Material Handling
Thursday | 21 August, 2014 | 8:42 am

Bulk items, narrow aisles

By Gretchen Salois

Rather than fold to the will of Mother Nature, a fabricator finds a better strategy

August 2014 - Businesses try to get lean and more effective using less—whether that’s less manpower or shop space. But as demand grows, meeting customer needs can be difficult. For one company, rather than use common forklifts to transport large bulk items, a more adaptable vehicle was the right solution.

“The material we buy from the mill arrives anywhere from 20 feet to 65 feet long. Moving that around was getting really problematic for us,” says Dale Chermak, production manager at Steel-Tech Industrial Corp., Corona, California. 

In 2004, the company moved from its previous site consisting of two smaller buildings into a single, 75,000-square-foot building. “We had outgrown our earlier facility,” says Chermak. “We have to be able to get 65-foot material around the facility easily and a conventional crane couldn’t do what we needed.”

After having four different vendors come in to demonstrate their equipment—Steel-Tech Industrial chose Combilift, Greensboro, North Carolina, whose headquarters are in Monaghan, Ireland. 

A regular forklift has a central mast in front of the cab, mounted with rugged metal prongs [the fork], and the vehicle moves forward and backward. Combilift offers  a sidewinder option, which means the vehicle can move forward, backward and side to side without turning. The equipment maker places the mast of its C-Series vehicles not directly in front of the operator, but to one side, giving drivers better visibility when traveling. 


Steel-Tech Industrial purchased a 26,000-pound capacity Combilift C-Series in 2005 and bought a second, 12,000-pound capacity unit last year. “Combilift had the most versatile equipment for our needs for both indoor and outdoor operations,” Chermak says. “They have a large range of capacities and configurations.”

Like Steel-Tech Industrial, as companies get leaner, they’ll condense multiple operations into one facility. “While you could extend the building itself—requiring a lot of capital investment, filing for permits—you can instead try narrowing operating aisles where you store product. You can then access narrow aisles using a Combilift,” says Gearoid Hogan, vice president of marketing at Combilift.

Steel-Tech Industrial both fabricates and installs steel support columns for steel-frame buildings. Tilt-up construction, popular in California and a steady request from Steel-Tech Industrial customers, involves contractors pouring concrete panels on the ground. Once completed, the walls are then stood or tilted up. Such buildings are typically used as warehouse and distribution centers. Once the precast walls are erected, they are fastened together by welding them onto the steel beams and columns. 

A side view

A Combilift machine offers a platform on which material can be loaded rather than just the fork configuration. “By being able to place product onto a platform, operators can take away wear and stress from the fork and the mast,” Hogan says. “A traditional forklift does not have a load-supporting platform. With the Combilift, it’s safer because you won’t have product swaying back and forth as they travel around the shop floor. Instead, when the load is resting on the platform, it becomes one with the machine.”

Sideways maneuverability is useful but so is the easy mode change feature that allows the machine to move forward and backward. “You can travel using the sideload option and then change into forward mode by switching the directional lever,” Hogan adds.

Safety is an equally important consideration. “No one wants a 20-foot piece of steel going over someone’s head or truck,” Hogan says.


In control

Each building project is a big undertaking. Recently, Steel-Tech Industrial worked on a church requiring 150-foot-long steel girders. “We had to get those girders to the shop and then move them around, finally placing them on custom trucks to get to the job site,” explains Chermak. “We did the fabrication indoors and moved the material around using the Combilift. It was easy to get the 20,000-pound loads to the specialized trucks. These pieces ended up being 120 feet long and 8 feet wide.”

Chermak emphasizes that all fabrication for this project was done indoors. Prior to owning a Combilift, the company often had to fabricate outdoors in the yard between its two facilities. 

“People like to think it never rains in California, but during our winters, it definitely does,” Chermak says. “We’re not putting jobs on hold due to weather conditions. We don’t have to do any fabrication outdoors in the yard because we can bring the big material in through the 14-foot-wide roll-ups and bring it out to the yard after the job is completed using our Combilift machines.”

Steel-Tech Industrial also completed a  pedestrian bridge for a transit company. The fabricator built 75-foot-long structural components from pipe inside its shop and then transferred the components outdoors. “All that moving was done using the Combilift,” Chermak says. “Had we not had our machine, we would have had to fabricate the material by hand out in the yard where a truck could get to the pieces.”

“Space is definitely an issue for manufacturers,” Hogan says. “Unless you’ve got hundreds of acres available and don’t need to worry about aisle spacing, the ability to store more without compromising accessibility is crucial.”


Combilift’s four-directional capability has been around since 1998 and continues to gain traction in North America. Combilift takes a consultative approach in addressing customer needs and makes an effort to reach customers by demonstrating the machine capabilities at industry trade shows, for example. “We find trade shows are a fantastic opportunity to inform companies on the benefits of using a Combilift,” Hogan says.

While Chermak doesn’t feel the construction market has recovered “with a vengeance,” he does think bidding is still very competitive compared with six to eight years ago. “We’ve been feeling the bite like everyone else [but] we’ve got steady work and we’re hearing from our clients and representatives that this year and next year should be pretty good. For our area in particular, we are seeing a promising future in the construction sector.”

The fabricator has boosted efficiency since using Combilift vehicles. It no longer has to figure out how to move material around the job floor once steel arrives on flatbed trucks. 

“We were in our new building for six months without the Combilift and we could see a huge benefit as soon as we started using it.” Chermak says. MM

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