Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Articulated Forklifts Could Save Cold Stores Millions

As the public's food buying patterns change, articulated forklifts could become the economic saviour of cold store operators. Compared with ambient stores, cold stores are far more costly to build and run. In environments where operating temperatures are typically minus 25 C, energy costs average between 20% and 30% of total warehouse running costs, but it can be far worse. One study by Bristol University, for example, found that initially efficient freezing plant can become very inefficient over a few years, consuming more than eight times the energy of the most efficient cold stores. As if that were not bad enough, owing to the high use of electricity or fossil fuels cold stores get pilloried by environmentalists, an unwarranted criticism that will be touched on later.

There are many factors influencing cold store energy costs, particularly warehouse size, and some are cheap and easy to improve, like dealing with energy losses at unsuitable doors which lead to ice build up on floors, slipping accidents and more frequent, costly defrosts. A fast payback solution here would be rapid roll PVC doors with crash-out facilities. But even in the best run cold stores, the cost of energy influences the choice of racking in which the overriding consideration is to maximise storage density.

Currently, the most popular forms of cold store pallet racking are drive-in, mobile and live (flow) storage. They all have the advantage of high storage density but all will be compromised by the public's changing food buying patterns if those patterns continue to grow.

One clear trend in the UK over the last five years has been the increase in frozen food sales, thought to be worth about £7.5 billion today. Whatever the reasons for this, like changing public health perceptions that show frozen food in a more favourable light than fresh and chilled food, it is clear that existing pallet racking configurations will not cope as efficiently as before. This is because cold stores need to be able to adopt the storage and picking methods of the chilled and dry grocery product sector, says John Maguire, sales director of Flexi Narrow Aisle, who have been providing articulated, cab-equipped forklifts to the cold store sector for five years. That means much faster access to all pallet loads.

Drive-in racking offers instant selectivity of a poor average of only 30%, based on first in last out. It is also notorious for high damage levels owing to tight tolerances in which forklifts must work. Mobile racking offers 100% selectivity but is ponderously slow as drivers must wait until the appropriate aisle has been opened and only pallets in that aisle can be accessed at any one time. Mobile racking is also three times more costly per pallet stored than conventional, fixed pallet racking (APR). Flow storage is likewise relatively costly and lacks 100% instant pallet access.

Given that frozen food storers now face growing demand for greater and faster pallet selectivity, additional pick face replenishment activity and customer case quantity order assembly, the racking most suitable for that activity is very narrow aisle racking (VNA), which offers 100% instant pallet accessibility. In the light of high energy costs, the most cost-effective choice of forklift must be the articulated truck.

Currently, reach trucks with heated cabs dominate the truck of choice for cold store whole pallet load work, followed by dedicated, man-down VNA machines. Reach trucks, however, need at least 2.5 mt wide aisles in which to work compared with just 1.6 mt for articulated trucks. That means the articulated truck can typically store 33% more pallets in any given cube and 50% more than conventional counterbalanced trucks, which need minimum aisle widths of 3.5 mt. There is also not much price difference between a heated, cab-equipped articulated truck and reach truck, claims Translift Bendi, who have just launched their first heated cab model, the Arctic, for cold stores. Such a truck will cost about £40,000 compared with a reach truck's £35,000 to £40,000. VNA man-down trucks, however, start at around £60,000, plus the cost of rail or wire guidance. They are also slow and inflexible.

The big advantage of heated cabs is that drivers can work a full eight hour shift. Otherwise, accepted practice means drivers should take a 15-minute break in every hour. Cabs are also likely to reduce time lost through driver illness.

In ambient storage, such has been the impact of articulated forklifts that many warehouse operators design their racking arrangements around them. For cold stores now faced with changing food buying patterns, it would be foolish to rely always on previously selected cold store trucks and racking methods.

Environmentalists and food retailers could also take comfort if the trend to more frozen food buying continues. It would mean, for example, less waste than other choices because at present much chilled food fails to sell by its 'best before' or 'sell by' date. Unsold produce, if not drastically cut in price on the sell by date, goes to landfill sites and its disposal costs the food industry millions of pounds every year. Organic foodies may also feel kindlier towards frozen foods as they contain fewer chemicals and preservatives than chilled food because freezing in itself is a preservative.

In the British Isles there are only three manufacturers of articulated forklifts: Translift Bendi, Flexi Narrow Aisle and Aisle Master. In America there is a version of the Bendi produced by Landoll, of Kansas.

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