royal Navy.
The Dawn Of The Modern Assembly Line
When we tend to think of conveyor belts being used in industry, we often tend to think of the assembly line, a mass production system where parts are added to a product in sequence until it is completed, mechanically moving the product from one stage to the next.
Whilst most commonly associated with the car industry, the initial industry that took full advantage of the conveyor-belt line was in food production, with Henry Ford citing the meatpacking factories of Chicago as a particular influence on the Model T’s production line.
Interestingly, whilst Mr Ford is commonly credited with creating the modern assembly line, he was not the first car manufacturer to use an assembly line system.
Ransom Olds, the founder of the Oldsmobile car company, built the first-ever mass-produced car, in the form of the Model R, often known as the Curved Dash, with an assembly line formed in 1901, 12 years before the Model T finally adopted a moving assembly line.
However, with the runaway success of the Model T and Mr Ford taking credit for the concept, the idea that he invented it has since stuck.
However, the Ford Motor Company did make the most of the conveyor belt, reducing the construction time of the car from over half a day to just 93 minutes.