Types of Parts Feeder Systems

At Big Sky Engineering, we specialize in the design, engineering, manufacturing, and integration of industrial automation equipment and systems. Our turnkey automation solutions include all necessary system elements, including parts feeders.

The term “parts feeder system” refers to equipment that stores, sorts, orients, allocates, positions, and distributes the components necessary for industrial and commercial operations. As these units are generally employed in assembly lines to automate production, they are available with a wide range of customization options to ensure they fully meet the needs of the specific operation and facility in which they are used. One of the key design elements that can be customized is the bowl feeder mechanism. 

The bowl feeder comes in several variations. Six of the most commonly employed are vibratory, centrifugal, linear, vibrating hopper, elevator, and pneumatic feeders, each of which offers unique characteristics that make them suitable for different applications. Given the large selection of bowl feeder options available, some industry professionals may find it challenging to select the right type for their facility. For this reason, we’ve outlined the primary properties, key advantages, and typical applications of the six mentioned above. 

Vibratory Bowl Feeders

Vibratory bowl feeders consist of four basic components: a base, a bowl, springs, and coils. The bowl is available with several design options, including in regard to construction material (e.g., stainless steel or polyamide), coating material (e.g., epoxy, neoprene, or polyurethane), and size (typically between 6-60 inches). Regardless of the design and construction of the feeding unit, all of them rely on some combination of vibrational, gravitational, and balancing forces to feed parts into the assembly line. 

The vibrational forces are produced by an electromagnetic mechanism attached to the springs. As current runs through the mechanism, it generates vibrations that move the bowl, forcing the parts to move gradually along the bowl’s track. The system’s control mechanism allows for adjustments to the intensity of the vibrations to accommodate different part types, sizes, and weights. 

Compared to other types of feeders, these machines offer much smaller real estate requirements and investment costs. Additionally, they are fully customizable, safe and easy to operate and adjust, and low maintenance. As one of the most versatile types of parts feeder systems available, they can accommodate very small to very large parts for assembly, control, and packaging operations. 

Centrifugal Bowl Feeders

Centrifugal bowl feeders—also referred to as simply centrifugal feeders—employ the use of electric-powered rotating disks to direct and orient parts. The rotation of the disks generates centrifugal force, which drives the parts to the edge of the bowl. At which point, a separate tooling mechanism orients them into the proper position before they enter the assembly line. 

Compared to other types of feeders (e.g., vibrating bowl feeders), these units offer much quieter and faster (up to 1,000 parts/minute) operation. Additionally, as they do not rely on vibrations for moving and positioning, they are suitable for use with small and delicate parts, even in high-speed feeding operations. 

Linear Feeders

Linear feeders are generally used to convey parts that other positioning units (e.g., vibratory bowl feeders or centrifugal feeders) have already oriented to the next workstation in the assembly line. While all of these units serve the same function—i.e., acting as a conveyor—they can employ four different conveying methods depending on the type, size, and weight of the parts: 

 

  • Vibrating tracks. As suggested by the name, this method relies on vibration to direct components along an inline track. While it has louder and slower operations than other conveying methods, it is much cheaper and better able to accommodate complex parts. 
  • Conveyor belts. This method is commonly used alongside centrifugal feeders to move sorted and oriented objects between assembly stations. The use of belts allows for faster and quieter conveying operations and easier reconfiguration operations than other types of linear feeders. 
  • Air pressure. This method utilizes a blower unit to generate air, which is then used to move parts along the feeder’s track. It is ideal for directing parts along a path that increases or decreases in elevation. While they are suitable for high-speed feeding operations—including for small or delicate parts—they generate more noise and require more significant investment than other options. 
  • Gravity. This method leverages gravitational force to move and orient parts. While these units are less expensive, quieter, and easier to maintain than other linear feeder systems, they are limited in their design; they must be designed at a high elevation to allow parts to move along the downward path efficiently and effectively. For some facilities, this requirement can make it difficult to access and maintain tooling for repair and maintenance operations. 

 

Vibrating Hoppers

Similar to linear feeders, vibrating hoppers are generally employed alongside vibrating or centrifugal bowl feeders. However, they are positioned upstream—rather than downstream—from the units. As suggested by the name, they rely on vibrational forces to help direct parts to the next station in the production line. Their size and, consequently, their storage volume capacity can be tailored to suit the needs of the operations. Standard sizes available range from 1 to over 5 cubic feet. 

The main advantage of using a vibrating hopper is its ability to help streamline operations. In addition to regulating the number of parts in the bowl at any given time to optimize feeding operations, it reduces and/or eliminates the need for manual loading of new parts into the system. 

Elevators

Elevators—also referred to as bulk floor feeders—are used similarly to vibrating hoppers—i.e., they regulate the flow of parts into vibrating or centrifugal feeders to ensure operations occur efficiently and effectively. The main difference between these feeder units and vibrating hoppers is their positioning in the system; they are generally installed at points with a change in elevation. 

By drawing parts from a hopper tank (typically ranging between 4 to 25 cubic feet in maximum volume capacity), these feeders distribute parts to one or multiple bowls, depending on their design. They are ideal for use with cylindrical or disc-shaped parts. They also benefit applications involving large load capacity requirements and enclosed spaces. 

Pneumatic Bowl Feeders

Pneumatic bowl feeders—also referred to as simply pneumatic feeders—are engineered for use in laboratories and other environments where vibratory feeders are not permitted due to the presence of corrosive or explosive compounds. While the basic operating principles of these units are similar to that of vibratory bowl feeders, the parts and mechanisms employed are different. Instead of an electromagnetic coil mechanism, they rely on a pneumatic drive unit and piston engine to generate the vibrations necessary for positioning and orienting the parts. 

Typical Parts Handled by Parts Feeders

Parts feeders are used to position and orient a wide range of components, including, but not limited to, the following: 

  • Bearing components
  • Electrical connectors and housings
  • Food products
  • Makeup applicators
  • Metal press components
  • Nuts and bolts
  • Plastic lids and caps
  • Rivets and screws
  • Small bottles and bottle blanks
  • Springs

Parts Feeder Systems From Big Sky Engineering

Parts feeders play a critical role in assembly line operations. As such, it is essential to select and source the right type for your needs. If you need assistance choosing a parts feeder system, turn to the experts at Big Sky Engineering. 

At Big Sky Engineering, we’ve provided premier automation solutions for over 20 years. Equipped with this extensive experience, we have the knowledge and skills to offer durable, reliable, and adaptable equipment and systems—including parts feeders—for a wide range of automation applications. 

For additional information about our part feeding systems capabilities, check out our About Us page or contact our experts today.