The Recovery-Ready Fleet

March 1, 2010
Tactics to protect the bottom line over the past year may have weakened your lift truck fleet. Here's how to check the health of your fleet and restore its power to pre-recession levels.

The economic challenges of the past year have affected virtually every aspect of the material handling industry. Many companies have made tough decisions to protect the bottom line.

In some facilities, recession tactics have negatively impacted lift truck fleets. For example, some businesses took equipment out of rotation or used parts from existing units to service others to avoid buying new parts or equipment. Some trucks were pulled out of service because they weren't being used, while others did not receive proper preventive maintenance due to budgetary considerations.

So, how does a material handling operation restore power to the lift truck fleet to prepare it for recovery? To answer this question, managers will need to consider the health of the current fleet and how many and what types of trucks will be needed in the future. Once these initial questions are answered, managers should then address how to maximize cost effectiveness and productivity enhancements as they begin to return their fleets to normal activity.

Evaluating Fleet Health

Taking stock of the current fleet is a crucial first step because the results will determine the successive steps required to return the fleet to normal operation. It is also important to check the status of current lift trucks and be sure they are running properly to avoid unnecessary downtime and maximize productivity.

If lift trucks have not been properly maintained, even while out of service, a thorough scheduled maintenance check should be performed to identify areas of concern and items in need of repair prior to redeployment of the lift truck. For example, if equipment has been parked for an extended period of time, the trucks' load wheels may have flat spots, and the seals on cylinders may have dried up and begun to leak.

Evaluation will vary, depending on the model and classification of the unit, whether the vehicle is a walkie pallet truck, reach truck or counterbalanced lift truck. A technician from a lift truck dealership can conduct a thorough technical evaluation of equipment. A thorough checkup can take 30 to 60 minutes for a pallet truck and one hour to two hours for counterbalanced, reach, orderpickers and swing reach trucks. Evaluations can be completed at the warehouse or distribution center, or equipment can be taken to the local dealer's facility.

For all electric units, the checkup will start with the battery and include checking the battery connectors and making sure that the weight and physical size of the battery meet the truck manufacturer's minimum specifications. This evaluation should then include, but is not limited to: brakes, wheels and tires, control handles, cylinders, motors, drive units, pumps, fluid levels, structural integrity of the frame, mast, forks and baselegs (where applicable), all hoses and fittings, lift chains, steering, switches and lights. A copy of recommended checkpoints and scheduled maintenance items can be obtained from a lift truck dealer.

The evaluation of an electric lift truck also can help managers get a sense for the life expectancy of the lift truck. The economic life expectancy of an electric lift truck is approximately 10,000 hours or seven to 10 years in a clean application and 7,500 to 8,000 hours or fewer in harsher environments. During that time frame, a good preventive maintenance program is essential to ensure optimum performance of each truck. Preventive maintenance includes completing a daily operator checklist to look for areas that may require attention. The operator checklist can be obtained from a dealer or may be available as part of a fleet optimization system, some of which provide built-in electronic operator checklists and other real-time data about fleet status.

After the evaluation is complete, managers should have a realistic picture of maintenance needs and which pieces of equipment require replacement or repair. They can then begin to consider how many new lift trucks to acquire or repair and which models would most efficiently accomplish tasks within the distribution center. In short, the evaluation provides a road map for restoring the fleet to optimum health.

Right Truck, Right Fleet

If operations have changed significantly, managers should re-evaluate whether the right trucks are being used for the current application. For example, lift hours indicated on the hour meters of reach trucks should account for more than 20% of total operating hours. If lift hours are less than 20%, the truck may be performing an unexpected number of horizontal transport activities, which is not its intended application. Horizontal transport is better suited to rider pallet trucks because that is their primary function, and in most cases, using a rider pallet truck is a more cost-effective means of performing this task. In addition, seated-position lift trucks are not designed for orderpicking activities. Rather, orders should be picked using walkie or walkie/rider pallet trucks, stand-up counterbalanced lift trucks or orderpicker units that limit the operator's need to repeatedly sit and stand, decreasing operator fatigue and potentially increasing productivity.

Warehouse and facility managers should also closely note the functions lift trucks are performing within a facility and observe the process by which items are picked for orders and put away for storage. They should follow product movement from receiving to storage to order picking and, finally, to shipping. Observing and tracking this data will help managers better understand where and which types of lift trucks are needed to accomplish specific material handling tasks. Lift truck dealers often provide third-party observation of operations. Having experience with a variety of operations, procedures and warehouse layouts, dealers know the specifications of the lift trucks they represent, so they are in a great position to provide advice on truck usage.

Fleet optimization systems are useful tools to aid in rightsizing lift truck fleets. Fleet optimization offers an opportunity to reduce lift truck expenses and optimize lift truck and operator performance through a stark display of areas for cost reduction. These programs accomplish this by collecting critical parameters — such as hours of service, maintenance status and modes of operation — in real time. Analysis of this data provides insight into how trucks are being used and where efficiencies can be gained.

Cost-Effective Returns

Understanding what repairs are required and where new lift trucks are needed will enable managers to develop a plan to implement these action items in the most cost-effective manner. For example, managers should consider whether to lease or buy lift truck equipment. The following questions can help determine which option is most appropriate for the operation:

  • Do you prefer ownership of the equipment?

  • Do you anticipate any major changes with your business, such as growth or downsizing?

  • Do you anticipate your application changing in the next two to five years?

  • Have you explored a lease-versus-buy analysis?

Leasing can provide more flexibility, especially in business environments that could change. As lift truck technology evolves, lessees have opportunities to upgrade fleets with the latest lift truck technology, which can potentially reduce overall cost of operation. Older equipment frequently requires scheduled maintenance intervals at twice the frequency of newer models. In addition, leasing enables companies to acquire additional trucks for short periods of time or to invest in other areas of the business instead of tying up capital in purchased lift trucks.

For cost-effective implementation of repairs, managers should consult with lift truck dealers. Dealers can help with immediate maintenance needs and prepare a continuing preventive and scheduled maintenance program. They also can offer consolidated invoicing for maintenance needs, which reduces administrative overhead to process separate invoices, especially in companies with multiple facilities. Working with dealers ensures that a single source is responsible for equipment costs, therefore streamlining the management of expenses. This can allow the manager more time to focus on areas that offer productivity enhancements within the warehouse.

Minimizing Damage

In a warehouse or distribution center, accidental damage to products can lead to costly, unplanned expenses. Tools or accessories can be added to lift trucks to help enhance operator productivity and accuracy, thereby reducing product damage.

As warehouses handle increasing numbers of products, taller racking often becomes necessary. Vision systems installed on lift trucks offer visual assistance to lift truck operators as they store and retrieve pallets at greater lift heights. These systems generally consist of a waterproof, high-resolution camera mounted below a reach truck carriage with a color monitor affixed to the operator compartment. The camera and monitor help the operator more accurately see the placement of the forks in tall racking, thus minimizing potential damage and increasing productivity and accuracy of load placement.

Fork-tip lasers also assist reach truck operators in accurately placing forks when storing and retrieving pallets in racks. When the lift truck forks are raised above a specified height, a laser line displays on the pallet to show operators the fork position in relationship to the rack beam level, helping lift truck operators engage pallets more easily and quickly. These solutions are ideal for applications with tall racks, warehouses without optimum lighting and freezer applications, and they can also aid inexperienced lift truck operators.

Gradual Recovery

Returning to normal operating levels after a sharp downturn will not happen overnight. However, distribution centers can take small steps to begin restoring their lift truck fleets to health and uncovering methods for reducing costs and enhancing efficiencies. Implementing these steps can put companies in a position to respond to their material handling needs as the economy works toward stability and recovery. The recovery will come, and it pays to ensure the lift truck fleet is ready.

Joe Ginnetti is vice president of sales for lift truck manufacturer Raymond Corp.

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