April 11, 2011
material handling update | Lift Trucks

Think before you attach

Think before you attach

Lift truck attachments make specialized product handling more efficient and drivers more productive. But there's a lot to consider before you go out and buy one.

By Toby Gooley

If your lift trucks carry products that are bulky or come in unusual shapes or sizes, then you've probably already figured out that standard-issue forks may not be the best tools for handling them. Or perhaps they do the job well enough but you suspect there's a more efficient way to move those hard-to-handle items.

If that's the case, then it's time to look into buying lift truck attachments. These add-ons improve productivity and reduce damage while making it easier and safer for drivers to handle items that are a little out of the ordinary. Among the more common types are side shifters, multi-pallet handlers, and clamps for paper rolls, barrels, and so forth. (For other examples, see the sidebar at the bottom of this article.)

Although attachments can offer a quick and easy solution to specialized handling problems, there are many things to consider before you buy one. As the experts we consulted made clear, if you want to get the full benefit from this type of equipment, you'll need to "think before you attach."

Who does what?
Most attachments are sold through lift truck dealers, but some attachment manufacturers sell directly to end users. (Several truck makers, by the way, manufacture certain attachments themselves.) Commonly used attachments ordered with a new truck generally are installed by the dealer. "Typically, the customer will look to the dealer to provide the truck and the attachment as one unit that works together," says J.B. Mayes, manager of product strategy for NACCO Materials Handling Group, which includes the Hyster and Yale brand lift trucks.

Dealers also usually handle retrofitting, but the attachment manufacturer should install specialized attachments when neither the forklift manufacturer nor the dealer has experience with the technical aspects of that particular attachment, says Steve Rogers, a program manager with Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc. (MCFA).

Regardless of who does what, the experts urge users to consult with all of the parties involved—the lift truck dealer, the truck manufacturer, and the attachment maker—to ensure that the attachment is right for both the application and the vehicle. "We have a saying: Don't go it alone," says Brad Vandehey, a product manager with the attachment manufacturer Cascade Corp. "Even though an attachment may be quite popular, there are so many variants and nuances that we believe dealers should not be spec'ing them alone. All it takes is to be wrong by one inch to have a $15,000 attachment go south on you."

What to think about
So what kinds of factors should you consider when selecting an attachment? There are more details than we can cover here, but the following are some of the main considerations:

  • Product to be handled, and load weight and size. Obviously, you want an attachment that can safely handle your loads without damaging the product. A driver operating a clamp that was designed for a different type of container or a smaller load, for example, can end up exerting so much pressure that the attachment crushes or cuts the packages.
  • Where the attachment will be used. Think about the width and height of the areas where the attachment will be used. Would the added depth and width of the attachment hamper the lift truck's mobility in narrow or congested aisles, or inside truck trailers and containers? Even a dock plate can add enough height to cause a problem at the trailer's or container's entrance.
  • Frequency of use. Will the attachment be used all the time on every shift, or will it see only occasional use? If the former, then it's probably worthwhile to have a permanent installation on a dedicated truck; if the latter, consider a "quick release" version that can be put on and taken off without special tools so you can use the truck for different applications, says Craig Curtis, product manager for counterbalanced products at The Raymond Corp.
  • Attachment's impact on truck capacity. The weight and size of an attachment has a huge impact on safety and performance. As the attachment moves away from its original position, the load center changes and the weight and dimensions of the attachment will affect the lift truck's stability, load capacity, and the way the driver should operate it, MCFA's Rogers explains. As a result, attachments must be carefully matched to the size of the truck.
    The truck manufacturer is responsible for the integrity of the vehicle's design, and federal regulations require it to certify each truck's lifting capacity at the time it is produced, says Clark Simpson, a sales engineer with Clark Material Handling Co. "The user must make sure the combination of the [truck and attachment] is tested and approved in advance for the rated capacity by the truck manufacturer's engineers. The user has an obligation to obtain the prior written consent of the manufacturer because the attachment will probably lower the truck's capacity," he says.
    After it approves the attachment/truck combination, the lift truck manufacturer will provide a new data plate for the vehicle with updated information on the attachment(s) installed, as well as a "derated" or an "as configured" capacity rating, explains David Land, who oversees the Design Engineering department at Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing (TIEM).
  • Hydraulic system pressure and flow. Hydraulic fluid flow (measured in gallons per minute) and pressure (measured in pounds per square inch) provide the speed and force attachments need to manipulate loads. It's critical, then, that a truck's hydraulic system capacity be adequate and properly adjusted for the needs of both the truck and the attachment, says Matt Ranly, senior product marketing manager for Crown Equipment Corp. As for the type of situation where a mismatch might occur, Raymond Corp. sales engineer Rick Woerter offers the example of a paper industry customer's request for walkie stackers with rotating clamps. The stacker might have a hydraulic flow of three to four gallons per minute, while the rotator attachment would demand five to seven gallons per minute, he says.
  • Battery capacity. Some attachments are quite heavy, so if you operate electric trucks, make sure the battery has sufficient capacity for the additional weight. You may need a bigger battery with more amp hours.
  • Ease of use. If attachments aren't easy to use, drivers will avoid them. That's particularly true in operations where drivers are inexperienced or turnover is high. Attachments that require little or no decision-making or adjustment by the driver are good choices for facilities where operators will be using different trucks and attachments, says Cesar Jimenez, national product planning manager for Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc.
  • Purchase, installation, and freight costs. Do the math and be sure that increased productivity and safety, and a reduction in damage outweigh the cost of the attachment plus installation and freight.

Listen to the engineers
Although you know your operation better than anyone, it's critical that you heed the recommendations of the lift truck and attachment manufacturers' engineers—even when they're unwilling to spec the job as you ask, say the experts consulted for this article. Such instances are few and far between, according to NACCO's Mayes, because the dealers are very knowledgeable and typically have vetted the buyer's request before it ever reaches this stage.

Sometimes, the problem is a capacity mismatch between an existing forklift and the desired attachment, and the solution may be a higher-capacity truck, he says. In other cases, the problem arises because a buyer is unaware of recent changes in attachment design and technology and is basing a request on outdated information, says Cascade Corp. product manager Rick Whiting.

When a manufacturer does say no to a request, it's because the request would affect the safe operation of the truck and put the safety of the driver and other warehouse associates at risk, says Simpson of Clark Material Handling. Sometimes, a request for an attachment can be accommodated by tightly restricting the equipment rating and the circumstances in which the attachment can be used. In any event, it's critical that you make sure the data plate reflects the capacity and any other changes, he adds.

The attachments themselves are not the problem, agrees Crown's Ranly. "They're all safe," he says. "They just have to be spec'd to do what they're supposed to do, and they have to be attached in the way they're designed to be attached."

Whether the issue is safety or efficiency, a lot is riding on your choice of lift truck attachment. After all, says Toyota's Jimenez, "if you use the wrong attachment, then you're not going to accomplish the ultimate goal: moving product more efficiently and at a higher level of productivity."

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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