Take the right fork ...

- Last updated on GMT

Take the right fork ...
Buying lift trucks for use in the food and drink sector can be a lot more complicated than it sounds. So what sort of things do buyers tend to overlook? Robin Meczes finds out

So there you are, setting up a new processing line and wondering what kind of materials handling equipment to put into it. It's bad enough trying to work out what kind of forklifts you're actually going to require and in what numbers, but on top of that, anyone in the food and drink sector also needs to think about a whole range of truck modifications designed to ensure that the products you're dealing with don't become contaminated and that they also don't have a ruinous effect on your forklifts.

Non-marking tyres, glass-free cab screens, stainless steel forks, extra hydraulics, specialist cold store specifications and flame and explosion resistant trucks are a few of the possible modifications to consider. It all depends on what ingredients and finished products you're handling.

"The sector is huge and there are many different considerations when you're specifying lift trucks as a result," says Roger Massey, market projects manager at Hyster distributor Barloworld. "That's why it's very important that buyers approach a reputable lift truck supplier who can do a full survey of the site and assess both the specific lift truck requirements and any risks that might be there."

Quite apart from the specification of the trucks themselves, however, there are a number of other special considerations for those in the sector to bear in mind, says Massey. Not the least of these is any servicing agreement that is built into your contract.

"It all depends on what you're handling. Some products - fish, for instance, which is very likely to be covered in salt water - can be quite corrosive so your lift trucks will need to be serviced more frequently than those in other sectors," he says. "And because you're often talking about 24/7 operation, that too will raise your maintenance requirements, which means you'll need fast service response times or even a resident site engineer."

Often, such matters are largely overlooked until the lift truck supplier points them out. Another area often overlooked by end users is how and where to create suitable truck battery recharging facilities, says Massey.

Since battery charging produces emissions and since batteries also contain lead and acid, such areas should be kept well away from food and drink products. But, at the same time, you don't want to situate them too far from a truck's normal location as this just wastes time. "This is something quite a lot of people tend to overlook," says Massey. "They're often so wrapped up in specifying the trucks themselves that the last thing they think of is providing a suitable area to charge batteries in."

Battery changing is also mentioned by Paul Forster, joint md of Atlet - though for different reasons. "Food and drink have the particular characteristic of needing to be moved very quickly and that puts high pressure on the operation to handle the goods as quickly and efficiently as possible," he says. "The time spent changing electric truck batteries, however, is totally unproductive and if you're double or triple shifting and taking a long time to carry out those changes, it's increasing your cost of throughput per pallet."

Powered systems that assist the battery changing process can be much quicker than manual methods, like traditional hoists, says Forster. "They can easily be 10 minutes quicker per change," he says. "If you're changing the battery twice a day and have a fleet of 20-30 trucks on the site, that can add up to a lot of lost time."

The efficiency and productivity that are so crucial in the food and drinks sector can also be stymied by other issues like truck ergonomics, suggests Forster. "It's all about ensuring you get maximum efficiency from both the driver and the machine, so it's important to look at ergonomics when you buy your trucks," he says. "You want a fast driver and a fast machine to work together for consistently high levels of productivity - so it's obvious that the design of the driver's place of work is very important."

Though all modern trucks are ergonomically sound, Forster suggests there are still significant differences between them and says users must take care to specify the right one for the job. "To use a motoring analogy, you wouldn't necessarily want to take what Jeremy Clarkson calls a 'medium-priced car' and drive right across a continent with it. The same principle applies to forklifts and at the top end, there are still differences," he says.

Another thing to bear in mind is lifetime operating costs, says Forster. "Sometimes, there can be a lot of focus on initial purchase price or rental price and not enough on the overall lifetime costs. These can be hard to get hold of, of course, but it's very much the lift truck industry's job to break this down for customers so it's more understandable."

Contract hire

Isn't contract hire the most straightforward way to get to an inevitably fixed lifetime cost? "I'd say not, actually," says Forster. "There is a basic known cost with contract hire, but then you start running into out-of-contract charges - damage to trucks is a good example - and this can start to build up quite quickly."

There can be a lot of disagreement between suppliers and truck users about just what constitutes damage, he adds, and this should be agreed up front. "Everyone tends to think damage means collisions, but that isn't necessarily so. If you have a severe dock leveller and your lift truck wheels keep breaking up, for example, even if your wheels are included in your agreement, there could be an issue there. Reputable suppliers should talk to a customer about areas like this before a deal is struck, but many customers still end up facing the results of not doing so."

A couple of further important points are raised by Bill Goodwin, sales director at Jungheinrich. The first is the flexibility of the truck specification itself and on this score, Goodwin suggests that users that need special modifications to trucks in one part of their operation would be well advised to spec one or two other trucks in other areas the same way, so that they can immediately stand one in for the other in the event of sudden downtime.

"A good example is extra hydraulic functions," says Goodwin. "You might need extra hydraulics on trucks that use attachments, for example - a double pallet handler, say, or a pallet rotator. But the valve block on a truck, where the hydraulics come from, is a very expensive item to retrofit so it's essential it's specified at the front end."

The second issue he says buyers should bear in mind is what 'key' trucks they might have in operation and how they are going to service them. There's not much problem if a common type of truck suddenly goes down and you've got six others exactly the same elsewhere on site. But if you've only got one of a particular truck type and your whole process stops without it, you need to make proper plans.

Spare capacity

Perhaps the most obvious solution is to have a spare truck sitting around and in many cases, firms do just this. But if your key truck is one that's been quite expensively modified - like a flame or explosion resistant forklift, for example - you may need to beef up the servicing arrangements for it instead.

"Where it's not commercially feasible to have a spare truck, you can still look at holding more spare parts for a particular key truck, so that you're much more likely to be able to deal with a breakdown," says Goodwin. "If you're operating 24/7, meanwhile, you'll want to make sure, even if you have a resident engineer, that you're properly covered for when he's not on duty, like at night, and that you know what the costs of that will be."

It's arrangements like these that users can easily forget to agree with suppliers when they first get into a deal, says Goodwin. "One thing that's very noticeable in this sector is the cost-consciousness of the purchaser. These deals are always very tightly fought for but remember, you need to get the right service and the right specification of equipment," he says.

"The balance between price and performance is a very important one, but there still needs to be value and quality in the proposition. So by all means, fight for the best possible deal as a purchaser - but just make sure you get what you really need operationally, too." FM

  • Key contacts **
  • Atlet 01844 215501
  • Barloworld 01628 822151
  • Junheinrich 01908 363100

Related topics: Supply Chain, Processing equipment

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