Counterbalancing the recession

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It’s a tough time for all businesses, but none more so than the forklift truck market, with the British Industrial Truck Association’s predictions in May that the industry can expect an “extended and significant downturn” during 2009. Based on its members’ sales statistics, the association says it expects counterbalance shipments to drop by 47.4 per cent. However, it did offer hope for 2010 with moderate growth expected, and a stronger rebound in 2011 as the economic recovery picks up speed.

But manufacturers are not bowing down to the difficulties that lie ahead, instead they are becoming more proactive and determined in their approach. The industry is still bursting with innovation with a number of new models set for launch this year, as well as developments within the used truck market and enhanced service packages.

In response to BITA’s forecast, Roger Massey, marketing projects manager at Barloworld, the UK’s distributor of Hyster equipment, says: “We have prioritised our efforts to focus on activities that directly benefit service and support for our customers. In addition, Hyster has launched several new counterbalance products already this year, which deliver continued low cost of ownership, increased service intervals and many other important features including the best balance of energy efficiency and productivity in the market.”

Hyster launched the J1.5-2.0XNT and J1.6-2.0XN range of three and four-wheel electric trucks in February. The series has been designed to increase productivity through improved operator comfort and features high- visibility masts, mini- lever fingertip controls, synchronous steering and a compact frame.

The machines also feature two operator settings to balance energy consumption and performance levels. Peter Madoc-Jones, product marketing manager at Hyster, says: “When operating in the energy efficient “eLo” mode, Hyster’s new JXNT electric counterbalance truck is the most energy efficient truck in its class. In competitive VDI cycle tests the JXNT used 16 per cent less energy to perform the same amount of work than the competitive average.” And in the high performance “HiP” setting, the manufacturer claims the trucks provide eight per cent more productivity when compared to competitors.

Elsewhere, Toyota Material Handling UK is getting set to launch the latest model in its Traigo electric counterbalance range, the 48-volt Traigo 48.

Tony Wallis, operations director at Toyota, says: “I think in the current climate, our customers deliver a clear challenge to the Toyota design team; find a way to deliver the highest level of safety, but without affecting productivity.”

The three-wheeled Traigo 48 will incorporate a new System of Active Stability (SAS) feature, while the four-wheeled model uses innovative steering axles to reduce the turning circle and encourage safe operation in restricted spaces. Additionally, the Traigo 48 has three performance settings to manage the lift speed, drive speed and travel speed of the truck, allowing the operator to tailor the performance of the vehicle to the task in hand.

Toyota has also just confirmed it is launching a hybrid IC counterbalance to market in Japan this year, which features a hybrid system combining a diesel engine, electric motor and battery power. It claims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and fuel consumption by 50 per cent, while keeping the same operating performance as the equivalent diesel-powered IC lift truck.

Phil Pearson, UK sales & marketing director at Linde Materials Handling, reckons reduced energy consumption is a major driver for customers selecting counterbalance trucks. “Recent alarming rises in fuel and energy costs allied with today’s difficult economic climate are forcing every user to look more closely than ever before at the operating cost of forklift trucks… Not only do we fit highly fuel efficient diesel and LP gas engines but these, combined with the Linde designed and built hydrostatic transmission which is highly efficient in its use of engine power, result in one of the lowest energy costs per pallet moved of any truck available today.”

He adds that by increasing productivity through innovations such as this it is also possible in some cases to reduce fleet size, which in turn will also lower fuel consumption. Alternatively, he says: “If circumstances do not allow such a change in numbers, more pallets moved per truck can result in savings in overtime payments and short-term hire costs.”

Used trucks

In reaction to the economic downturn many manufacturers have seen a growth in interest for used trucks. “Toyota has certainly seen a significant increase in the market for pre-owned trucks,” Wallis says. “Customers appreciate that high quality used equipment can offer a very viable alternative to new. They are looking for more flexibility, perhaps with mixed fleets of new and pre-owned equipment as they seek to get best value from their material handling fleet.”

By doing so he says customers can expect to make savings in the region of 40 per cent compared to the price of new equipment. Toyota also now offers two levels of renovation standard to help customers with varying financial demands.

Jungheinrich is boosting its used truck offering in anticipation of the estimated 100,000 trucks being returned from contract hire packages over the next three years. To cope with the increase it has doubled capacity at its central used truck refurbishment plant in Dresden, Germany.

When machines come in they are completely dismantled and all worn or defective parts, including tyres and lift chains, are replaced. The trucks are then cleaned inside and out and repainted before being reassembled and safety tested.

The “Ready to Go” vehicles, named because of their instant availability, will cost around 60 per cent less than an equivalent new vehicle. Several specialist used forklift truck showrooms have been set up across the UK to host the range.

To accommodate increased interest in used forklifts, Jungheinrich is holding a series of online auctions with Wignall Brownlow, giving forklift truck users and dealers the opportunity to bid for a range of products, including counterbalance trucks.

Neil Warren, Jungheinrich UK’s used equipment and short-term rental director, says: “We would contend that a good quality used truck that has been fully refurbished to the relevant European standards represents far better value than certain new models on the market [which have been imported from the Far East]. When you buy a used Jungheinrich forklift, for example, you have the reassurance of knowing that you also get the infrastructure of a major forklift manufacturer with a proven track record in after-sales care and customer service that some of the recent entrants to the forklift market simply cannot match.” However, Linde’s Pearson says that although the demand for used equipment remains strong, it has actually decreased slightly compared to 2008.

He also reckons savings can be made from investing in new equipment. “Customers are looking to their suppliers to help them save costs and unlock value. At Linde, we are working hard to demonstrate to customers how we can provide support and deliver that additional value. It is quite possible to deliver cost savings and improvements in productivity by investing in new equipment. We have developed a tool that can help each and every user of material handling equipment identify the benefits they can achieve by investing in new Linde equipment.”

It has become more important than ever for customers to maintain their existing fleets effectively in order to get the most out of them, so a number of manufacturers are enhancing their service offering to meet this need. Pearson says: “There is always scope for service and maintenance innovation as we aim to continually improve our service to customers, whatever the economic conditions.”

Linde engineers already carry a range of fast-moving parts on their vans, but the company will shortly be introducing new technology to help it refine on-board stock allowing it to more effectively anticipate demand. The manufacturer is also looking at extending its use of on-board diagnostics telemetry. “In simple terms,” Pearson says, “we equip the truck to tell us when it needs a service or when it is developing a fault. This enables us to manage the truck for the customers, reducing cost and maximising productivity for them.”

Businesses undoubtedly look different today compared to a year ago or are likely to look a year or two down the line, so Toyota’s Wallis believes that above all else the key driver for innovation in its business solutions is flexibility. “Customers need to be confident their needs will be met both now and in the future. Toyota offer Flexible Rental solutions that allow customers to alter their fleet and service mix during the life of the contract, should their business needs change,” something which it seems more and more customers will appreciate in this time of flux.

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