Forks at the front and a big weight at the back – it’s the classic image of a forklift. But, look more closely, and you can see new levels of innovation and sophistication.
Counterbalance trucks have been the workhorses of the industry since their inception, but every year brings a crop of new features and configurations. For those about to make an investment, it’s worth looking at the latest developments, and the factors driving innovation.
One non-negotiable factor in truck design is legislation. With the green agenda pushing limits on emissions, every manufacturer has had to address the environmental impact of their machines. But there is more than one way to skin a cat.
CAT, for example, along with firms such as Toyota, Jungheinrich, Hyster, Yale and Nissan are addressing their own manufacturing processes, and have been accredited with ISO 14001 environmental management standards.
Very commendable. But operators may be more concerned with how the trucks themselves operate. New laws have required all truck makers to incorporate different levels of exhaust after-treatment to their engines. Linde’s new range of H50-80 diesel powered trucks will be fitted with a diesel particle filter as standard as well as having a cleaner running engine to start with.
David Bowen of Linde says “When we recently asked our customers to list their business priorities, improving environmental performance came in as a top objective. It is therefore further proof that sustainability should play a pivotal role within the design of the truck.”
To that end, Linde is re-launching its 2-5 tonnes engine and electric counterbalance trucks with an Eco-Mode to reduce energy consumption by up to 20 per cent while retaining 90 per cent productivity, by adapting the speed and acceleration parameters.
Craig Johnson, marketing manager of Jungheinrich UK, says it has a similar focus: “Jungheinrich is constantly striving to make its range materials handling equipment more energy efficient, and the company believes that it has made a significant leap forward in this respect with the recent introduction of fourth generation AC technology across trucks in its electric-powered range”.
The firm’s latest IC truck is orientated towards lower emissions. It reckons the VFG 5-series’ hydrostatic engine technology requires between 20 and 30 per cent less fuel compared to the market average.
This highlights why efficiency is the goal in environmental credentials and operational capacity alike. It’s not least because in the UK’s economy, efficiency usually translates to mean saving energy, saving fuel or, more plainly, saving money.
Mitsubishi’s new Electric Diamond three and four wheel electric counterbalance trucks use “FeatherTouch” electric steering, which it says uses 50 per cent less energy than conventional systems. And later this year Yale has planned to launch a new series of ICE trucks to handle 10 tonne loads which will improve fuel economy up to 20 per cent.
David Rowell, product marketing manager for NACCO Materials Handling, manufacturers of Yale, says: “Choosing the right size of engine, together with the most effective combination of options can have a considerable impact, not only upon emission levels, but also fuel economy.”
But this is by no means the only concern. Many of these in-built efficiency systems respond best when they are driven efficiently by skilled drivers. For fleets that fluctuate and regularly take on extra, perhaps less skilled drivers, these systems may not reap the savings quoted in the catalogues.
Rowell says that apart from those adopting the high tech efficiency models, “Other customers expect to save money upfront, by selecting an alternative solution, with less features – but still representing exceptional value. This differentiation in customers’ demands was behind Yale introducing the GP20-25LX series of standard products last year.”
Another obvious way of saving money upfront, is to buy less equipment. The versatility of the counterbalance truck means that many operators use it for multiple functions, in place of other equipment such as reach trucks.
Crown says its new SC 5300 three wheel electric counterbalance series is compact enough to operate in narrow aisles, as well as a multiplicity of indoor/outdoor applications such as dock work, container stuffing, loading, unloading, storage retrieval, stacking and line feeding.
Many articulated trucks are now robust enough to compete with counterbalances by working on more challenging surfaces, both inside the warehouse and outdoors. Bendi says its latest offering “gives the operator the same comfortable and safe driving position as a conventional CB truck but once you bring into the warehouse or manufacturing area it offers the same performance as a VNA or Reach Truck.”
With Flexi Narrow Aisle’ s new European HiTech version of its Flexi VNA AC truck – which it claims is the quietest truck in its class – and Aisle-Master’s new cold store cab – which offers comfortable operating conditions in temperatures as low as -30 deg C – it seems that operator comfort is a recurring theme in recent offerings.
Bowen says that Linde sets huge store on driver comfort: “Operator productivity is a major factor in all fork lift truck design and the largest single influence on this is the comfort of the operator.”
Rowell agrees, and says that drivers’ opinions are a defining factor for Yale: “The company pays close attention to the opinions of lift trucks operators and they are consulted very early in our design process. We pull together experienced operators from different industries and countries, to drive prototype designs and provide feedback to our designers. “
“Yale recently introduced new operator seats, with industry leading Whole-Body Vibration levels and new operator controls, which were improved as a result of driver input.”
Jungheinrich’s latest electric powered EFG Series 4 trucks feature a number of design ideas that allow the operator to adjust his working position. And to make work easier and safer for drivers, the truck’s overhead safety guard offers an almost completely unobstructed view.
Crown is addressing efficiency as well as making life easier – and safer – for the driver with its Access 1 2 3 Comprehensive System Control, and its Intrinsic Stability System.
These monitor and manage traction, braking, steering, hydraulics and other key systems, so the driver can concentrate on the job at hand, rather than keeping one eye on the truck’s performance.
Another computer monitoring solution is Linde’s Engine Protection System which monitors operating systems such as pressures and temperature. By protecting the engine from damage or over-wear the idea is that it improves uptime and reduces operating costs.
Linde is also using a driving path warning device called “blue spot”. This involves attaching LED lights to the top of the operator’s protective frame to project a large blue spot onto the warehouse floor a few meters ahead of the direction of the truck’s travel, which acts as a warning to approaching pedestrians. For the driver at least, this is imminently preferable to a noisy siren. But this could also go a long way to keeping the truck safe, and in good working order.
Linking back to productivity, efficiency and comfort, a lot of the automated truck “intelligence” systems are focussed on keeping the truck running longer, and safer. No one doubts that operator safety is of vital importance, but this is another field, which there is a multitude of different ways to tackle.
Another aspect of truck technology that engages with almost all of these issues, reducing emissions, saving fuel, and even driver comfort via minimising noise pollution, is the development of alternative cleaner sources of power. While Jungheinrich ’s lithium ion powered pallet truck went on sale last year, and was taken up by Tesco, and Sainsbury’s trialled a lithium ion truck by Toyota, these haven’t seen mass market success yet.
Rowell says: “For almost as long as I can remember, and that is a long time, the industry has been talking about fuel cells and hydrogen technologies. We are not alone in having various prototype products in operation, but without the infrastructure being developed to support these new technologies, we will not see the predicted levels of growth.”
If materials handling buyers have yet to catch up with the scope of the technology on offer, the uptake of battery technology in the automotive sector is an encouraging sign.
There’s no denying that the counterbalance trucks on the market today can do much more, and more efficiently than older generations. And while the economy means that every penny counts, counterbalances will be the smart bet as the most versatile machine that can simultaneously address so many crucial factors in running an efficient fleet.
Case study- Safe and stable for builders’ merchant
Buildbase builders’ merchants has a network of over 130 branches nationwide, and is upgrading its materials handling fleet to latest diesel Tonero models.
The company appointed Toyota as its preferred supplier in 2002, and has built up a fleet of some 230 Toyota forklifts.
As Buildbase’s forklifts predominantly operate in areas also used by the public, safety is a primary concern.
The new Toneros have a redesigned mast and instrument panel to ensure the best possible visibility when travelling forwards, while the option of a seat that swivels through 20 degrees with large rear assist grip allows drivers to position themselves comfortably for safe reversing.
Buildbase also wanted to use Toyota’s System of Active Stability, an electronic system that automatically monitors and controls over 3,000 key forklift functions, helping to keep both load and operator safe. This helps the drivers to manoeuvre safely even when lifting bulk bags with dynamic load centres.
By opting for the Safety Plus Package, Buildbase got load weight indicators fitted as standard. Phil Alexander, group transport manager, in charge of the Buildbase commercial vehicle fleet nationwide, said: “They prove invaluable when loading our delivery lorries as the weight indicator makes it easier for drivers to keep track of weight as each pallet is added, avoiding over-loading.”
Case study- Careful handling for cash investigations
The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch has recently taken delivery of a new 4-wheel counterbalanced truck from Jungheinrich’s EFG 3-Series range, to handle parts being examined as part of its investigations into aircraft accidents.
The AAIB – part of the Department for Transport –investigates some 300 accidents or serious incidents each year, and around 20 require complete aircraft to be moved to its facilities.
The organisation is based at a site adjoining Farnborough Airport where two large aircraft hangers and a storage compound house damaged aircraft and parts recovered from accidents.
“All parts have to be carefully examined,” says engineering support manager, Sid Hawkins. “The aim of an investigation is to improve aviation safety by determining the causes of air accidents and serious incidents and making safety recommendations intended to prevent recurrence.”
The truck is used to load and unload aircraft, parts and structures from transport vehicles, and to lift them onto specially designed support stations where AAIB’s investigation staff can access them safely and effectively.
Because of the awkward shape and weight of some of the loads that are moved around the AAIB site, parts are transported on metal pallets or lifted with slings. So it was imperative that the truck had a high degree of safety, reliability and stability.
Jungheinrich’s EFG series has been designed with the counterweight underneath the operator’s seating area. Positioning this so far forward has effectively changed the truck’s centre of gravity, making it more inherently stable. This is also enhanced by the truck’s high mounted steer axle.
“This new truck plays an essential role in ensuring that we are able to carry out our investigations safely and efficiently,” said Hawkins.
Safety- High-tech safety demo
Safety specialist Pyroban has launched a micro site to demonstrate how to protect workers with forklift trucks in Zone 2 hazardous areas using real-time 3D animation.
Interactive 3D animations of a diesel counterbalance forklift truck and a reach truck, demonstrate the firm’s explosion proof technology, system6000, explaining key elements such as gas detection.
Pyroban converts forklift trucks so that they cannot cause a fire or explosion when used within industries that process, store and distribute flammable materials.
The 3D demos explain how the system works, and details its features, including restricted breathing enclosures, stainless steel cladding of forks and surface temperature cooling to ensure the engine, motors, brakes, electrics and other components remain below the auto-ignition temperatures of flammable materials.
Justine Wren, group marketing manager said: “Explosion protection is a complex and highly legislative subject, but we wanted to make it easy for users and suppliers to understand what we do, using the latest digital formats.”
Case study- One for all at Bobby’s depots
Food distributor Bobby’s Foods has selected Bendi to serve its growing materials handling requirement while maintaining its policy of using just one truck in each distribution centre.
The firm has grown to cover all regions of England, Scotland and Wales serviced from the Head Office in Bromsgrove, 11 regional depots.
Transport manager Julian Hill said: “Our policy has always been to have just one truck in each regional depot.”
“This presented a number of problems as we had to cater for the unloading of vehicles as well as operating in the racked warehouses, so if the outside of a depot was anything other than perfectly flat we had to operate with a three-wheel counterbalance truck which meant that we had to allow at least 3.5m for the internal warehouse aisles.
It found that even in its depots with reach trucks, they couldn’t use aisle widths below 2.5m. Rising volumes and increasing product lines forced them to reassess warehouse layouts, and consider a more compact truck.
Bendi’s three wheel trucks provided enough manoeuvrability to move to using narrower aisles, while also being resilient enough to work on different surfaces for unloading.
The articulated design on Bendi trucks, and their 220° rotation means that aisles as small as 1600mm and lift heights of over 12m can be achieved without the need for auxiliary guidance systems or “super flat” floors.
Hill said: “We now have trucks that are designed to go outside, unload vehicles, take the products inside and load them into pallet racking in one operation.”