Counterbalance forklifts are one of the cornerstones of materials handling, offering versatility and an almost bewildering range of options. Melissa Barnett
looks at some of the trends and applications for these vehicles.
Many and varied
Counterbalance forklifts are essentially forklifts designed with a counterweight at the rear of the machine to balance the weight being carried by the forks at the front. The higher the mast lift and the heavier the load, the more counterweight is needed at the rear. The design is meant to stabilise conventional forklifts.
In an electric counterbalance forklift, the battery often forms the counterweight.
Counterbalance forklifts can be found in practically every manufacturer's product range. They are manufactured in a variety of sizes and configurations, and use a range of fuel sources. They can be fitted with pneumatic or solid tyres, on three wheels or four and used in a multitude of applications. The vehicles are fitted with any number of accessories, options and attachments, including side shifts, fork shifts, hydraulic clamps, and slip sheet attachments, to name just a few.
Counterbalance forklifts are the cornerstone of storage and distribution systems where they perform unloading, loading, stacking and horizontal transport functions. Standard warehouse forklifts are usually used for lift heights under 6 metres (20 feet), although more recent models have lifting heights to 9.5 metres (31 feet). The smaller 1-1.8 tonne (4,000lb) forklifts are the workhorses of most warehouses and the piece of equipment most small businesses would own. The standard warehouse counterbalance forklift is a wide-aisle truck which requires at least 3 metres (11 feet) to turn in.
However, counterbalance forklifts aren't confined to the warehouse. They are also used for container carrying and heavy use and almost everything in-between. A counterbalance forklift is the most versatile and widely used of all materials handling equipment.
Why use a counterbalance?
Jürgen Wrusch, international communications officer for STILL, says that counterbalance forklifts make ideal warehouse equipment because they are flexible and capable of multiple tasks, and can be deployed outside or inside and on a range of surfaces. He explains that "during a single shift, a counterbalance forklift can stack pallets, transport containers, pull trailers and load and unload trucks. In addition, their lift, driving speed and acceleration can be quickly and easily adjusted to suit the circumstances and load".
Christine Nolland, national marketing manager for Linde MH in Australia, adds that counterbalance forklifts provide better cycle times because there is no need to wait for reach functions to access the load.
Low noise and reduced emissions from electric and LPG-powered counterbalance forklifts makes them the best choice in more sensitive environments. Lower emissions also mean that stock is kept cleaner.
Because of their versatility and durability, counterbalance forklifts are found in a wide range of working environments, including production, warehousing and retail. Industrial applications can include chemical, timber, automotive and food. Counterbalance forklifts are often used in unusual or difficult working environments, such as cold rooms, foundries and the fishing industry, where very specific demands are placed on their capabilities. To improve durability, the forklift will often be modified for the operation with special finishing or other treatments.
Maximal Forklift Company recently unveiled its new range of Max-Ex, explosion-proof forklifts. Maximal, in collaboration with the Pyroban Group, modified the Maximal FB series to suit hazardous environments. Maximal plans to introduce Max-Ex forklifts designed specifically for the oil and gas industries in 2011.
A harsh working environment often means that forklift performance and longevity are compromised, prompting Crown Equipment to develop the C-5 , the company's first foray into the IC (internal combustion) counterbalance market. Crown found that class 4 counterbalance forklifts (sit-down, pneumatic-tyred forklifts), traditionally required frequent maintenance and had shortened life-spans, often due to clogged radiators when working in dusty environments, such as recycling plants.
The C-5 at one such recycling site is required to pick-up and empty bins into a large processing machine, often operating in hot, wet and sludgy conditions. In addition the area experiences clouds of small, powdery particles created by the processing cycle. The previous machines were constantly going into thermal cutback or shutting down due to over-heating. The C-5 attempts to alleviate this with its On-Demand Cooling system which automatically clears the radiator of debris and provides precise cooling to effectively manage heat.
RICO Equipment specialises in custom-built forklifts, particularly those for extreme environments, such as foundries. RICO spokesman Patrick Robinson cites the RICO Pegasus P400 series of counterbalance forklifts which have been adapted for furnace use. "In forging plants, counterbalance forklifts are used with a special attachment on them to remove cast ingot or billets from furnaces. From the furnace, the cast ingot goes to a die-casting machine," he explains.
Environmental concerns are driving change towards cleaner fuel sources such as electric, hydrogen and hybrid fuel cells. Many manufacturers of counterbalance forklifts are investigating the new technologies and a number of recent innovations have been trialled on counterbalance trucks, including the STILL RX 70 hybrid diesel and Toyota's Geneo-Hybrid, 3.5 tonne diesel-electric.
Crown Equipment Corporation is also pushing the boundaries, with a fleet of 20 sit-down counterbalance forklifts upgraded with hydrogen-powered fuel cell power packs at the Defense Distribution Depot at the Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, in the United States.
Eric Jensen, manager of research and development for Crown, describes the partnership with fuel cell providers Hydrogenics and CTC as "a great opportunity as it showcases our efforts for integrating fuel cell technology in the material handling arena".
Greater efficiencies in the running of counterbalance forklifts are also driving innovation. The Blue-Q energy-saving program by STILL utilises autopilot technology to optimise the drive system and shut down unnecessary electrical auxiliary functions on the forklift. STILL believes that up to 20% of the forklift's energy consumption can be reduced. Blue-Q is fitted on all STILL's electric counterbalance forklifts and is now in series production on their ICE forklifts.
Linde's H3K hydrostatic drive system has been in evolution for 50 years. Unlike a mechanical drive system's operation, the Linde H3K transmits its power via closed oil circulation to the two motors of the drive wheels. The system does away with a differential, clutch and gearbox. Brakes are not needed either: dual-pedal control ensures that the truck travels either forwards or backwards, and when the pedal is released, the vehicle stops automatically. The cost benefits of the hydrostatic drive result in a 30% saving in fuel expenses and oil only needs to be changed every 6,000 hours. Tyre wear is also minimised.
Forklift drivers in most countries require a separate forklift driver's licence to operate a counterbalance.
One of the key requirements of the licence is an understanding of the need to remain seated in the event of a tip-over or fall. Conventional, forward seating positions on counterbalance forklifts can mean safer operation, says Nolland. She also points out that conventional controls used on counterbalance forklifts mean that new staff can be trained faster and need only minimal familiarisation before being competent in operation. Andy Smith, marketing product manager for Crown Equipment, adds that because the controls are similar to those in cars, operators feel more at home with them, so training is straightforward.
While demand for counterbalance forklifts remains strong, there are mixed reports about the choice between IC and electric powerplants. There are a number of factors influencing the sales of electric counterbalance forklifts, including the rising cost of refuelling batteries and operation time lost during re-charging. Nor can electric counterbalance trucks match the durability of their IC counterparts in all weather conditions.
Manufacturers are addressing some of these issues. Linde, for example, has a slide-out option on its E20PH electric counterbalance series, allowing for a battery change to be performed by one person with an electric pallet jack.
The fact that counterbalance forklifts cover such a wide range of designs and capabilities leads Linde's Nolland to believe that counterbalance forklifts will always be the choice for outdoor and heavy-duty environments, but decisions for other applications will be based on which product best suits the client's need and, therefore, the range of counterbalance forklifts will only expand.
Dirk Luyten, spokesman for Hyundai, also recognises that the applications for counterbalance forklifts are becoming more specialised and that the trucks as well as their attachments are now being developed for specialised applications.
Counterbalance forklifts are the backbone of the materials handling industry. Monica Escutia, senior communications co-ordinator for Caterpillar, EAME believes counterbalance forklifts will be around for many years to come. "We will see counterbalance forklifts using new power sources and better driver ergonomics in the future, as well as other exciting innovations, but it will remain the true workhorse within logistics," she concludes.