Forklifts: Balancing priorities

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Cost is a key driver for any warehouse operation, but seismic shifts in manufacturing and retail practice as well as the challenges of the economy are changing the role of counterbalance trucks, and the factors that influence investments. Johanna Parsons reports.

Low purchase prices are always eye-catching, but counterbalance trucks, in particular, will be expected to act as the workhorse of the logistics operations for many years, so upfront price is perhaps not such an important factor in a purchasing decision.

Chris Meinecke, chief operating officer of Briggs Equipment, says: “Without doubt one of the key battlegrounds in the lift truck market is price and where can you buy a cheaper truck than from China? But what is the whole life cost going to be?”

In the value for money equation, productivity rates and initial cost savings must of course be balanced against the total cost of ownership. Considering service and maintenance coverage, and potential extra downtime while waiting for parts to be shipped can make options closer to home seem more attractive.

“Increasingly customers are looking for a collaborative approach. They are not interested in merely buying a truck. A vehicle off-road is costing you time and money so will your supplier be on-site fast? Do they back up their promise with a cash guarantee? Can their engineers service your entire range of plant or machinery? These additional elements are the difference between just service and real value added service,” says Meinecke.

It is no surprise then that suppliers who have been able to keep aging fleets running have done well out of the recession as operators are waiting as long as possible before replacing trucks. And when new equipment is needed, operators are looking for deals, and purchasing is not the only option.

“Reliability, cost effectiveness and service support remain the primary drivers of the lift truck market, however a greater flexibility to the traditional five year fleet rental model is being demanded by many customers to help them to be as efficient as possible,” says Paul Fox, national sales manager of Impact Handling, which distributes Cat lift trucks.

Suppliers who own their rental fleets and therefore don’t rely on third party finance have been able to offer their customers more flexible rental packages than standard three and five year deals. And this is increasingly including the most innovative technology.

But a good deal is no use if equipment is not being used efficiently. To maximise value for money from investments in equipment, each operation must consider its individual requirements. And even for the multi-function counterbalance, there is no catch all machine.

Craig Johnson, marketing manager of Jungheinrich, points out that the manufacturer is rare in that it makes trucks powered by both torque converter and hydrostatic engines, and each is suited to different work: torque converters for longer distances or hydrostatics for intense shuttling and loading operations.

And while the general rule is that electric engines are for indoor operation and internal combustion is for outdoors, there are now electrics designed for both. The Cat EP13-20PN range has been designed for operators who want electric powered trucks that operate outdoors. Sealed wet disc brakes, IPx4 splash resistance, IP54 sealed traction and hydraulic motors, and the option to galvanise the mast, makes them highly resistant to corrosion. This increases the longevity of the machine, extending service intervals to 1,000 hours.

Safety is a critical issue. Trucks are now fitted with sophisticated stability systems to avoid tipping over but not even the best vehicle is immune to a poor maintenance regime. This was highlighted by a recent inquest into the death of an Associated British Ports mechanic at Ipswich Docks, which found that corrosion in a very old forklift, caused the wheel being changed to explode.

There is still ample room for innovation in safety technology. Mitsubishi won the Fork Lift Truck Association’s 2011 award for safety with its Hi-Vis overhead guard roof for the Grendia 1.5 to 5.5 tonne IC engine trucks. Instead of overhead bars which interfere with the operator’s view and offer no protection against small objects, Mitsubishi uses a tough polycarbonate roof which is reckoned to be some 250 times stronger than glass and 30 times stronger than acrylic glass.

As well as the individual adaptations that set each truck apart, another aspect that is being addressed in all aspects of logistics operations is the environment. In most cases environmental and economic efficiency go hand in hand, and many believe that reducing environmental impact can give a competitive advantage.

The FLTA’s 2011 environment award went to Hyster’s H16.00-22.00XM-12EC container handler, which has an innovative axle design that allows each wheel to rotate independently, cutting tyre wear by a third, reducing waste rubber, and of course reducing expenditure on tyres.

One finalist for the 2012 award is Linde’s enhanced H40 to H50 IC truck range with a bespoke displacement type hydraulic pump. Replacing the previous internal gear pump, this axial piston displacement pump means truck hydraulics and engine speeds are no longer dependent on one another. The electronically adjustable pump reduces motor speed and therefore fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by up to18 per cent.

Another contender is Jungheinrich’s lithium ion powered pallet truck which takes just 30 minutes to deliver a 50 per cent charge and a full charge within 80 minutes, which could make waves in other truck applications too.

Johnson foresees electricity influencing multiple truck functions. “When it comes to electric powered trucks, forklift manufacturers will continue to develop their electronic controls to ensure faster lift and drive speeds while, at the same time, providing greater efficiency, less battery charging up and longer, more productive shifts.”

Briggs is also supplying electric trucks, such as the Yale ICEs which include ECO ELO features that deliver 20 per cent fuel savings. But Meinecke has strong opinions about the role of environmentally friendly technologies: “Exotic power systems and batteries are currently a distraction. Fuel cell technology is interesting but years away from making a significant impact. No, the battle-ground for today and the next few years is ways of making existing systems more efficient, reducing emissions and costs to customers over the whole life of the machine.”

Along with the balance of cutting emissions, fuel efficiency and productivity rates, managers will also have to rationalise their choice of materials handling equipment. The meteoric growth of the online retail market has brought the dominance of the counterbalance under question.

Impact’s Paul Fox gauges this shift: “A decade ago the market would have been split 70 per cent counterbalance to 30 per cent warehouse, whereas today this is nearer to a 50/50 split.”

But this is not necessarily an irreversible decline. With the economic benefits of outsourcing and manufacturing abroad becoming more complicated, the mixture of work for trucks is never going to be set. Meinecke says that Briggs does not anticipate the demise of the counterbalance, “the cyclical nature of the construction market and manufacturing’s continued growth should bode well for this vitally important product group.”

So while the economy is making cost as important as ever, it seems there are yet more factors which will govern purchases of counterbalance trucks. And whether you’re looking for a specific finance option, or operational or environmental features, there is plenty of choice.

Case study: Jungheinrich EFGs for Spalding DC

Fresh fruit and vegetable supplier Greencell has upgraded the materials handling equipment at its Spalding distribution centre with a fleet of counterbalanced forklifts and powered pallet trucks from Jungheinrich, to improve productivity.

The facility houses Greencell’s packhouse and warehouse operations, including a 1,000 pallet capacity chilled warehouse.

The new fleet consists of six counterbalance machines from the Jungheinrich EFG 2 Series and three ERE 120 stand- on powered pallet trucks. These will be used to unload incoming containers and trailers and deliver stock to the chilled warehouse, before picking, packing and onward delivery.

Because all drive, lifting and steering motors use AC technology there are fewer wearing parts which means the EFG trucks have less downtime and lower running costs. The enclosed motors and electronics and sealed electronic connectors make these trucks suitable for both indoor and outdoor tasks.

The counterbalance trucks can operate for two shifts without the need for a battery change.

Case study: Cummins goes down the rental route

Cummins Turbo Technologies, which produces engines and Holset turbo-chargers for commercial vehicles, has chosen Toyota to supply rented counterbalance trucks to power operations at its Huddersfield site.

The firm had used BT equipment for some 25 years, but has chosen to move from a fully owned fleet to a Toyota “Genuine Rental” package incorporating both Toyota forklifts and BT warehouse products.

Cummins runs a large fleet of gas and electric and internal combustion counterbalance forklift trucks. Tonero IC counterbalance trucks work in the loading dock, assisting the fast paced loading and unloading of the transport fleet. The instrument panel and overhead guard have been redesigned to give the operator the clearest view when the forks are at ground level, lorry bed height and at maximum height.

Toyota reckons the Tonero now has one of the widest mast channels on the market, significantly improving visibility for the operator, vital for operations like Cummins Turbo Technologies where the operators make frequent changes of direction.

The material handling equipment is covered by a full service plan, providing comprehensive cover for preventative maintenance and emergency call out. The Toneros are enhanced with the Safety + package, a range of factory fitted options designed to ensure drivers have as much support as possible to operate safely.


Case study: Lindes landscape Millennium stadium

Landscaping business Inscapes, based in Bridgend, Wales, has rented a range of diesel engine counterbalance trucks from Linde Material Handling for its projects across the UK including at the Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, various football clubs and recently at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Health and safety manager, Gareth Davies, said: “We have recently completed a large pitch extraction project at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and with the help of our Linde trucks, we completed the project 24 hours before the given deadline. We work on a project by project basis and so the Linde fork truck hire option has worked extremely well for us over the past few years.”

The trucks supplied are multi-purpose and feature the Linde hydrostatic control for increased performance and reliability, together with fuel-efficient and low emission engines. The Linde trucks have also made shifts more productive, saving cost, time and energy for the company.

Rhian Stephens, senior rental controller at Linde Severnside, said Inscapes needed the trucks on a short term basis due to the nature of their project work. “Most of Inscapes’ projects involve the lifting and manoeuvring of loads from 1.5 to 3 tonnes and so the H16 and H30D diesel engine counterbalance trucks provided the ideal solution for the company.”

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