The beverage industry is looking for operating flexibility, faster throughput, and higher reliability – all with a smaller footprint. Many plants operate 24/7 with very little allowance for downtime. After all, a down line means a loss of production.

Production line real estate is also at a premium. Often, to increase production a company will want to install additional lines in the same building, instead of constructing a new building or expanding the existing building. 

If a company decides to build a new building, they are looking to minimize the square footage while optimizing the space utilization. This is also true if an existing facility is purchased and retrofit for new production – particularity in urban properties. Saving space is paramount to profit.

Certainly, the best way to minimize a building footprint is to build vertically. After all, a two-story structure can half the footprint of a building while maintaining the same square footage. But of course, with a muti-level building, you need to find a way to transport materials from one level to the next.

Traditionally, an incline conveyor has been used to elevate product. This was typically a belted conveyor where one end was higher than the other end. The drawback is that it takes up a considerable amount of floorspace. For example, if a product line needed to send product up 12 feet, the incline conveyor might have to be 36’ or longer, or risk product sliding back or toppling over.  This long conveyor ties up a lot of production real estate and can also land-lock one production area from another. 

Alpine conveyor systems were then designed to reduce floor space and help minimize physical barriers. The alpine concept is a series of incline conveyors that have 180 degree turns at the ends. Product goes up each of the conveyors until discharged at the next level. However, they still require a considerable amount of floor space. Additionally, they require multiple drives – one for each turn. This increases power consumption and increases maintenance down time.

Case Elevators are another traditional solution. They are designed to elevate cases with a shelf-style vertical elevator. While they have a much smaller footprint, they are a much more complex machines with many moving parts. This makes them less reliable from a maintenance standpoint. They also have relatively low throughput rates when compared to other alternatives, because there must be gaps between loads to allow the platen to elevate.

Another concept of vertical conveyance is the gripper conveyor. Two conveyors run parallel and grab a product by pinching it with rubber tips. This method can run at high volumes and generally handles light weight products like empty PET bottles getting sent to the filler. They offer a relatively small footprint and can run with high throughput. Their downside is that they don’t work nearly as well with heavy or filled products. Another downside is that they are set up for one specific size or shape and need down time to adjust for another sized product. Change parts may also be needed.

The relatively new solution is the spiral conveyor. It takes the concept of an incline conveyor but configures it in a helix. This allows the same elevation change as an incline conveyor, but with a fraction of the footprint. Another advantage is that depending on the size and stability of the product being conveyed, the angle of incline can be lowered without increasing the footprint of the machine. At their core, spiral conveyors transport products vertically and can satisfy all the above-mentioned needs.

One constant in the beverage industry is change. Production lines change as products and seasonal demands dictate. New product variations, sizes and configurations are constantly testing the capabilities and configuration of production lines.

Spiral Conveyors can provide that sort of flexibility. They can convey units of different sizes, shapes and weights without needing any sort of adjustment. There is no need for change parts or reconfigurations. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a single spiral to elevate dissimilar loads from multiple production lines to the palletizing or warehousing area.

Some spirals can also be configured with intermediate induction or discharge conveyors, allowing multiple production lines to feed or be fed from the same spiral. This can truly reduce floorspace.

Spiral conveyors also have the ability to be designed with custom infeed and outfeed configurations. This can add efficiency in a layout, reduce floorspace and eliminate small ancillary connector conveyors that require additional power and controls. A perfect example would be that a spiral with an extended infeed curve can replace a small 90º conveyor or extension to feed a spiral. 

Some companies have even used a “mobile” spiral. One that is not anchored and can be moved from one production line to the other. This concept would obviously save on equipment expenditures while offering production line flexibility.

Spirals are frequently used to create a forklift aisle between packaging lines to prevent land-locking operations or to transfer product between floors in space constrained buildings.

There are two basic kinds of Spiral Conveyors. 

Unit Load Spiral Conveyors are much faster than any elevator or lift. The adjoining conveyors simply butt up to the end of the spiral, assuring a smooth transfer. Spirals can handle products in a continuous flow up to 200 feet per minute. This is a more efficient solution than case elevators which are much slower, need large gaps between loads, and or staging conveyors and controls, and require much more maintenance.

The Unit Load Spirals are typically used in packaging lines where an elevation change is needed, including end of line and palletizing operations reducing the floorspace required for the vertical transition. 

Different spiral models come with different slat widths – how wide the conveying surface is. Products as small as 4” and as large as 36” can be conveyed. Additionally, because of the efficient design of the spiral conveyor, they can handle up to 75 lbs per linear foot. So items like 36 packs of water or 5 gallon pales of paint can easily be handled.

The other kind of spirals include Mass Flow Spirals, Products are conveyed up or down in a continuous single file or mass flow at a rate of up to 2,000 units per minute. The Mass Flow Spiral features a slightly different design that allows bulk materials to smoothly side transfer on to and off of the spiral en-mass.  

They are perfect for conveying empty bottles from a high-level de-palletizer down to a floor level filling operation or full bottles from the bottling line to pasteurizing or a packaging line at a different elevation. 

Since spiral conveyors are available in stainless steel for wet environments, mass flow spirals are often used in retort processes, where they transport cans and jars to and from the autoclave.

Mass flow spirals eliminate the need for space consuming alpine conveyors. Single file mass flow spirals can also replace side gripper conveyors. Unlike side grippers, mass flow spirals do not require adjustment for different size and shape loads and do not require change parts.

These types of spirals can also be used for overhead dynamic storage or buffering while preserving valuable floor space. They can also be used to provide dynamic storage where products need time for cooling, drying or curing. 

Spirals can be used as accumulation buffers to take up surges between manufacturing processes and can provide dynamic buffering during shorter production or packaging line interruptions. This will reduce downtime and increase productivity. Some products can be merged back into the production or packaging lines directly from the accumulation buffer while others will need additional merging devices – depending on type of product and speed of operation.

They can also be used in conjunction with a robotic pick and place module for dynamic buffering. 

Another unique benefit is that some spiral conveyor manufacturers utilize modular construction which allows spirals to be modified in the field. This is extremely beneficial if a user needs to make a line change or change the height of an overhead conveyor.  Field reconfigurations can be planned as part of a phased startup providing even more flexibility without needing to buy all new equipment.

Spirals are very efficient machines. Modern spiral conveyors feature a pretty simple design and have few moving parts, making them easy to operate and require very little controls and maintenance.  

They draw comparatively little power, and only need one drive. This saves considerable time and money for installation and integration and maintenance. Most spirals ship in one piece. They only need to be stood up, anchored, and wired. In many cases a spiral can be installed in a day.

Profit margins in the food and beverage industry are notoriously thin. Managers are striving for improvements that can reduce operation expenses and minimizing downtime can have a huge impact. With more and more product variations going to market, the strain on the production team can mount. So, there is a demand for efficient, reliable machines that can handle any sort of production line changes without skipping a beat.

For this reason, spiral conveyors have become the industry standard for vertical conveying.