History of Conveyor Belts
Conveyor belts might be one of the most well-known pieces of equipment in the manufacturing sector. When someone imagines a factory, they likely picture works in progress, traveling down a conveyor belt through an assembly line. Conveyor belts are commonplace at grocery store checkout aisles, airport security checkpoints and baggage claims, treadmills at the gym and industrial facilities alike. They’ve become so closely associated with manufacturing and production because of their incredible efficiency, versatility and long-standing history.
When Were Conveyor Belts Invented?
Historians debate over when the first conveyor belts appeared. Many believe the earliest hand-operated, wood-and-leather belt conveyors first cropped up in the late 1700s. The first heavy-duty conveyor belt appeared in 1892 to carry coal, ore and similar products. Historians credit their invention to Thomas Robins, who developed a series of designs that eventually produced the heavy-duty belt.
Leading to 1892, a series of inventions contributed to the technology. The American inventor Oliver Evans, best known for inventing the automated mill, included a wooden conveyor belt system in his patented design in 1790. His invention, which also included bucket elevators and modified Archimedean screw conveyors, yielded a flour mill capable of continuous manufacturing with zero human labor. After the mill saved Joseph Tatnall, the leading miller at the time, $37,000 in its first year, inventors across industries realized the conveyor belt’s potential to increase efficiency.
Steam-powered conveyor belts arrived in 1804 when the British Navy began using them in their kitchens. In 1844, when Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber, belt conveyors became more durable and powerful. Vulcanized rubber conveyor belts were more heat-resistant than previous models. Steam remained their primary power source until Robins invented what we would consider the modern conveyor belt.
The Swedish engineering company Sandvik AB invented steel conveyor belts, which came on the scene in 1901, shortly after Robins’ invention. Steel allowed these simple systems to withstand the stress demands of industrial use. Since then, many companies have continued to improve on conveyor belts’ initial designs. Over the years, conveyor belts have taken on new materials, improved shapes and increasing popularity.
History of Conveyor Belts
The conveyor belt has come a long way since the 1790s. Since their beginning, conveyor belts have improved efficiency. Each iteration has offered distinct productivity benefits. Innovations have allowed more industries to take advantage of conveyor belts, and today, almost every sector of the industrial market has used conveyor belts in some form. Here’s how conveyor belts have evolved throughout their history:
Primitive Conveyor Belts
We know the earliest conveyor belt systems have been around since 1790 because they are included in Oliver Evans’ flour mill design. It’s unclear who their original inventor was or when they first appeared. In these primitive designs, the conveyor frame was a simple flat wooden bed with a belt running over it. They were hand-operated using hand cranks and a system of pulleys. The belts themselves consisted of leather, canvas or rubber, with the earliest ones made from leather.
These primitive conveyor systems were short compared to the incredible lengths we see today. Farmers used these first conveyor belts to transport grain over short distances. They were often employed at shipping ports, where they conveyed agricultural products onto ships. They were also used in flour milling.
Steam Powered Conveyor Belts
Steam engines had been around long before hand-crank conveyor belts, so it didn’t take long for the technologies to merge. With steam power’s introduction, belt conveyors no longer needed hand cranks or human labor to keep the belt moving. This innovation aligned with the British industrial revolution in the 18th century.
The first recorded use of a steam-powered conveyor belt was in the British Navy, which integrated them into their kitchens in 1804. The machinery was used to streamline baking — in particular, baking biscuits. This innovation made it much more efficient to feed the many sailors enlisted in the world’s largest navy.
After the navy found success with steam-operated conveyor belts, it didn’t take long for other industries to follow suit. Not surprisingly, bakeries were one of the first industries to accept steam-operated conveyors. Many slaughterhouses also adopted the technology.
Heavy-Duty Conveyor Belts and the Industrial Revolution
The invention of vulcanized rubber in 1844 was a significant milestone. While even primitive belt conveyors used rubber, they were much more sensitive to temperature changes. They became rigid and brittle in cold environments and melted in the heat.
Thomas Robins invented the heavy-duty conveyor belt in 1892. He began his series of inventions in 1891 to develop a more efficient way to carry coal and ore. He created what we consider the modern conveyor belt for Thomas Edison’s company, the Edison Ore-Milling Company, in Ogdensburg, New Jersey. The resulting conveyor used steel idler rollers and rubber-covered belting. These heavy-duty materials could convey heavy, abrasive materials such as iron ore efficiently.
After his invention’s success, Robins formed the Robins Conveyor Belt Company and patented the three-roll idler in 1896. The company has changed hands many times over the years and still exists today as ThyssenKrupp Robins. His heavy-duty conveyor belt won the grand prize at the 1900 Paris Exposition and first prizes at the Saint Louis Exposition and the Pan-American Exposition. It was a massive boon to the industrial revolution already underway, and many industries began implementing the technology.
When Sandvik’s steel conveyor belts arrived in 1901, they were another popular option for coal and aggregate mining operations. Within a few years, the food production industry adopted steel conveyor belts. The first European manufacturer to adopt conveyor belts was probably the coffee production company Kaffee HAG, also known as Coffee HAG. The world’s first decaffeinated coffee producer began production in 1907 in Bremen, Germany. Thanks to their belt conveyors, Kaffee HAG could process 13,000 pounds of coffee every day.
As steel belting took off in food production, rubber-covered belts became the industry standard for mining, quarrying and mineral processing for their flexibility and superior durability.
Underground Conveyor Belts
The next major innovation was the underground conveyor belt, which mining engineer Richard Sutcliffe invented and patented in 1905. While conveyor belts already had applications in the mining industry, they weren’t yet used underground. They needed some adaptations to survive the harsh environments and operate in confined spaces. Sutcliffe’s solution was a belt made from layered cotton and rubber.
The preferred method for transferring coal from the source to surface operations was a rail car. A belt conveyor was a major improvement because they were more affordable and easier to maintain than rail cars. When a mine reached the end of its life, a conveyor could be packed up and brought to the next site, unlike permanent rail cars. While he’s credited with inventing the underground conveyor belt, Sutcliffe called his manufacturing company “Universal Works” because the systems were suitable for both above- and below-ground applications.
Henry Ford’s Conveyor Belt Assembly Line
While not their inventor, Henry Ford might be the name most often associated with conveyor belts. When he became the first car manufacturer to introduce belt conveyors in 1913, he made the invention famous. Innovations didn’t spread fast in those days, so his headline-making implementation helped popularize conveyor belts across more manufacturing sectors. He got the idea after studying how their use in slaughterhouses in Chicago and Cincinnati improved efficiency and productivity. He then built on the Oldsmobile brand’s continuous assembly line and introduced a conveyor belt to speed up the process.
While it took five full years to changeover his factories at the Ford Motor Company, the results were astounding. He slashed the time it took to manufacture a Model-T from around 12 hours to just an hour and 33 minutes. In 1914, Ford introduced a new mechanized belt that moved as fast as 6 feet per minute. By 1919, conveyor belts were industry standard for the automobile manufacturing industry. After Ford’s sensational introduction, belt conveyors became more widespread throughout the 1920s. Meanwhile, in the coal mining industry, they grew to nearly 5 miles long.
Synthetic Fabric Belting
While the Second World War (WWII) slowed the mining and quarrying industries, it was an excellent time for conveyor belts. To support the war efforts, America placed restrictions on many natural materials, including rubber, canvas and cotton. To adapt, manufacturers developed several synthetic fabric belts. In the mid-20th century, urethane and synthetic rubber belts arrived to replace other belting materials.
By the 1960s, lightweight, fully synthetic belting became widespread. The benefits of synthetic belting are still being realized today. The synthetic material is lightweight and flexible. This quality lets belt conveyors operate with smaller pulleys and can handle high speeds. Today, cotton, canvas, rubber and steel belts haven’t gone away. Now, with no material shortages to worry about, manufacturers can select the conveyor belting material best for their particular application, whether it’s synthetic or natural.
Another wartime and post-WWII improvement was the V-belt assembly. The V-belt is a massive improvement over the traditional flat belt. While flat belts can easily slip out of place on their pulleys, V-belts have sidewalls that fit into place along designated grooves. Their unique shape allowed conveyor belts to move higher loads, which significantly improved efficiency.
Plastic Modular Belting
The 1970s marks the transition into the modern era of conveyor belt history. Manufacturers introduced many innovations that made the systems quieter, longer-lasting and cheaper to maintain during this decade. Some of the developments included precision bearings, quiet and internally powered rollers and motorized gearboxes and pulleys.
One of the most groundbreaking innovations of the ’70s, plastic conveyor belts, solved the food processing industry’s unique need. Since rust and corrosion built up on metal belts, food processors needed a food-safe material for their belt conveyors. In 1970, the Louisiana-based company Intralox designed and patented a modular plastic conveyor belt. Rather than a continuous loop of fabric, these belts use small, interlayed plastic bricks.
Today, modular plastic belts consist of polypropylene, polyethylene or acetal thermoplastics. Plastic conveyor belts offer some distinct advantages that have revolutionized the industry. As low-tension systems, plastic modular conveyor belts can be wider than they are long. They can travel around corners and along inclines and declines more efficiently than traditional belt conveyors. Because they are simple to take apart and clean, they’re the industry standard for food processing plants to this day.
Conveyor Belts Through the Ages — and Into the Future
Since their original use in agriculture to transport grain and other materials, conveyor belts have been adapted to many applications across many industries. Today, belt conveyors transport goods throughout production facilities in food processing, bottling and canning, automotive manufacturing, printing, logistics and warehousing, paper goods, textiles and more. Here are some examples of conveyor belts throughout history and their specialized uses:
1905 — The First Underground Conveyor Belts
In 1905, conveyor belts were adapted for underground mining applications. The first six underground belt conveyors were installed in the Glass Houghton Colliery Company. The belts were 20 inches wide and 110 yards long. They moved at 200 feet per minute and together moved 500 tons of coal per day.
1957 — The Mobius Strip Conveyor Belt
Another improvement came with the Turnover Conveyor Belt system, which the B. F. Goodrich Company patented in 1957. The conveyor belt was shaped to form a Mobius strip rather than a loop. By incorporating a half-twist into the belt design, the belt formed a one-sided shape, rather than the two sides formed with a regular loop. Since the belt could expose its entire surface area to wear and tear, it had a longer lifespan than traditional belt conveyors.
While the Mobius conveyor belt was an important innovation, they’re no longer manufactured today. Now, belt conveyors can achieve longevity through more durable materials and more layers, making the twisted design obsolete.
1958 — The First Sushi Conveyor
Conveyor belt sushi restaurants today are a fun novelty experience, born out of a need for efficiency. Inventory Yoshiaki Shiraishi had trouble staffing his sushi restaurant and couldn’t run the establishment by himself. The conveyor let him serve customers quickly without increasing his staff. He opened his first restaurant and patented the concept in 1958 before moving on to open 250 franchises throughout Japan.
1972 — The World’s Longest Conventional Conveyor
Stretching for 61 miles, the current world record-holder for longest conveyor belt was built in 1972 in the Western Sahara. It runs from the Bou Craa phosphorus mines to the coastal city of El-Aaiun. It transports 2,000 tons of rock per hour to the port for loading onto cargo ships. It’s length combined with the distinct white phosphorous ore make this conveyor belt visible from space.
The Present Day — Smart Conveyor Belts
The Internet of Things (IoT) and other smart manufacturing technology has been transforming the industry over the last several years. As with much of the other equipment found throughout the shop floor, manufacturers are now equipping conveyor belts with smart technology. The technology allows the belt conveyor to communicate with other machines in the production facility and uses a system of sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) to make smart, automated decisions.
For example, smart conveyors can analyze their power usage to reduce consumption when full power isn’t needed and shut themselves down when not in use. They can also detect safety hazards, such as an item being caught in the belt. They can inspect themselves while in operation and use statistical analysis to predict when and where the conveyor might fail before it causes unnecessary downtime.
The Future of Conveyor Belts
While the IoT is already here, the conveyor belt will improve as AI gets more sophisticated. Still, there will always be a place for traditional belt conveyors. Not all industries need to implement smart conveyor belts, and these sectors will continue to benefit from innovations in belting material and more sophisticated designs. For example, adjustable width belts are growing in popularity since they allow producers to handle multiple different product types and sizes on a single system.
Trust SEMCOR for Your Custom Conveyor Belt Needs
SEMCOR provides conveyor belts and belting services to clients throughout Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Besides our off-the-shelf belting solutions, we also offer extensive modification and fabrication expertise. We assist with installation, inspection, repair and alignment, and custom fabrication of conveyor belts. We strive for belting solutions that lower your maintenance needs, extend your service life and address the specific concerns your company faces.
If you need conveyor belt customization or repair for your facility in our service area, contact us for more information or to request a quote.