Materials handling in specialised environments

Matthew McDonald -
Local Feature Article
- 15 Feb 2024 ( #1166 )
9 min read
The demands placed on a forklift at a busy construction site are quite different from those of a warehouse
The demands placed on a forklift at a busy construction site are quite different from those of a warehouse

It is always worth remembering that no two materials handling operations are the same. The demands placed on a forklift at a busy outdoor construction site are quite different from those of a state-of-the-art ‘warehouse of the future’.

Likewise, the requirements of an operation at a petrochemical plant are a world away from the demands of an urban pastry-making facility.

With this in mind, here follows an examination of the various types of specialised materials handling environments, along with a selection of some of the latest products designed with the unique conditions in mind.

Rough Terrain

Negotiating rough terrain is an obvious factor when operating forklifts outside.

Forklifts in Hangcha's Rough Terrain series feature a wide body that can carry irregular and oversized cargo
Forklifts in Hangcha's Rough Terrain series feature a wide body that can carry irregular and oversized cargo

“When traditional forklifts operate in harsh outdoor conditions, they often encounter issues such as difficulty climbing slopes, tyre slippage, getting stuck in mud pits and being unable to overcome higher obstacles,” says Shi Bingwei, senior engineer at Hangcha.

“In these settings, it is necessary to choose a forklift model with higher engine power and a chassis with a higher clearance. Sometimes, additional measures such as adding anti-slip measures are needed to enhance the forklift's ability to get out of difficult situations.”

Asked about Hangcha’s offerings in this space, Bingwei points to the company’s rough terrain forklift series, which he says are ideal for uneven and solid surfaces such as mountains, plateaus, snowy areas, construction sites, mines, orchards, pastures and rugged terrains.

“The vehicles in this series have a wide body that can carry irregular and oversized cargo. They boast a high ground clearance, enabling them to traverse obstacles on the terrain,” says Bingwei.

“Equipped with four-wheel drive and rough terrain tyres, they exhibit excellent off-road performance and can operate in harsh conditions like mud and rugged terrain.”

Accessibility

As well as negotiating difficult terrain, according to Palfinger North America’s product manager for truck-mounted forklifts, Jason Gaydos, simply transporting the materials to the site where they will be used can also be difficult.

Accessibility is an important consideration when transporting materials for outdoor use
Accessibility is an important consideration when transporting materials for outdoor use

“Often the delivery truck with the forklift can’t access or go off pavement to get as close as possible to where the load is required by their customer,” says Gaydos.

“Furthermore, drivers do not want to risk getting a loaded flatbed tractor trailer or straight truck stuck on the job site, which would mean down time and a costly tow service.”

In these cases, employing a product like the 2,268 kg capacity Palfinger FHS 55 Series truck-mounted forklift represents an effective solution.

A forklift capable of between 15% and 30% gradeability (depending on model and feature), it enables the spot delivery of the equipment as close as possible to the desired location, whether that happens to be up a narrow mountain driveway or down a busy city side street.

“Often drivers do not have the luxury of open areas to unload the truck or trailer from both sides,” says Gaydos. “That is why we developed a patented double reach system that allows the operator to park and unload the entire cargo form one side. This is better known in our industry as single-sided unloading.”

Pointing out that ergonomics and safety of both operators and bystanders were priorities when developing the forklift, Gaydos adds that the company also wanted a product that could handle dirt, rain, winter road salt, summer heat, extreme cold, gravel, sugar sand and the various other physical challenges associated with working outdoors.

Explosion proof forklifts

In some environments, such as those found in chemical processing, pharmaceutical production, paint and coating manufacturing, the petrochemical sector and even food and beverage manufacturing, the potential hazards involved in materials handling can be very serious indeed.

Rico Manufacturing offers various products suitable for environments in which the presence of flammable gases, vapours or dust makes explosions possible
Rico Manufacturing offers various products suitable for environments in which the presence of flammable gases, vapours or dust makes explosions possible

“The primary challenge of operating in environments such as these is the risk of ignition due to the presence of flammable gases, vapours or dust,” says Jesse Kloos, director of engineering at Rico Manufacturing.

A North American leader in the production of explosion proof (EX) forklifts, Rico offers a range of products suitable for use in such environments.

According to Kloos, the company maintains explosion proof certification from Nationally Recognised Testing Laboratories (NRTL) for high lift straddle trucks, reach stackers, pallet trucks, platform trucks, sit down, standup and walk behind counterbalance trucks, tow tractors and crane trucks.

“Rico EX trucks can be used within any environment that has been classified as class I, division 1, group D and class II, division 1 and group G hazardous locations,” says Kloos.

Rico offers extensive EX industrial truck operational and maintenance training to ensure end users can safely maintain their Rico products.

“We also offer a compliance inspection program to ensure aging units still comply with all regulations and can operate safely in an EX environment. An explosion-proof truck is a big investment and we want to help our customers extend their return on investment on these units,” says Kloos.

Hygiene

Unlike the challenges of operating outdoors, materials handling in food manufacturing settings involve considerations such as meeting hygiene standards and the capacity to operate in cold storage facilities.

Superlift Material Handling's Straddle Truck is suitable for both food and pharmaceutical production
Superlift Material Handling's Straddle Truck is suitable for both food and pharmaceutical production

“Food production requires the daily cleaning of most or all of the equipment in production facilities. Equipment has to be treated with harsh chemicals then washed down,” says Superlift Material Handling president Gerry Erwin.

Superlift’s product range includes a complete line of stainless steel products, which are suitable for both food and pharmaceutical production.

“Our lift equipment is built with these daily cleansings in mind. We have to ensure the equipment is designed in such a way that when water is on the equipment it does not pool,” says Erwin. “Cracks and crevices are to be avoided and the chemical needs to reach all areas of the equipment so that bacteria will be eliminated.”

At the same time, drainage and the capacity for air drying are also important design criteria.

Erwin says 316 stainless steel, which is anti-magnetic and less prone to rust than 304 stainless steel, is the material of choice for the range.

Cold storage

Considering the perishable nature of the materials involved, cold storage is another crucial element of food and beverage manufacturing environments.

Materials handling equipment used in food production settings has to handle temperatures as low as -30°C
Materials handling equipment used in food production settings has to handle temperatures as low as -30°C

“The most common form of extreme environment that we encounter with our warehouse equipment is the cold store environment with temperatures down to -30°C,” says Paul Boynton, group product manager – very narrow aisle (VNA) and simulation at Logisnext.

According to Boynton, the company offers adaptations to many of its warehouse products to allow them to operate in such conditions.

“These can include replacing the hydraulic fluid with a version designed for cold temperatures, rust protection on various surfaces, changes of drive wheel material and replacing fabric in the operator's seat with PVC covering,” he says.

In the most extreme cases, where temperatures drop towards the temperatures mentioned above and operators require protection for the whole shift, a heated cabin option is available.

“This is most common on the reach trucks where the enclosed cabin includes a heater with automatic or manual temperature and fan control for maximum operator comfort and stepless choice of recirculation for quick heating or fresh air intake,” says Boynton, adding that heated cabins are also available for the company’s VNA trucks.

Cold temperatures like this also have implications for battery operated forklifts.

Green Cubes' lithium SAFEFLex batteries solve the problem of operating in cold environments
Green Cubes' lithium SAFEFLex batteries solve the problem of operating in cold environments

“Lead acid batteries suffer from severe performance degradation when used at cold temperatures, due to freezing electrolyte,” notes Robin Schneider, director of marketing at Green Cubes Technology.

“This is primarily a problem during charging. Traditionally, the forklift would be driven out of the freezer, where the battery can be charged safely at ambient temperature.

“The temperature needs to equilibrate with a total charging time of more than eight hours; for multiple shifts, batteries must be swapped and stored in a dedicated battery room. In addition to the inconvenience, there is danger of workplace injuries due to condensation.”

Designed as direct replacements for traditional lead acid batteries, Green Cubes’ lithium SAFEFLex batteries effectively solve this problem. Equipped with heaters that maintain the battery at a safe temperature when charging, they ensure that forklifts can be opportunity charged within the freezer in about an hour without battery swaps or watering.

“This simplified process eliminates the need for a battery room and mitigates the danger from condensation,” says Schneider.


Forklifts used in specialised environments … are experiencing rapid growth. This growth significantly enhances logistical efficiency. These forklift types expedite handling tasks, saving labour and increasing work efficiency.

Shi Bingwei, Senior Engineer, Hangcha

A communicative approach

Another leading supplier, Logitrans (formerly Interthor), offers a range of stainless steel stackers, highlifts, pallet jacks and drum turners suitable for use in pharma clean rooms and food grade cold environments.

“We work together with partners in the various industries and from their feedback we construct products which will live up to the demands that they have,” says Jesper Jorgensen, vice president of sales at Interthor (now Logitrans).

Interthor offers a range of stainless steel stackers, highlifts, pallet jacks and drum turners for food grade cold environments
Interthor offers a range of stainless steel stackers, highlifts, pallet jacks and drum turners for food grade cold environments

Illustrating the effectiveness of this approach, Jorgensen pointed to the example of French retail group Carrefour. As used in one of that organisation’s production facilities, Logitrans’s Rotator solved the problem of a bottleneck associated with handling large trays filled with crushed ice for cooling fresh fish.

A daily delivery of four big trays each containing 300kg of crushed ice had created a slow, time-consuming and physically stressful task for employees, who had to manually scoop the ice from the trays to the show racks to keep the fresh fish cold. This was a static movement, which caused back injuries and strains on the employees.

Now installed, the Rotator lifts and rotates the big trays 90 degrees and then allows the employees to quickly empty the trays without awkward or stressful movements. As a result, workflow was optimised, and a safer working environment was created.

Other considerations

It’s worth asking, at this point, how the implementation of the above-mentioned materials handling equipment affects the broader concerns of businesses. How do they affect performance, efficiency, sustainability and so forth?

Green Cubes’ Robin Schneider offers a nuanced response to this question.

“Specialised environments present a unique challenge for the adoption of technologies, like Li-ion batteries, because they typically do not represent a large enough market share to justify the cost to make unique solutions to fit the requirements. Without economics of scale, these applications are likely to be the later adopters of new technology,” she says.

At the same time, however, she sees a strong future for these types of products.

She says that new legislation, such as the California Air Resources Board (CARB) law, which aims to cut forklift emissions, improve the state’s air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions are likely to drive solutions for these unique environments faster than would happen organically.

For his part, Hangcha’s Shi Bingwei is particularly positive.

“Forklifts used in specialised environments … are experiencing rapid growth. This growth significantly enhances logistical efficiency. These forklift types expedite handling tasks, saving labour and increasing work efficiency,” he says.

“It is crucial for enterprise, reducing costs, improving productivity and thereby boosting competitiveness. As these benefits accumulate, they have the potential to significantly drive the development of various industries.”

In other words, they are well worth the investment for organisations looking to move forward and improve their bottom lines.

 

For more information on the products our contributors have designed to help meet the challenges of materials handling in harsh and specialised environments, please visit this dedicated Virtual Showroom


For this report we interviewed the following industry specialists:

 

Shi Bingwei
Senior Engineer

Hangcha 

 

Jason Gaydos
Product Manager (truck-mounted forklifts)
Palfinger North America 

 

Jesse Kloos
Director of Engineering
Rico Manufacturing 

Read more.

 

Gerry Erwin
President
Superlift Material Handling 

Read more.

 

Paul Boynton
Group Product Manager – very narrow aisle (VNA) and simulation
Logisnext - Cat Lift Trucks 

Read more.

 

Jesper Jorgensen
Vice President of Sales
Logitrans (formerly Interthor) 

Read more.

 

Robin Schneider
Director of Marketing
Green Cubes Technology 

 

 

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