Uplift in equipment choice

6 mins read

For buyers of forklift trucks, there are complex considerations – and price is just one factor in a burgeoning list of criteria, as Laura Cork discovers.

Unlike many of its European counterparts, the UK forklift truck market is still largely dependent on contract hire deals. Once typically agreed over three to five years, the recession has changed all that and now these are being extended to seven or even 10 years. At last month's AGM of the British Industrial Truck Association (BITA) – the trade body representing forklift truck manufacturers and prominent suppliers – Jeremy Leonard of Oxford Economics told the audience that there was a positive outlook for UK forklift sales this year, with demand for warehouse trucks having returned to pre-recession levels and counterbalance expected to follow suit in the next 12-24 months. The findings come in a report commissioned by BITA to analyse UK market forecasts. However, this market news is of little consequence to purchasers of forklift and warehouse trucks, all of whom are focused only on getting the right equipment at the right price for their operation. So, here are some of the key points from an ever-growing list that today's forklift buyers are considering: Fuel type It's true that, until recently, the diesel-powered counterbalance forklift was the unchallenged workhorse of the factory. But technical advances in the product itself – as well as major developments in alternative power sources – have meant that, today, you are just as likely to walk into any factory and see an electric or a gas-powered truck. CNG (compressed natural gas) was trumpeted as the new kid on the block a few years ago – mainly by Nacco, the manufacturer of Yale and Hyster trucks – and, while this has won many admirers and can boast some serious sized fleets, few can deny the top billing that LPG holds in the gas stakes. Suppliers such as Calor have divisions dedicated to forklift truck users, supplying fuel in bottles or in bulk tanks. But electric trucks have also surged to a dominant position – once the doyenne of clean environments such as retail, food and beverage plants, etc, they are now sufficiently robust to withstand eight-hour shifts in a demanding factory or warehouse. Battery charging technology has moved on apace and is now faster than before and, just as importantly, demands less floorspace for the charging area. A new addition and one that's certain to feature more prominently is lithium-ion battery technology. Among the suppliers offering this are Jungheinrich and Toyota – and doubtless more will follow. And, as with cars, hybrid fuel technology is jostling for position. While still early days in the industrial market, truck designers are finessing the technology. This may be one to watch for future fleet renewals. Truck type Counterbalance trucks will undoubtedly remain the favourite of factory buyers, but equipment design developments mean that there is an increasingly large number of options, some of which depend on the environment and others on the product being moved. Certain warehouse trucks are no longer restricted to the aisles. And versatility is the flag hoisted by articulated truck makers such as Flexi Narrow Aisle and Translift Bendi, and other specialist truck manufacturers such as Combilift. Purchasing new equipment may involve some box-ticking at the outset, but there are some criteria that should never be thought of as a formality. Compliance with legislation, such as the Machinery Directive, is one of them. BITA's James Clark says CE marking is a fundamental part of 'safety by design' measures, providing basic assurances. "If there's no compliance mark, users have no guarantee that a truck design meets the minimum standards required for safety, as laid down by the EU," he cautions. Selecting non-compliant equipment may be tempting based on initial cost savings, but could expose you and your operators to "tremendous unnecessary risk", he adds. "BITA's standpoint on this is clear: 'buyer beware'. Make sure your equipment complies with legislation at all times," says Clark. Hire or purchase? For smaller sites needing one or two forklifts for occasional use, outright purchase could still be the best option. But the slicker service options being wrapped around the product may mean this is old hat. Indeed, for some industrial sites, the smaller the fleet, the more crucial uptime becomes – and contract hire deals can be struck with service and maintenance offers rolled in (see below) that were once the preserve of the larger customers. In contract to our European neighbours, contract hire tops the list for UK buyers – around 80% of new truck sales are made this way – and five-year contract hires have been the prevalent deal here for many years. But, since the 2008 recession, these are often now being strung out to seven or even 10 years – arguably, not only for financial reasons but also because the trucks are sufficiently robust to allow it. Martin McVicar, a founder of Combilift (the company that makes the eponymous four-way/multi-directional truck), echoes the views of many suppliers when he points to total cost of ownership being a key consideration these days. And, he adds, residual values are important, too: "The tendency for most UK companies is to contract hire their equipment over five years and, to make the rates as attractive as possible, Combilift has started to offer its dealers fixed buy-back agreements after five years." Site/environment A seemingly low-tech consideration like a floor can make a big difference to your forklift truck selection. A sleek surface means greater choice when it comes to trucks – including some of the reach trucks which were previously only considered for use in aisles but now have the capability to perform multiple roles. Robust truck models, with equally hard-wearing tyres, will be needed for yard work or for outdoor duties where potholes and uneven surfaces reign. When your fleet comes up for renewal, don't waste the opportunity for a free site evaluation to see if your materials handling processes are up to speed. Many of the truck suppliers have simulation software which can map movement of goods in and around the site. It may add more time to the selection process, but it will reap dividends if you find that an alteration to racking type or layout makes for faster picking and fewer trucks. Service and maintenance Whether it's from a reliable small local dealer or a nationwide supplier, every forklift user needs the assurance of a fast response on breakdowns. A supplier with a solid service infrastructure will give the most comprehensive cover and Briggs Equipment (UK distributor for Yale and Hyster trucks) has one of the largest in the market. Briggs' sales director Bill Goodwin urges buyers to consider supplier credibility when selecting new equipment – particularly with the trend towards longer contracts: "Look to the long term and see if your provider will support you over the full length of the contract," he says. "Will your provider still be in the forklift truck market in 10 years' time? What evidence is there to support this in terms of investment in technology, products and services? And how financially stable are they?" From its national support centre in Cannock, Briggs manages a large fleet of engineers and offers a guaranteed three-hour response to call-outs. Similarly, Toyota has the scope to meet demanding service requirements. With more than 500 service engineers in the UK, it boasts a response time of under four hours and a 95%-plus fix rate by engineers on their first visit. Ask potential suppliers for evidence of their service claims. Unplanned costs and downtime Accidents will happen and, difficult as it may be, unplanned costs should be borne in mind from the outset. As Toyota's Tony Wallis says: "Uncontrolled equipment damage can have a considerable impact on the level of costs, not just the repair of the equipment, but also on the infrastructure – buildings, racking, product, clean up, downtime, lost sales, and more." As Wallis points out, most sites have no idea of the actual costs of one incident: "It can run into a 10:1 ratio, so if you consider your £500 invoice for the truck repair represents a £5,000 overall cost, then a small investment in time or managed solutions would be worthwhile." Fleet management You can't manage what you can't measure, goes the management mantra. And this is certainly the case with forklift trucks. Whereas customers with fleets of 20-30 trucks or more were once the only sites blessed with fleet management services, today most of the suppliers have a fleet data offering of varying technical standing. Some offer full web-based reporting capabilities for users; others offer add-on devices to monitor truck use and log impacts. As well as the truck suppliers, there are other companies offering to fit telemetry devices to equipment, such as Davis Derby and Transmon. Operator choice 'They'll drive what they're given' is an attitude that belongs in the past. Many forward-thinking managers have realised that the more involvement the operator has in the selection of new trucks, the more pride he or she will have in the equipment – not to be sniffed at when you consider that some forklifts cost the same as a small family car. The result? Trucks are kept clean, pre-use checks are performed religiously and damage is minimised or even eliminated. A happy driver is a productive driver. Contents Now you have a snapshot of some of the key criteria for finding a new forklift, it's time to start talking to suppliers. On the link below, you'll find profiles of some of the leading providers of materials handling equipment. They have lifted the lid on their business, their service capability and their products.