Monday, 9 December 2013

How articulated forklifts transform warehouse economics

Whenever buying or hiring new forklifts, buyers will often hear about the need to consider life cycle costs above initial truck price because over, say, a five-year hire period the truck's running costs will far exceed initial purchase/rental costs and, therefore, the truck's reliability and productivity, in terms of pallet loads moved per hour, is paramount. Productivity is important because some truck designs and quality make them 20% more productive than competing models but getting to the bottom of the veracity of competing claims is difficult and perhaps viewed with suspicion by potential buyers.

 While it is undeniably critical to put life cycle costs before initial truck cost and be assured of consistently excellent after-sales service, there is another type of cost that can dwarf life cycle costs -- the truck's interface costs. These costs may be defined as how a truck affects overall storage costs, like building costs, rents and rates, utilities and all other running costs, including safety issues.

When, by dint of its versatility, a truck's design combines higher productivity with a huge impact on interface costs, then the case for buying such a truck, despite its higher initial cost than conventional, counterbalance (cb) trucks and reach trucks, is unassailable. The only forklift design that qualifies for this accolade is the articulating truck, yet there still seems to be some convincing to do, perhaps because of conservative inertia over step changes in handling techniques. Such inertia was faced by the British pioneer of articulated forklifts back in the mid 1980s when Translift Engineering, as it was called then, launched the game-changing, articulating Bendi forklift to initial derision from purblind truck competitors who likened it to a Heath Robinson contraption. Today, however, there are now three manufacturers* in the British Isles: Translift Bendi, Narrow Aisle Flexi and Aisle Master.

Interface costs can be key

Counterbalance forklifts, reach trucks and dedicated very narrow aisle (VNA) trucks will not always be the wrong choice, of course, because, as with any large investment in materials handling hardware, careful analysis of stock handling must precede any investment. If forklifts are worked non-stop throughout their shifts (often not the case) then the conventional cb truck could be the most productive in terms of pallets shifted per hour, especially if gas or diesel-powered. But productivity, while important, is often not, or should not be, the decisive factor in the truck choice exercise. Productivity must also be combined with interface cost-cutting issues.

The origins of the articulated truck go back as far as the 1940s when a US Company, Baker, produced a machine that articulated to 45 deg with the aim of reducing the stacking aisle width. Pallets were stacked in a chevron style to help in speed and to achieve smaller aisles. In the early 1950s, Towmotor developed a truck to rotate the load a full 90 deg, much like a modern articulated truck. However, the truck retained all the other counterbalanced design traits so it required two rotating hydraulic support legs that were activated when stacking on either side of the truck. For various reasons it did not galvanise the marketplace in the way that modern articulated trucks have done. It fell to Freddy Brown, inventor of the Bendi design, to apply a new, articulated concept. He found that by reversing the triangle of stability and changing the weight distribution he would solve the issue that had long eluded his pioneering forbears.

Today's articulated forklifts come in a wide range of models, including side loaders, cab-equipped cold-store models and, in the case of Bendi, a pedestrian version and man-up model. The gas and electric articulated trucks can rotate their masts through a 220 deg arc, lift loads up to 12.5 mt and work in aisles only 1.6 mt wide but just how good are they at productivity claims and cutting interface costs?

Proving the claims

The Bendi was developed initially to cut the number of trucks a warehouse operator needed. This can be achieved owing to the articulating truck's versatility that allows it to perform well outside on rough yards loading and unloading lorries and transferring loads directly to narrow aisle or VNA racking. This function is often performed by a cb truck unloading yard vehicles and then placing loads inside for a reach or VNA truck to take over for racking tasks -- a time-wasting exercise that involves two truck types, of which the VNA is far more costly to buy and run than an articulated truck. Significant though this cost-saving advantage is, there are far greater rewards to be had and most are related to space savings.

The two main truck types that compete with articulated machines are the cb forklift and the reach truck, both of which need much wider aisle space. A cb truck typically needs 3.5-mt wide aisles and can stack no higher than about 6.5 mt. A reach truck needs at least 2.6 mt of aisle width but can stack to 12 mt. This means that typically an articulated truck can store 50% and 30% more pallets within a given cube than cb and reach trucks respectively.

It is no wonder with advantages like these the articulated trucks have replaced over 20% of Britain's reach truck market. However, even dedicated VNA trucks are also losing market share to the artics. This is because VNA trucks not only cost far more initially they also require the added costs of rail or wire guidance within aisles, possibly floor upgrades, are more costly to maintain and need more space at aisle ends if they need to change aisles. When they are no longer required owing, perhaps, to the loss of a long-term storage contract, they have a very low resale value. Articulated trucks, however, retain their second-hand value far more than any other truck type.

Instant truck payback

One example should serve to show just how great an impact on warehouse economics and the environment an articulated truck can have when the interface costs are factored in. When warehouse expansion or contraction beckons there are circumstances which can deliver instant forklift payback when a switch from one type of forklift to rented or leased artics occurs. When growing business demands more storage space there are only three means to achieve that: enlarge existing store, rent offsite warehousing and, if possible, make better use of existing storage space. The last of these is by far the least costly. When Stateside Foods, of Bolton, England, was forced by growing demand to expand its factory warehouse storage capacity it simply made better use of space by switching from a fleet of cb and reach trucks to renting two Bendi artics. The former trucks had been working in 3.6-mt wide aisles but the switch to artics meant the aisle widths could be narrowed to 2 mt, allowing far more pallet storage positions. The result was that Stateside could close a satellite cold store 30 miles away and save £250,000 per year, which did not include the costs of handling and transport between the two sites. The result of the truck change was instant forklift payback. It is overwhelming advantages like these which now convince many warehouse operators buying new or redesigning existing premises to realize their plans based on the use of artics.

Among the many other advantages from artics is their undeniably greater safety advantage compared with reach trucks and cb machines through better pallet load vision and lack of rear-end truck swing. Thetford-based Century Logistics, for example, not only gained 25% more productivity than reach trucks and 20% more storage space after switching to artics, it also sharply reduced rack, load and truck damage. In an age when environmental factors and rising energy costs make the best use of storage space more urgent there is no other type of forklift that even remotely comes close to matching the ability of artics to slash interface costs and improve productivity and safety. It is a message, however, that swathes of industry still have not taken on board.
*Translift Bendi:
 Narrow Aisle Flexi:
 Aisle Master:

By switching to articulated forklifts from reach 
and counterbalance trucks Stateside Foods
saved £250,000 a year through closure of its
Satellite cold store 30 miles away from its main
factory and warehouse 


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    1. In case you have not already seen it, you may be interested in my blog of December 24, 2016, headed: "New forklift attachment breakthrough transforms warehouse costs."