Things are Looking up for Lift Trucks

April 1, 2005
With increased scrutiny from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other governmental bodies, lift trucks are being designed to

With increased scrutiny from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other governmental bodies, lift trucks are being designed to adapt to new environmental and ergonomic demands, while maintaining their critical role in warehouse success.

In line with the trend toward outsourcing non-core competencies, shippers today are rethinking the need to maintain a private fleet of lift trucks. Increasingly, companies are outsourcing some or all fleet functions — including maintenance — to a third party, usually a lift truck manufacturer offering complete packages of equipment and services.

"In general, lift truck buyers don't really care whether the equipment is green, blue or yellow — they just want to have a piece of equipment that will transfer stuff from Point A to Point B consistently, without any failure," notes Dirk von Holt, president of the Industrial Truck Association (, as well as lift truck maker Jungheinrich Lift Truck Corp.

There is a strong tendency in the market toward buying the equipment with service or maintenance agreements, since a company will have a calculable fixed cost rather than variable repair costs, and will be freed of the burden of scheduling regular maintenance, von Holt says.

Thanks to work being done by the propane industry, von Holt feels that internal combustion (IC) forklift trucks are cleaner and safer than ever. Increasingly popular engine choices include alternating current (AC) motors that run off of direct current (DC) batteries. Although there is competition between IC and electric trucks, von Holt points out that the majority of IC truck manufacturers also offer electric motors. Where previously there were issues relative to lifting speed and acceleration with electrics, newer AC technology is equalizing performance between the two.

Ergonomics is a major matter for the industry. With an aging operator population, which increasingly incorporates women, physical requirements of drivers need to be addressed. Shippers are challenging lift truck makers to design equipment that is healthier and friendlier for operators and will help reduce workmen's compensation cases. OSHA is also pushing for lift trucks that will provide both safety and a better ergonomic environment.

The lift truck industry had an excellent 2004, von Holt says. "After coming through the recession like everyone else, we had a strong increase of almost 18% in the market [last year], and we expect another increase this year. We won't be at 2000 levels, which was our top year, but we're on the way back."

Lift truck manufacturers typically make many visits to actual work sites in order to study machines in operation and to derive improvements that are of actual benefit to customers, rather than cosmetic additions. In a very competitive field, the lift truck makers must meet the requirements for reduced emissions, improved safer and better ergonomic conditions for operators — while satisfying the specific needs of individual shippers.

Logistics Today spoke to several lift truck companies to learn what features and specifications shippers can expect from the latest models.

For cleaner emissions, for example, Yale Materials Handling Corp. has just finished the full conversion of its entire four-wheel electric rider product line to AC power.

"Ergonomics was one of our key design drivers as we developed our Veracitor VX line of lift trucks," says Jon Levine, Yale's vice president, sales. " Improvements to our products fall into three broad categories: first, entry and exit, because getting on and off lift trucks is a big part of operations; second, driver comfort; and third, ease of operation."

With an industry average of a 16-inch step height, Yale lowered its height to 131/2 inches. "It may not sound like a lot," notes Levine, "but when you climb on and off the truck many times in a shift, it certainly helps." Too, the manufacturer increased the amount of shoulder room within the operator's compartment.

Yale spent a lot of time watching its customers' forklift drivers at work, and observed that many operations regulate that loaded trucks need to be driven in reverse. "Everyone seems to do so in the same way," notes Levine. "They shift their bodies to the left, look over their right shoulder, using their left hand to hold the steering wheel and their right to grab onto the overhead guard leg."

Yale put a handle on the guard leg so operators would have a comfortable place to put their arms. The manufacturer also added an auxiliary horn button, since drivers have to honk the horn as they move in reverse. Yale also offers an optional swivel seat that allows operators to disengage their feet and turn around to get a couple of degrees of additional movement, making it a bit easier to drive in reverse.

Crown Equipment offers both AC and DC technologies. "Our philosophy is to give the customer a choice and present the pros and cons of both," explains Jim Blanchard, the company's marketing product manager. "We also look at it by model to determine which makes sense for a given product, depending on its applications."

The Crown reach truck features an optional-seat. The manufacturer found that operators don't like to stay in the same position throughout an entire shift, so this model permits operators to sit, lean (on a small perch), or stand upright. Too, the operator compartment is fairly large, allowing operators to turn their entire bodies so they don't have to turn just their necks, permitting them to face the direction of motion.

A change made to Crown's PE 4000 pallet truck that has been well received is the development of a kneepad. "You might think it's just a piece of rubber we stuck over a piece of metal," says Blanchard. "But we found it's usually the first thing operators notice. They put their knees against the power unit, so having that extra cushion means their knees don't hurt."

Raymond Corp.'s 7400 Reach Truck pulls together energy and technology capabilities as well as ergonomic issues.

"It allows a universal stance on the truck," says Mike Field, the company's vice president, engineering, "permitting operators to face the direction of travel, so at all times they can face the forks or the tractor, depending on what needs to be done."

After observing the way some customers use their equipment, Raymond developed a single pistol grip that has a natural feel with a built-in multifunction handle. Many truck functions may be operated with a single finger.

Since most of Raymond's products are standup, the manufacturer provides extra padding in several areas — the hip level, where drivers tend to lean, as well as under foot to absorb shock.

Raymond offers a vision system that provides a bird's eye view of the actual material being moved. Trucks have a mounted camera to provide a close-up view on an in-compartment color display on a high-resolution screen. The system permits operators to see where the truck's forks are at extended heights.

Raymond has joined with a couple partners to create a radio frequency identification (RFID) testing facility in Canada. "We are in the beginning stages and are looking for the right opportunities to tie RFID into our products," Field says. "We've also been working with a couple of different partners on the matter of fuel cells. We're testing the production readiness of the solutions."

As with other suppliers, Raymond has incorporated small modifications that have paid big rewards for operators. In refrigerated warehouses and distribution centers, for example, the manufacturer has added a heated handle to its trucks, as well as equipment designed to warm the operator's feet. "We're trying to flow heat where it's wanted," notes Field, "making sure that equipment working in refrigeration keeps operators as comfortable as possible, because then we can get the maximum out of the truck."

Safety is a priority for Toyota Material Handling U.S.A., notes Dale Muhlenkamp, the company's manager of product safety standards and engineering.Thanks in part to the development of features such as Toyota's System of Active Stability (SAS), which minimizes the risk of lateral tip-over, industry-wide fatalities from forklift overturns have declined over the past five years from 34 in 1999 to 23 in 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

SAS is a passive system with two primary functions. One is related to its swing lock cylinder, which is attached to the steer axle that moves routinely with the axle under normal operating conditions. The lift truck's computer senses various conditions — height of load, weight of load, angular velocity and travel speed — so in a dangerous situation, the control unit will instantaneously lock the cylinder, taking rotation out of the rear axle.

"When it's locked," says Muhlenkamp, "it moves the well-known stability triangle from the triangular to a rectangular shape, and that is its advantage. It is passive, with operators unable to turn it on or off."

The same sensors that work to eliminate tip-over — particularly the height and load and mast angles sensor — allow for unique functions on the mast, as well. For example, with an elevated load, should the operator pull the rearward tilt lever quickly, the computer will control speed without respect to the positioning of the control lever. It reduces the speed in the back tilt. Under load and height conditions it will also limit the forward tilt to about one degree, overriding operator demand.


Crown Equipment

Jungheinrich Lift Truck Corp.

Komatsu Forklift U.S.A. Inc.

Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks

Raymond Corp.

Toyota Material Handling U.S.A.

Yale Materials Handling Corp.

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