Most large forklift makers offer dozens of models in multiple classes—so many combinations that the full product lineup would likely make your head spin. You might think, then, that all you’d need to do is find what you want, and then buy or lease that model off the shelf, so to speak.
While it is possible to do that, it may not be advisable. To achieve the greatest productivity at the lowest total cost, a truck must be able to efficiently perform the tasks required for a particular application. Furthermore, each operation has its own unique mix of people, products, processes, and infrastructure, governed by facility- or company-specific performance standards. In most cases, a “vanilla” forklift simply won’t cut it.
To get exactly what you need, consider customizing your trucks. In the forklift world, “customizing” can include anything from ordering special mast designs, to adding attachments and accessories, to custom-configuring onboard software … and much, much more. With hundreds of standard and special-order options to choose from, today’s fleet managers can spec the ideal trucks for their operation.
The point of customization is to create a piece of equipment (in essence, a specialized tool) that works for your specific situation in the most efficient and productive manner, says Troy Kaiser, strategic account executive at Toyota Material Handling.
At a more granular level, there are a multitude of reasons to customize. For example, changes in a company’s business model, customers, or products may mean that forklifts that were right for the job when they were leased or purchased will need modifications to handle those new requirements, says Jim Hess, director, warehouse business development for Yale Materials Handling Corp.
Brandon Bullard, director of sales and marketing for Clark Material Handling Co., most commonly sees customization in the warehouse industry, where no two operations are exactly the same. He attributes that demand to the tremendous variety of products being handled—everything from small consumer items in e-commerce to long, heavy rolls of carpet, to name just two of myriad possibilities.
“Aggressive application of customization” is typical in freight handling, especially in less-than-truckload (LTL) transportation, where volumes, product profiles, and pallet configurations are highly variable, says Toyota’s Kaiser. Among the many examples he has seen are a special mast winch and straps to secure nonstandardized loads and onboard scales to ensure correct billing and prevent overloading of trailers.
In some applications, customization is an absolute necessity. In cold storage facilities, mesh mast guards to prevent the guard from freezing up and batteries that perform well in cold conditions are critical, says Susan Comfort, senior manager, technology solutions and marketing at The Raymond Corp. Modifications that help operators more easily (and safely) handle heavy, bulky loads are a must in industries like furniture distribution and auto parts. She cites the example of a customer that special-ordered a truck with four forks to handle wide, heavy mufflers (see photo).
Hess notes that in chemical and aerosol handling, any electrical components that generate sparks must be fully enclosed. In food processing, acidic brine, frequent washdowns, and moisture “can eat away at standard trucks,” so galvanized equipment with materials and coatings that help protect against rust and corrosion are needed to help prolong the life of the linkage system, wheels, bearings, and other components.
Customization is not just about load handling, though. The struggle to retain workers is creating demand for operator- and application-specific customization, such as onboard storage for frequently used items, seating options, changes in lift truck dimensions, and controls that accommodate operators of different sizes. More and more, customers are having operators weigh in on what options and accessories they need on the equipment they will be using, observes Christopher Grote, senior marketing product manager at Crown Equipment Corp.
Operator safety plays a prominent role in customization. “Caring for associates is a very big topic now,” and customers increasingly are asking for modifications that will help keep operators safe, says Rob Webb, executive vice president of customer solutions at Toyota Material Handling dealer Southern States Toyotalift. Another operator-related trend revolves around training reinforcement, says Shannon Curtis, very narrow aisle product manager for The Raymond Corp. She is seeing requests for programming more granular detail—such as information on an individual operator in a specified time frame—into telematics systems that track trucks’ locations, collect operators’ data, and record impacts.
All those examples are just the tip of the customization iceberg. Fortunately, forklift makers are ready for anything you might throw at them. And in many cases, you won’t need to select modifications or accessories individually. For some industries, such as cotton/fiber and foundry/brick, or for temperature-controlled or very dusty environments, “customers can select predetermined packages that already include all the modifications necessary to increase productivity,” notes Victor Cruz, director of North America dealer sales for Mitsubishi Logisnext Americas.
Forklift providers offer long lists of standard options—sometimes hundreds of them—that are designed to enhance safety and productivity. Some options are available for most or all of a manufacturer’s models, while some are specific to a class or model. But those lists of standard options, while dizzyingly comprehensive, do not cover all the possibilities. For unusual or unique requirements that the standard options can’t fulfill, manufacturers offer “special engineering,” also known as “special requests” or “special design.” Such nonstandard customizations represent anywhere from 20% to more than half of the forklift orders shipped by the companies we spoke with for this article.
Special design is complicated. The request must be evaluated by the manufacturer’s engineers, who will consider it not only from the standpoint of feasibility (can the production line manufacture it) but also in terms of safety, performance, and standards compliance for the specific forklift model—verifying that the requested modification “won’t compromise the integrity of the truck,” as Toyota’s Kaiser puts it. Just a few examples of special requests: nonstandard dimensions for overhead guards that will be driven into racking; a shorter wheelbase and taller mast to enable a particular model to reach higher than normal in tight spaces; and modifications that allow heavier pallets to be lifted higher. It may even make sense to consider changes in the physical dimensions of the forklift by, for example, changing the width of a turret truck to meet density goals, says Crown’s Grote. Not surprisingly, this kind of customization can be costly. If the manufacturer previously provided a similar modification to another customer, though, that may reduce the cost.
Customization that requires engineering changes, such as those affecting the forklift’s capacity, measurements, and performance, will be done at the factory. The same applies to technology-related items like speed governors that allow faster lift and lower speeds, and terminal hookups for onboard computers and scanners. Raymond’s Comfort cites software that can be configured for individual customers by turning on certain features, such as controls on how high operators can lift when they’re outside of specified areas.
Local dealers can install less complex add-ons, such as the blue or red pedestrian-alert lights now in wide use, Webb says. While local dealers usually lead the engagement with the end-user, they will bring in subject-matter experts from the forklift or attachment manufacturer when needed, he notes.
Options that are added by the dealer can often be ordered as a package, with the cost built into the price of the forklift. According to Bullard, that approach is typical when a lease or a bank loan is involved, because the loan will be based on the total cost of the equipment.
Increasingly, though, optional accessories and attachments are being installed at the factory. One reason is that it may simply be less expensive to do it that way. Another is that, in the case of an attachment, there’s no need to coordinate delivery of the truck and the attachment, or wait for the attachment manufacturer’s technician to arrive and install it.
While forklift makers want to be as accommodating as possible, there are times when they have to say no to a customer’s request. Sometimes that’s because the modification is not economically viable for small order quantities, Cruz notes. Most rejections, though, are for safety reasons. “We try to be flexible, but safety is the litmus test for any customization. If we cannot safely lift the load, then we won’t make that modification,” Bullard says, adding, “It’s not that the request is unsafe; it’s that the configuration they’re asking for can’t be accomplished and still provide a safe product.”
Curtis says her company has a similar policy: “We steer customers away from any customization that would not be in compliance with the American National Standards Institute’s standards for low-lift and high-lift trucks,” she says.
Hess emphasizes that any changes or additions, including those you want to make yourself, should be discussed with your local dealer and the lift truck manufacturer to make sure they meet the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards that apply to forklifts. “You must get modification approval from the factory,” he says, adding that “in many cases, we’ve already approved something similar for another customer and can assist with getting the approval.”
Once you and your forklift provider have determined that customization is the right way to go, there are many considerations to keep in mind as you evaluate the options. Experts we consulted for this article offered the following advice:
The path toward customization begins with asking questions, no matter how theoretical or far-fetched they might seem. Every forklift maker has a group of talented engineers whose job is to solve technical problems and design custom solutions, so “don’t be afraid to ask for anything!” Kaiser advises. “We will look at your request, and if there are things we cannot do, we will come up with alternate solutions and do whatever we can to make them work for you.”