Electric power pulls ahead in the lift truck race

While forklifts are real workhorses in the warehouse or distribution center (DC), there's a fine art to matching the right equipment with the loads they will have to carry. Just ask Dan Rucinski, material handling equipment supervisor for supermarket operator Golub Corp., better known by its grocery store name, Price Chopper (www.pricechopper.com).

Presently everything for the company's 110 stores throughout the U.S. Northeast is serviced from one DC located in Schenectady, NY. "We've always maintained the philosophy that drivers should be home at night," explains Rucinski.

"Running a private fleet, we have never expanded into an area we couldn't get in and out of in the same day."

Price Chopper uses a lot of drop trailers, he says. "Stores will load their bottles and cans and other returnables one day, and it will be picked up the next as another trailer is dropped, and the cycle continues."

At the DC, food arrives and is moved to the stores every day. While there is some cross-docking, there needs to be a level of reserve product available as well. The company greatly expanded its perishable area two years ago, Rucinski notes, which increased the staging and dock area to facilitate cross-docking. And late last year, Price Chopper built a frozen food facility, which was set up from the beginning to handle cross-docking.

While he tries to standardize as much as possible, Rucinski does use specific equipment for certain applications. There are options on lift trucks that run in a freezer or in the perishable area that aren't needed if they're only going to run in the grocery area. Some warehouse operations deal with health and beauty aids as well as seasonal products, so at any given time a lift truck may be moving bottles of shampoo or snow blowers or lawn furniture.

Standardization pays off for the retailer from the standpoint of maintenance and repair. "Like equipment uses like parts," Rucinski observes, "and there's also less technology for the technicians to learn." Price Chopper does all of its own lift truck maintenance in-house. Its technicians are certified in some of the brands it runs, allowing them to even do some of warranty work.

"All manufacturers have their recommended maintenance guidelines," notes Rucinski. "We balance their recommendations with our budget and our costs — through our systems and abilities to monitor usage — and we tailor our preventive maintenance program to the type of equipment and environment in which we have them. We know that a certain truck on the grocery side may be able to go longer before maintenance than that same truck in a perishable area that is exposed to water and cooler temperatures."

Price Chopper owns all of its lift trucks outright. Though it leases much of its private fleet of tractors and trailers, the retailer is still evaluating the pros and cons of owning versus leasing its lift trucks. "Because of the long hours we run the lift trucks, there wouldn't be a lot of residual value in a lease when we would actually retire a unit," Rucinksi notes.

Today, all of the company's forklifts are electric-powered. "We made the switch on our reach trucks," says Rucinski, "when we bought some of the AC units from Raymond Corp. (www.raymondcorp.com). We purchased ten at the time and ran them side by side with our DC units, and have never turned back from that point. We've hit the point where we're 100% AC on our reach trucks, the trucks we use most often." According to Rucinski, Price Chopper runs its reach trucks an average 3,800 hours per year.

Rucinski explains further that as DC batteries drain down, the truck slows down and doesn't perform as well. By contrast, AC power offers pretty much a flat line of performance. "You don't have an operator sneaking in and changing a battery prematurely to get some extra speed back out of their lift," claims Rucinski. "Now they run the battery until it's fully discharged — like it's supposed to be — so we're not short-charging and shortchanging our batteries."

Maintenance issues played a part in why Walt Mauer, director of engineering for Luster Products (www.lusterproducts.com), chose Jungheinrich Lift Truck Corp. (www.jungheinrich.com) lift trucks. Luster is a Chicago-based manufacturer of personal care products for people of African descent. Operations at its warehouse include the usual activities of put away, retrieving and staging of product to moving it out of the warehouse.

Just one person handles Luster's maintenance needs. For major repairs, Mauer will return to the dealer, and in that regard he is happy with the local service he receives.

The choice between buying and leasing equipment for Mauer comes down to economics. "We buy all of our powered vehicles," he notes. "For our lift trucks — we needed four of them, which is quite an expenditure for us — we decided to lease. Previously we didn't want to own them at the end of the lease." Since he's pleased with the newer equipment, with the current lease Luster will own the machines at the end of the term.

Though maintenance was a motivator, the primary factor for Luster in making a buying choice is technology. Mauer is replacing all of the older trucks, which were DC-powered, with AC motor equipment.

"With older trucks," he recalls, "we had to change batteries after a shift and a half — and that was at least a 20-minute ordeal. With the AC technology I figured we probably wouldn't need spare batteries. We have mounted chargers — two in shipping, two in receiving — so the second shift plugs in at the end of the shift, and the operator coming in the next morning just takes off. It hasn't been necessary to have extra batteries in the year and a half we've been using them."

A major focus for Cliff Otto, executive vice president of third-party logistics provider (3PL) Saddle Creek (www.saddlecrk.com), is to match material handling equipment to material handling requirements.

Saddle Creek offers core services in warehousing, transportation, contract packaging and integrated logistics.

Not only is the basic forklift important to Otto, he also looks at attachments to meet different, specific needs and the ability to quickly change out those attachments. The use a machine is put to guides Otto's choice of equipment.

"In the case of the warehouse," he says, "you're going to be more concerned about matters like how high does the lift truck need to go to store material, and what's the weight limit in terms of what it can lift and hold stable at various heights. In a cross-dock operation you're concerned about speed and flexibility: How quickly can I move that product across the dock and back out the door? For warehousing, you may find a piece of equipment gets used three to five hours in a shift. In cross-dock, that material handling equipment is used virtually every minute of the shift. It's in constant motion, so its durability, ease of service, cost of fuel and so forth all count."

Saddle Creek uses a number of lift trucks from Mitsubishi (www.mit-lift.com), largely because of the operatorfriendly ergonomics the supplier uses when designing its trucks. "They do a good job on the safety side, as well," Otto says. "One of the things that's very important to us as a company is maintaining a safe work environment."

In making buying decisions, Otto focuses on specifications of new equipment and compares them to those of what's already in the Saddle Creek fleet. Based on the data from the dealer and manufacturer, the 3PL will decide whether the piece of equipment is likely to be an improvement.

"We've got an industrial engineering group that guides the effort for the company in terms of making sure we are evaluating purchases with all of the right information, in terms of the application and the expectation," explains Otto.

"They make sure that we are setting the amortization schedules and the leases to match up with what we expect the usage to be."

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