Reach trucks are a staple in a warehouse where efficiency is key, and maximum space utilisation is vital. The challenge is to make the most of them, says Maria Highland.
Forklift trucks are a key component in logistics and as consumer expectations increase, their presence is ever more prevalent. In fact, volumes of forklift trucks sold across the UK increased 2.5 per cent during 2018 to just over 35,000 units, according to the British Industrial Truck Association’s market analysis.
Clearly there is an ever-present need for a forklift truck and with such a necessary component in the warehouse, you can’t afford to get it wrong. “Over the last decade the landscape of the materials handling world has been changing, with an increased focus on retail and distribution,” says Yale warehouse solutions manager Ron Farr. “To meet the demands of customers, warehouse operations are now 24/7.”
And “as productivity increases, there is still the need to drive down costs. Therefore, it is imperative that materials handling equipment not only runs reliably, but also allows operators to stay productive for longer, and thus reducing downtime. As customers demand more from their operations, they expect more from their reach trucks,” adds Farr.
Likewise, driven by consumer demand and a requirement to store higher stock levels, businesses often struggle to source additional warehouse space. And “with limited options available, many are looking to maximise capacity at their existing sites, which requires MHE capable of servicing higher, narrower aisles,” points out Mentor managing director Stuart Taylor.
The role of the forklift then becomes one of ensuring warehouse efficiency, including visibility to avoid warehouse damage, as well as both operator safety and comfort, all while working in smaller aisles with and higher racking.
Consequently, “the main thing that customers want from reach trucks is the best performance from the smallest footprint. The more compact the truck the narrower the aisles can be, and narrower the aisles the more racking can be installed in the warehouse. But, for the ideal reach truck that compactness shouldn’t come at the expense of other areas,” says Stewart Gosling of Red Diamond Distribution, importer of Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks.
And the customer is never wrong: “Our research among many hundreds of customers is they want a small truck that can lift to a good height, with first class ergonomics, excellent visibility, and a power source that can keep them going through long shifts without having to change the battery,” says Gosling.
“It sounds like a lot to ask,” he admits, “but using cutting-edge developments in both the truck design and the software that enhances both safety and productivity our engineers have developed machines that tick every single box.”
Taylor supports this and says that “there seems to be a common misconception that you can be safe or efficient, not both. But studies show that safe, compliant operations are often the most efficient, avoiding the errors, damage and second attempts at tasks associated with bad practice.”
Indeed, the more bells and whistles a truck has, it must match in safety. For example, the higher the truck can reach, the more it will sway. Technology can address this to reduce swaying, which beneficial for operations as much as it is beneficial for overall warehouse safety.
Taylor has found that “in [Mentor’s] experience, managers are looking for safety, efficiency and compliance. But with businesses under more pressure than ever to move quickly to meet increasing customer expectations, efficiency is often the priority for many, as the key to staying competitive,” he points out.
Good news for the operator, they do need to compromise safety or efficiency. “There are an increasing number of safety features available for MHE, some built in to the trucks themselves, some as optional extras which can be retrofitted,” says Taylor. “Many are of benefit in helping operators reduce the risk of accidents, however, managers must remain mindful that assistance doesn’t become reliance,” he warns.
Red Diamond’s Gosling says that “ergonomics has been a big area of change with reach trucks. Far more has been done over the last few years to protect the operator and keep them productive throughout shifts. Better operator compartments and more ergonomically designed controls have gone a long way towards reducing repetitive strain injuries and muscle injuries that can build up over time. Body protection has also become more prevalent in recent years, with greater efforts made to ensuring all parts of the driver stay safely inside the confines of the compartment while working.”
Gosling also points out that there has been a major drive towards anything that helps to reduce damage to stock, racking and the trucks themselves.
“There’s also been a far greater awareness across the industry in general as to the importance of ergonomics, with compartment design coming on leaps and bounds. Keeping the operators fatigue-free and fresher for longer throughout shifts helps to keep them alert, safer and more productive,” he adds.
The driver should not be overlooked when it comes to forklift trucks as they are the ones operating the truck daily and responsible for the speed of operations – the truck simply helps them to work faster. “Well-trained and regularly monitored operators go a long way towards maximising the efficiency of your operations. They’ll also understand how to get the best out of your trucks, limiting the repairs and excessive wear and tear that results from inefficient operation,” says Taylor.
It’s all in the mast
Alongside driver safety, and a contributor to protecting stock, is visibility. This “is a long-standing issue that’s seen great advancement, too, with fork load visibility a key part of reducing damage in the warehouse,” says Gosling. Mast design is key in ensuring visibility and by default reducing warehouse damage.
Yale has launched tilting mast reach trucks, an extension of its MR14-25 Series, suited for warehouses experiencing greater demand than ever before and where space is a premium. “We’ve been able to add a further solution to our customers materials handling needs. The addition of the 3-Stage Full Free Lift mast is particularly well-suited to light-duty and low-height applications as well as those where space is limited,” says Farr.
“The tilting mast reach truck is a cost-effective solution for customers operating in minimum aisle widths, with the narrow chassis facilitating in-aisle passing of two machines.”
Mast design comes hand in hand with technology to ensure maximum productivity. “Electronic driver aids go a long way to keeping damage to a minimum, with systems like automatic height selection making the job a lot easier and predictable for the driver,” says Gosling. “Even if working across multiple warehouses the software on trucks like the Mitsubishi SENSiA range allows for a number of sites to be set in the program for easy recall.”
Mitsubishi’s SENSiA range features passive sway control which means operators do not need to wait for the mast to stop swaying therefore enabling high cycle times. Likewise, Mitsubishi’s patented VisionMast provides clear views to fork tips at all times and with strong, light and compact mast design.
Unicarriers has also been working on its mast technology. It’s U-TERGO series reach trucks now come equipped with Mast Tilt Control for faster pallet handling. The automatic damping function absorbs unwanted mast movements to enable for 80 per cent faster mast stabilisation.
“The market is always on the lookout for material handling solutions which provide the swiftest possible movement of goods. Our reach trucks help users to achieve maximum throughput and low total operating costs. Mast Tilt Control is a key element in accomplishing this,” says Jan Callderyd, group product planning manager at UniCarriers Europe.
The reduced vibrations from the mast tilt control system also allows the driver to have more control and greater safety when operating stocking and retrieval processes at great lift heights. The system is combined with a S3 stability support system in TERGO trucks. S3 automatically optimises speed of the hydraulic functions such as mast reach and mast tilt as well as side shift function in relation to the actual lift height and mast configuration. The combined use of MTC and S3 reduces pallet placement in storage and retrieval time by twelve per cent.
Likewise, forklifts now come with “predictive software [that]optimises the driver experience, constantly monitoring load weight and weight along with speed and angle or turn to deliver handling performance that is smooth, safe and utterly intuitive. In many ways we are mirroring the safety features that are finding their way into cars,” says Taylor from Red Diamond Distribution.
Car safety features aren’t the only qualities that forklifts are adopting from cars. Hyster Europe has chosen Mercedes-Benz/MTU engines to power its forthcoming Stage V compliant big truck range for European customers. The engines have been specially designed for industrial applications such as material handling and further developed to meet EU Stage V regulations. They are based on commercial vehicle engines from Daimler.
Lift trucks over 8 tonnes, container handlers and reach-stackers will be equipped with the Stage V-compliant Mercedes-Benz/ MTU Series 1000 and 1100 engines.
“Our heavy industry and port customers in Europe who will require a Stage V driveline, can continue to expect highly efficient trucks with low fuel and DEF consumption, benefiting from high productivity levels and fast operations with the power available,” says Jan Willem van den Brand, director big truck product strategy & solutions at Hyster Europe.
Crown helps Spicers improve efficiency
Crown Lift Trucks helped stationery wholesaler Spicers to improve efficiency and reduce cost in its MHE fleet with a fleet of new Crown equipment, all fitted with its InfoLink fleet management system.
The equipment was acquired on a contract hire basis. Spicer previously owned its own materials handling equipment but with age it became expensive to maintain.
“When we initially looked at the Spicers’ fleet, in many cases they had more than one truck on site to ensure availability when they had a breakdown,” says Crown national account manager Steve Rumbelow. “Our proposal reduced the number of trucks by supplying key trucks with two batteries, ensuring availability across double shifts.
“All trucks were also fitted with the InfoLink fleet management system, giving Spicers a common reporting platform across all sites, and visibility so they can identify how trucks are being used and ensure they are being optimised to the full. The upshot of the evaluation process was that we reduced the fleet by over 40 per cent.”
The fleet management system has helped Spicers to reduce damage billing by 90 per cent. Spicers operations improvement manager, Bobby Arman says: “With the InfoLink fleet management system, we can now clearly monitor what the drivers are doing, ensuring their productivity is correctly managed and challenged – it has given us visibility. As well as the operator efficiency improvements, there have been additional financial benefits as we’ve experienced a 90 per cent reduction in damage billing. It’s fact – Crown really has helped to reduce our operating costs.”
Spicers has a central distribution centre at Sawston, Cambridgeshire which receives products directly from manufacturers. It operates a mixed fleet of Crown equipment which includes the ESR 5000 reach truck.
The ESR 5000 Reach Truck Series can reach heights of 13 metres, has ergonomic features such as a swivelling MoveSeat with integrated headrest which tilts back to improve visibility while reducing back and neck stress. This helps operators to work faster and more comfortably without compromising safety.
The trucks are equipped with Crown’s intelligent Optimised Cornering Speed system which automatically adjusts acceleration and deceleration curves for maximum safety and performance.
Lithium ion batteries have been around for a while but they are now really making a mark on the forklift truck industry. “It is also noticeable that customers are increasingly being guided by the environmental impact of their choices,” says Yale’s Farr. As the capability of electric trucks increases with the introduction of new technology, customers are considering them in many more applications. Use of lithium-ion batteries has also seen rapid growth over recent years, with more and more customers finding this battery technology commercially viable.”
Lithium ion “helps customers deliver increased productivity and optimise utilisation in multi-shift applications by eliminating the need for replacement batteries and battery change-overs,” says Farr. “This allows space previously used for battery charging to be used for more productive purposes, such as production or storage space.”
Likewise, “fast charging times and the absence of memory effect allows ‘opportunity charging’ in available shift breaks. This extends the operating range of the single lithium-ion battery to cover tasks traditionally accomplished with multiple lead acid batteries,” he continues.
Lithium-ion batteries are virtually maintenance-free according to Farr. “The periodic topping up and equalisation charges of the battery associated with lead-acid batteries are not required and an increased number of charging cycles is possible – as much as 3750 cycles vs 1200 with a lead acid battery. The efficiency of the lithium-ion battery and charger is considerably higher than lead acid batteries and when coupled with time savings for battery exchange and maintenance, lithium-ion can give lower overall operating cost than lead acid batteries in more intensive applications.”
However, he points out that “understanding the application is key and operations should take into consideration whether lithium-ion is the best solution for them. In many applications lead acid batteries work extremely well and remain the best choice.”
Likewise, another technology worth looking out for is robotics, more specifically, self-driving trucks. “Technology is changing the market. In the not too distant future, we’ll no doubt see the development of driverless trucks, and in the meantime the risk of over-dependence on technology will remain, as new developments are made and become the norm,” says Taylor.
This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, June 2019.