Funny how the very same people who wouldn't think of pushing their Integras to go 70,000 miles without an oil change, hauling loads of bricks in their Miatas or allowing a novice to grind up the gears on their new Touaregs behave almost casually when it comes to the welfare of their lift trucks. And it's all the funnier—or maybe not so funny—when you consider that those forklifts they treat so off-handedly cost anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 apiece.
Maybe it's the forklift's reputation as the indestructible workhorse of the warehouse, maybe it's time pressure, maybe it's ignorance. Whatever the cause,that neglect invariably results in premature wear or even a smoking, screeching breakdown.
How can you protect your lift truck investment? Keeping the trucks in prime condition requires a three-pronged approach. First, you match the truck to the job; then you keep up with maintenance; and finally, you operate the trucks as directed by the manufacturer.
The match game
Step one in keeping your lift trucks in top operating condition takes place before the rubber hits the DC floor with the selection process. You have to match the t ruck with the specific job you need done. "Every application is unique in some way, shape or form," says Martin Boyd, manager of product planning at Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. Inc. of Irvine, Calif. " But choosing the right model is absolutely crucial in determining not only how productive the truck will be but also how efficient your overall operation will be."
Figuring out what features you want in a truck requires a lot more than just picking one from column A and two from column B. It's more a matter of sizing up your own operations, says Susan Comfort, marketing director, order-pickers and very narrow aisle products for The Raymond Corp. of Greene,N.Y. "When evaluating trucks for the job, you have to consider all the tasks the operator is required to do," she says. "You also have to consider the load—its weight, length, width, and the height it will be raised to. Then look at the warehouse layout—the aisles and rack staging area—and determine the amount of run time per shift for each truck." But looking at current requirements is not enough, she adds. "You also have to consider and anticipate any changes in the tasks, the loads, the work period and the warehouse."
That attention should extend to the lift-truck attachments and options, too. Pick the wrong fork for a hydraulic-shift truck, for example, and the operator will lose valuable time making up for the shortcoming. Putting a lift truck to work in a paper operation without fitting it with a special clamp to help maneuver paper rolls could make it nearly impossible to move the truck into tight spaces. And using a vehicle in a cold food storage environment without outfitting it with a "cold package" designed to help it adapt to a wide range of temperature variations will cause it to fail soon after driving out of a freezer as condensation builds up on the electronics. When shopping for lift trucks, make sure that you're working with reputable and well-informed dealers. "It's vitally important that your salesperson spend the time to understand how the truck will be used in your specific application," says Boyd. "The two biggest mistakes a lifttruck salesperson can make are to bypass the application survey stage and to base the configuration of the new equipment on old equipment presently being used."
All too often, DC managers ask their dealers to replace "exactly what they have," adds Jon Levine, vice president of counterbalanced product sales at Yale Lift Trucks in Greenville, N .C. "But many times loads or routes have changed since the last time they purchased trucks. You can't assume what was suitable in the past will work for the future."
Just as your applications may have changed, the truck models themselves have likely undergone a few alterations since the last time you were in the market. For instance,says Levine, many of the older trucks advertised as having a 4,000-pound load capacity could actually move more than that—which meant operators weren't afraid to use them to move the occasional 4,500-pound load. Nowadays, however, a truck rated at 4,000 pounds can't go over that limit. Assuming it can and using it for that purpose could cause premature wear or endanger workers.
Staying in shape
As with any vehicle, lift trucks need periodic maintenance to stay in top operating condition. That's a thorough going-over, not just an occasional lube job. " If you don't maintain your lift trucks properly," says Lyle Pichelman, sales engineer at SJF Material Handling in Winsted, Minn., "they'll die on you when you need them the most." A neglected lift truck depreciates rapidly, he warns. "When the time comes to replace it, the value will be a fraction of what it should be."
The obvious way to keep your lift trucks out of the repair bay is to heed the manufacturers' recommended preventative maintenance schedules. "If the repair manual recommends changing the hydraulic fluid every 200 hours, change the fluid every 200 hours," says Boyd.
That also means following the OEM's recommendations to the letter. If, for example, the manufacturer recommends using boron-free engine coolant, don't substitute a cheaper coolant containing boron. That substitution could cause costly and irreversible damage to aluminum intakes and aluminum core radiators. In fact, it may be in your best interest to take the trucks back to the OEM for servicing, says Levine. Today's trucks are more sophisticated than their older counterparts, requiring a great deal of technical know-how on the mechanic's part, he notes."It's not like in the past where a simple fix could do it."
Richard Graumann, manager of aftermarket sales at The Raymond Corp., suggests tracking maintenance and downtime trends to identify vehicles that could be mismatched to their applications or nearing the end of their useful lives.
Daily pre-shift inspections—which are required by OSHA—can alert operators to developing problems, too. Dirk Von Holt, president of Jungheinrith Lift Trucks in Richmond, Va., strongly advocates making it the driver's responsibility to begin his or her shift with a thorough inspection. That includes checking fuel, battery electrolyte, oil and coolant levels as well as the condition of the forks, carriage chains, tires and even the seat belts.
Run it right
Of course no maintenance program can offset the wear and tear caused by screeching stops, stut tering starts and careening turns. Levine says that one of the most common misconceptions about lift-truck operation is that anyone can do it. "There's no reality to the thinking that if you can drive to work, you can drive a forklift truck," he says.
Though OSHA issued specific lift truck training standards in 1999, training efforts still tend to be spotty. Training costs money, to be sure, but managers who take the training requirement seriously will save the company money in the long run. Whether they outsource training or handle it inhouse, operations that follow the protocol laid out in the standard generally have fewer accidents, and therefore, report less down time and enjoy lower insurance rates.
But the benefits don't end with lower insurance rates and less downtime. Training can lead to more productive operations as well. "Operators that have been fully trained on a particular piece of equipment tend to be more comfortable using it because they're familiar with how it will respond in a given situation," says Boyd."Operators who have not gone through the training are often hesitant in certain operating situations because they are not clear on how the lift truck will respond. This hesitancy undoubtedly has an effect on productivity."