By Allan Leibowitz
2021 ended on an optimistic note, with most experts tipping continued growth in the materials handling market.
That positivity has taken a bit of a denting in the wake of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, which has struck manufacturing operations and stretched human resources.
It’s too early to anticipate the impact of the current outbreak, but in positive news, the latest report from the Institute for Supply Management shows that December deliveries improved from the extreme stress level recorded last November.
ISM suggest that economic activity in the manufacturing sector grew in December, with the overall economy achieving a 19th consecutive month of growth.
Chairman Timothy R. Fiore notes that the US manufacturing sector remains in a demand-driven, supply chain-constrained environment, with indications of improvements in labour resources and supplier delivery performance. “Coronavirus pandemic-related global issues — worker absenteeism, short-term shutdowns due to parts shortages, employee turnover and overseas supply chain problems — continue to impact manufacturing,” he says.
But ISM does note strong optimism among its members. ISM’s Semiannual Economic Forecast, released in December, indicates a strong 2022 performance expectation in terms of revenue growth and profitability.
Tim Waples, CEO of UK Material Handling Association, speaking to Forkliftaction News ahead of the latest Omicron surge, noted that industry demand was expected to stay strong this year – although he tipped continuing supply chain disruption “well into (the) year before eventually subsiding”.
Waples adds: “With the COP26 summit focusing attention on the need for cleaner, more sustainable energy, we predict that greener fuel systems will continue to be a focus during 2022.
“It has been interesting to see during 2021 that more companies are specifying lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries for their electric counterbalance trucks, and we expect this trend will continue. While lead acid remains the most common choice of battery power, UKMHA figures show Li-ion has grown to be almost 14% of the electric counterbalance market.”
He also anticipates that development of alternative fuel sources, such as hydrogen fuel cells, is also likely to continue “but, whilst the on-truck technology is increasingly available, we are still some way off from having a commercially viable hydrogen fuel supply for general applications”.
Another trend he identifies is increased automation. “We are also expecting the use of innovative technology to continue delivering advances in both productivity and safety. With labour shortages continuing to influence the sector, we can expect significant growth with the autonomous vehicle sector.”
In the United States, John Paxton, CEO of MHI, also predicts that pandemic-related disruption, shortages and inflation concerns will continue into early 2022, “but then begin to normalise throughout the remainder of the year”.
“We also expect the labour market will remain tight well into 2023,” he says.
MHI is advising its members – and the broader materials handling market – to take advantage of the lessons learned from the pandemic and build resiliency and agility into their operations in preparation to better absorb and even thrive amid future disruptions.
“The pandemic accelerated many supply chain trends and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) is no different. The drivers of ESG are shifting from risk management and supply chain efficiency to the opportunity for financial savings and brand differentiation with customers, employees and other stakeholders. This will be a big driving trend going forward,” he says.
Liz Richards, CEO of MHEDA, is also cautiously optimistic: “Hopefully, most of the challenges surrounding COVID will subside, although it’s still unclear (at the time of this writing) what will happen with potential vaccine mandates.
“By all accounts, business is expected to be robust and demand for materials handling products and services will continue to increase,” she notes.
Adam Smith, managing director of AITT, also anticipates “a more stable year” in 2022. “But we are prepared for the fact that there will likely be a continued transport operator shortage, and there is always the chance that COVID restrictions could once again impact the availability of training. However, companies are much more prepared than they were previously, and hopefully external training will take place with fewer restrictions on site access. But employers may need to accept that the cost of training could rise as a result of high demand.”
Smith’s advice to the industry is to remain compliant. “For our members, the last two quarters of 2021 were extremely busy, and this might continue as they start 2022. It may be tempting to focus on the customer demand during these times, but training providers have a responsibility to do their due diligence in regard to their accreditation. AITT offers a wealth of support to members in the form of up-to-date documentation, legislation guidelines, digital tests, safety resources and more, to help training providers continually deliver high standards of accredited training. Once this current demand for training courses has passed, it may be an opportunity for training providers to stop, take stock, and prepare for potential quiet seasonal periods,” he says.
Ross Moloney, CEO of LEEA, has committed to assuring excellence and compliance to standards and legislation in 2022.
“Changing perceptions through celebrating the incredible role the lifting industry already enjoys continues to be one of the goals of the annual Global Lifting Awareness Day (GLAD), which takes place July and is now established as an important industry-wide scheme,” he says. “I would encourage members to take part. While attracting the next generation of sector recruits, GLAD also helps to highlight the ever-present battle by man, machine, systems and processes to overcome gravity and bad practice to achieve a safer industry.”
At the end of last year, the major industry bodies all had significant training events, conferences and trade shows planned for 2022. It remains to be seen if the events will take place as envisaged or if some will be postponed or converted to virtual events as restrictions come and go.