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:
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."
There's a remarkable variety of lift truck attachments on the market today. Some are applicable to just about any operation, while others are designed for specific products or industries. Among the more common types are side shifters that move the forks to the right or left; fork positioners for adjusting to different-sized loads; multi-pallet handlers; push-pull attachments for palletless loads; and load rotators. Some of the more specialized units include wine barrel handlers, tire clamps, layer pickers (used in the beverage industry to build mixed pallet loads), and vacuum lifters.
Attachment manufactures will even custom-design devices for individual customers or a particular industry. One example is a tipping clamp designed by Cascade Corp. for use by appliance manufacturers when loading cartons of washers, dryers, and the like into tractor-trailers. The clamp allows the forklift driver to maximize trailer utilization by rotating the carton 90 degrees and pushing it into an appropriate-sized space.
Lift truck manufacturers design and produce some of their attachments, but most are manufactured by specialists. Here are just a few of the dozens of companies in this space: