Forklifts revving up on plant floors

Investing and emphasis in new technology and safety for the machines and operators has become a higher priority for many companies.

By Matt Ranly July 29, 2011

After the first quarter of 2011, economic activity in the manufacturing sector had expanded for the 20th consecutive month, according to a Manufacturing Institute of Supply Management Report On Business. As business on the industrial plant floor picks up, some familiar sights are being seen within facilities throughout the U.S.—forklifts that had been sitting idle during the downturn are being put back into action. In addition, manufacturers are re-evaluating their existing forklift fleet to see how newer forklift additions might improve their plants’ overall productivity.

The good news for industrial plant managers and their purchasing department colleagues is that while their forklifts may have been on the sidelines during the past two years, some of the top forklift manufacturers have been actively researching and developing new products and features. End users stand to benefit from improved vehicle performance and operator productivity within the rugged plant environment.

Evaluating the existing fleet

Before considering new forklift purchases, it is important to first audit the well-being of the existing fleet. Forklifts that have been unused—and those that may have been overused—need to be thoroughly inspected by the forklift manufacturer to determine likely performance levels.

The control systems of certain advanced lift trucks can manage all truck functions and proactively facilitate two-way communication with the operator, sharing vital information about the truck and from other truck systems, such as braking, steering, and hydraulics. Information from the electronic systems enables greater diagnostic capabilities and allows better understanding of truck performance. For instance, technicians can use the information to help them understand the vitality of their fleet.

If new equipment is not an option, another possibility might be to introduce re-manufactured trucks into an existing fleet. A best-in-class forklift re-manufacturing program will strip each used forklift to its frame, recycle any unusable components, and then thoroughly inspect, repair, and/or replace every part—all while maintaining the truck’s original performance specifications. In most instances, the major components should be covered by a one-year warranty with no hour-usage limits.

Investing in new forklifts

As plant and operations managers contemplate adding new trucks to their forklift fleet, many are learning about the new advancements that have occurred since the last time they purchased lift trucks. As a result, it is important that certain considerations are included in the decision-making process. These considerations can be grouped into four basic categories:

  • Technology
  • Operator
  • Fleet management
  • Training and safety.

Leveraging new technologies

Within any industry new technologies and advancements are continually being introduced; the forklift industry is no exception.

One of the technologies gaining attention in the material handling industry within the last few years is fuel cells. A number of forklift manufacturers have introduced fuel cell-powered forklifts, and an increasing number of companies have announced the integration of the technology into their fleets. Of course, fuel cells are not suited for every facility or application. It is a decision that requires much planning, discussion, and research. Be sure to verify with forklift manufacturers that their forklifts are qualified for specific fuel cell products before making any buying decisions.

There also have been numerous technology advancements that improve safety and performance. One such advancement that helps improve safety is traction control. These systems minimize tire spinning and skidding—even on wet, slick floors—and can help reduce the risk for accidents, product damage, and injury. Some internal combustion forklifts come equipped with fuel monitoring systems that result in less wasted fuel and time changing fuel tanks unnecessarily. Advances have even been made in the area of low-level order picking.

Focusing on the operator

Considering the wear and tear a forklift experiences in an industrial plant, it is critical to make the forklift operator as productive and comfortable as possible. In most instances, productivity and comfort are directly related.

Forklift manufacturers are increasingly evaluating how new accessories and technologies can make operators more productive. In some cases, they are developing new vehicles altogether. For example, rolling ladders are commonly used in facilities for operators to pick small parts. Walking to each location and climbing the ladder can wear down an employee’s endurance, stifle productivity, and pose potential safety concerns. A more productive option might be a work-assist vehicle that elevates a person and a load to effective work heights of 17 ft and travels nearly twice as fast as the average walking speed.

More attention is also being given to ergonomics, which has resulted in new features that enhance operator comfort. Everything from the control handles and steering wheels, to the seat and flexible floorboards, and even the way operators step on and off the truck has been enhanced with ergonomic features. New advancements in mast design have greatly improved visibility as well.

Leveraging forklift and operator information

Industrial plant managers can now capitalize on new asset management tools that enable them to better manage their fleet by gathering and organizing information about forklifts, operators, applications, and services. These tools transform the data generated at the forklift level into usable information that allows managers to focus on operational and performance issues quickly and efficiently, as well as make more informed business decisions.

To truly optimize forklift and operator performance on the plant floor, managers need the ability to collect data in real time. This can be accomplished through the use of vehicle-mounted management terminals or computers capable of transmitting information from the truck to a central management system. These wireless fleet management systems can also play a role in safety and compliance management through impact monitoring and access control.

Investing in training and safety

The final considerations, but in many ways the most important ones, are training and safety requirements. Along with having well-established training and safety programs, it is important that a process is in place to train operators on the proper use of any new technologies and trucks being introduced to the plant floor. This will help ensure the desired performance and safety levels are maintained.

The introduction of new trucks into an existing fleet often provides an ideal opportunity to evaluate and assess training and safety programs currently in place. A training enhancement worth considering is extending the existing forklift safety training program beyond just the operator. While the average operator trainer spends only a few days at a given time with operators, other influencing factors such as supervisors and mentors have a chance to interact with operators on a daily basis—and make a long-term difference. At a minimum, all supervisors should complete forklift safety training that enables them to be better supervisors. The benefits can include reduced accidents and injuries, direct cost savings, cost avoidance, and increased productivity.

Adding new trucks to an existing fleet can significantly impact the operation of your facility. By taking the time to carefully consider these important factors, plant and operations managers can ensure that they have the right trucks for the right applications.