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Material Handling
Monday | 18 August, 2008 | 8:14 am

Turning corners

By John Loos

As children's block-based toys reiterate, a square peg will never fit into a round hole. However, this seemingly hard-and-fast rule doesn’t apply to a forklift operator, who may have the daunting task of maneuvering a 48-foot steel beam through a 12-foot doorway.

When it comes to handling the long and awkward loads common in the metals industry, obstacles, both environmental and mathematical, are a constant. Because of this, each solution is a combined assessment of space, maneuverability and safety. Finding new and effective three-pronged solutions is the continual goal of Combilift Co., Greensboro, N.C., a specialist in long-load handling vehicles.

Founded in 1998, Combilift is a relatively new name to the long-load handling scene, but in its short time in existence, it's become one of the top 20 lift truck suppliers worldwide.

"It's quite a remarkable achievement," says Gearoid Hogan, marketing manager for Combilift, noting that there are more than 300 lift truck suppliers worldwide. Whereas in its first year it manufactured 18 units, today Combilift builds more than 2,000 units a year. Being a specialized company gives Combilift more freedom to listen to specific concerns and requests from customers. And, sometimes, from these conversations, innovative new products are developed.

Customary innovation
Even at the beginning, Combilift was thinking in innovative terms. Its flagship product, the Combilift C8000, was the world’s first engine-powered, multidirectional forklift. While immediately popular, the company soon found, through customer feedback, the market need for an improved sideloading machine.

"When we were supplying trucks to them, a lot of these steel service centers were using a traditional sideloader, which moves left to right and doesn't have the multidirectional capability," says Hogan. "What happened was, a customer said 'hey, we love your multidirectional Combilift. Could you make a pure sideloader fit down our existing aisle?' So we went back to the drawing board and put out a new sideloader a couple years ago to address that need."

From that customer suggestion, the GT range of Combilift sideloaders was born. Today, Combilift has three distinct series of trucks, each customizable to fit a company's unique material handling needs. The C-Series of lifts, the original Combilift product, has maximum load capacities from 5,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds, has multidirectional capabilities and can lift materials to heights of up to 30 feet. It's available in electric, diesel and LP gas versions. The GT-Series of sideloaders, designed for narrow-aisle use, has models with load capacities ranging from 6,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds, can reach heights of up to 30 feet and is available in electric, diesel or LP gas models. Finally, the SL-Series of multidirectional sideloaders has models with loading capacities ranging from 10,000 pounds to 12,000 pounds, can lift materials to heights of 22 feet and comes in diesel and LP gas versions.

That’s only the beginning in terms of customization. "There's no off-the-shelf Combilift," says Hogan. "Some metal service companies will need a higher mast or a special platform, maybe with a slope deck or a hydraulic fork positioning. There's a whole array of different options they can choose from and, in a lot of cases, we may not have that option until it's brought to our attention by that customer. In consultation with that customer, we develop a model to meet their needs."

Lifting burdens
The benefits of a lift truck that works fluidly within a warehouse or storage yard, as opposed to one that has to work around physical obstacles and complicated layouts, are incalculable. Because of this, Combilift is quick to point out the safety-enhancing features and effects of its trucks. Getting an awkward load from point A to point B both faster and safer may seem like an oxymoron to some, but with Combilift, Hogan says, it's possible.

"If you offload, say, a 48-foot structural beam, a lot of regular forklifts would have that load raised up in the air and would have to travel at a slower pace because of the stability of the truck," he says. "They need to ensure the beam doesn’t rock too much on the fork. If the beam hasn't been pushed up on center, it could lead to an accident. With a Combilift truck, if you offload a trailer, you have the ability to pull the product in toward the truck and rest it on the platform, which helps stabilize the load. You're making it become one, if you like, with the truck. And you're taking the wear and the stress off the fork and the mast, so you’re also helping from a maintenance standpoint."

For Southeastern Metals (Semco), Jacksonville, Fla., awkward loads are its main business. The company produces more than 3,000 galvanized, steel and aluminum building components, and a bundle of its products can measure up to 48 feet long and weigh as much as 5,000 pounds. Semco was Combilift's first U.S.-based customer and is still using the same sideloader that it purchased more than nine years ago.

"Before the Combilift, we had a sideloader, which was a beast of a machine," says Jim Horton, head of product development at Semco. "It was cumbersome at best. With the Combilift’s spider-like maneuverability, long lengths aren’t difficult to thread through a facility to get to a truck for loading.

"The way our facility is set up makes it difficult to maneuver long panel lengths through the plant," he says. "This piece of equipment is compact, and the directions that it can move in are unbelievable. Its unique drivetrain underneath allows it to go in any direction. It can snake through the plant from the metal roofing department all the way to our curtain-side trailers."

At one point, Horton considered trading in the company’s original Combilift in order to purchase the latest model. When he discovered that the dealer he was negotiating with had plans of selling it to one of Semco's competitors, Horton decided that there was no need to give it up just yet. His old model was in tip-top condition.

"It might not have been fair [to keep the old one], but we don't want to give up any advantage," he explains. "The only downside for Combilift is that we haven't worn it out yet."

Combilift's relationship with the metals industry has been strong, says Hogan. The company specifically developed the GT Combilift for companies in the industry, and the majority of those companies use the multidirectional, C-Series Combilift. That relationship is reinforced by the fact that Combilift can tailor one of its trucks to meet the metal service industry’s requirements. No matter the facility floor plans, Combilift aims to make its products fit. MM

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