BITA secretary-general James Clark
The UK forklift market is entering 2018 with uncertainty still suppressing strong underlying demand, according to James Clark, secretary-general of the British Industrial Truck Association (BITA).
"Those best placed to take advantage, when clarity of outcome appears through the fog of political rhetoric, will have positioned their business in anticipation of new opportunities. However, correctly targeting investment prior to the crystallisation of a Brexit outcome requires vision and intelligence," he notes.
Clark identifies Industry 4.0 and the advent of 'big data' as an example of the challenges facing the industry. "Leveraging data to improve efficiency and safety, and mitigating uncertainty risk by increasing flexibility are realistic ambitions. However, clear and measurable goals are required to avoid drowning in a sea of data. It is converting data into useful business information, and acting decisively upon it, that is the real challenge."
In an increasingly complex world, understanding these challenges requires connectivity, not just of equipment, but also of people and organisations, Clark adds. "If a machine generates reliability data, does that data belong to the equipment operator, or to the machine builder? Is it permitted to collect, transmit, or trade data that identifies a machine operator? Understanding these questions, finding the answers, and lobbying for a favourable regulatory landscape require social connectivity."
Trade associations are a respected repository of knowledge, and provide a forum for pooling experience and unifying an industry sector voice, he stresses. This "collaborate and compete" ethos integrates stakeholders, vertically and horizontally, to provide a trusted interface between industry, users and the authorities.
Another challenge facing the UK market is the 'Brexodus' of the EU workers on which the UK's logistics sector has come to rely in recent years, according to Rob Fisher, event director, IMHX 2019.
"Recent statistics show that in the 12 months following the Brexit vote, net UK migration fell by 106,000 - the largest drop ever recorded in a single year - with EU citizens accounting for more than three quarters of the deficit."
This drop has added to the industry's long-standing labour problem. "And, while fewer European workers appear to be available for work in distribution centres, the UK consumer's appetite for buying goods over the internet remains undiminished," he explains.
"This concern over a possible shortage of labour post-Brexit is creating a strong focus on automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, and to ensure they are able to offer consumers the service they have come to expect, when labour is becoming harder to find, many fulfilment specialists are beginning to automate their operations by bringing goods to the person.
"From the bookings we have already taken and the interest being expressed in IMHX 2019 from some of the leading names in the automation, robotics and artificial intelligence fields, it is clear that these technologies will play an increasingly significant role in the future of UK supply chains," says Fisher.
The UK ended 2017 on a high note, with sales of trucks rising by 8.2% year-on-year, reaching 33,407 by the end of the third quarter.
This was the third successive quarter of growth, painting a picture of a sector that can withstand short-term economic fluctuations, according to BITA's Clark.
"Despite the uncertain economic environment, forklift sales have continued their recovery from the downturn seen during H2 of 2016, particularly in the retail distribution and manufacturing sectors," Clark said.