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October, 2006

Material Handling Products

From taller racks to more nimble forklifts, faster and more efficient material handling capabilities mean more money in your pocket.

By Craig A. Shutt

With the proliferation of new products, particularly longer lengths of siding, composite decking and engineered wood, building material dealers face new challenges. First, they have to find places to put all this stuff. Then, they have to find ways to handle it, which can be difficult due to the products’ unusual lengths and shapes. Improving efficiency and handling capabilities are two key goals for makers of warehouse storage systems and forklift trucks.

"Material handling represents a big cost for building material dealers,” says Jerry Ritz, general manager for AutoStak Systems in Westwood, N.J. "The biggest costs come in having to travel a long way to pick an order and moving things around to find what they want. If they can make their systems easier and faster to access, they put money in their pockets.”

Adds Clint Darnell, vice president of Sunbelt Material Handling Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga., "Dealers are looking to make their operations more efficient. There are many aspects that are out of their control, so they want to control as much as possible to lower costs. Handling efficiency can make employees more productive or reduce the employee base while also allowing companies to fill orders faster. And faster fill rates mean more customer satisfaction, which in turn means more orders.”

Realizing that layout and storage systems can have a strong impact on the bottom line, dealers are taking a more structured approach to their racking, says Ritz. "We are receiving more requests to help dealers determine what to put into buildings and how much space is needed.” The company’s design service takes a SKU list and essentially merchandises the building. "Customers want more design guidance than ever before,” agrees Darnell. "Essentially, dealers want a second opinion on their layouts. They’re so close to the operation, and they realize efficiencies are possible if they get a fresh set of eyes.”

Designing storage spaces today can be more complicated because of the various products that must be stacked and the increased oversight. "Counties, cities and states are requiring more documentation for permitting,” says Darnell. "More needs to be completed with full plans than before.”

Material Handling Market Is Growing

The Freedonia Group, in a 2004 market study, reported that the market for material handling equipment and systems in all types of industries, which does not include racking, will increase 4.3% per year through 2008, to $20.4 billion. The growth would come from an improving capital-investment climate and expanding economic activity, it said.

Demand also is being generated by technological innovations resulting in improved productivity and efficiency, increased safety and greater ease of operation. Most of those advances, however, were expected in advanced/automated market segments such as material handling robots, automated guided vehicles and high-end services.

Even so, the material handling market is robust right now in the building-materials field, notes Rick Hogue, vice president of marketing for Krauter Storage Systems in Indianapolis. "The market, and our sales in particular, have been growing by leaps and bounds,” he says. That growth is driven in part by existing yards replacing outdated systems, especially as they realize efficiencies can generate a payback on the racking. In addition, new yards are being opened as inner-city dealers move to outlying areas where new construction continues to be strongest and transportation access is better.

One of the key drivers for new storage systems is the addition of so many more products for the building shell in particular. "Dealers used to store lumber, but now they’ve got a zillion new products,” says Ritz. "They have to inventory vinyl and cement siding, trim boards, MDF, composites, PVCs and many others. There is a tenfold increase in the number of products. That has added a tremendous need for more space and better organization, as well as specialty types of storage.”

Composite decking products, which can be 18 ft. long, can be particularly hard to rack, as forklift trucks and racking systems aren’t designed for such flexible and long lengths. As a result, they are left out in the yard, which makes them harder to locate and pick. "We have to create closer center lines to handle composite decking when we design racks,” says Krauter’s Hogue. In some cases, the companies use a rack-within-a-rack system, in which the decking is set onto a rack that is then put on the main racks.

Meanwhile, engineered I-joists in longer lengths have no need for closer-spaced arms, so their supports can be spread out and reduced in number. Millwork options also are expanding, with dealers storing slabs of doors. AutoStack created a special spring-loaded loading table that ensures that doors remain at a comfortable height when loading or unloading them onto the racks by ensuring the top door remains about waist high.

"We have to take the products being stored into consideration when we create the racks,” Hogue says. It no longer works for one size to try to fit all, agrees Sunbelt’s Darnell. "We have to keep an eye on the new products being introduced to see how they will have to be inventoried.”

Three Key Trends

Three key design trends drive layouts today, marketers agree. Dealers want more covered space, they want higher racking to better use their existing footprint and they want narrow aisles to pack more into the space. "Almost everything except wrapped bulk storage has to be inside today,” says Darnell. Although sun damage causes some worry, most of the focus is on moisture —and, more specifically, mold. "Builders are very, very concerned about mold issues today,” says Hogue. "Many dealers are adding bulk-storage sheds to alleviate this worry.”

To fit products into the space, dealers are stacking racks higher. "They want to go up, not out, with racks,” says Hogue. Buildings that used to stack products up to 12 ft. high now are stretching to 16 ft. Even then, many dealers stack four or five levels high but can pick only from the bottom two, notes Ritz. The changes require different forklift trucks, taller buildings or new types of storage mechanisms.

Forklifts also have to adapt as storage systems narrow the aisles to fit more into the same footprint. The aisles are being squeezed down to 9 ft. in some cases. "Narrower aisles will make the space more efficient, so more can be stored in a smaller space,” says Darnell. "Three or four years ago, we were doing one or two of these narrow-aisle buildings per year, but now we’re doing a lot more.”

Forklifts Respond To Needs

Those designs are made possible because forklift truck manufacturers are responding to the needs. "The narrow buildings require a special forklift, and we can go as tall as a dealer wants, but we have to stay within the capabilities of his forklifts,” Darnell explains. "So the height and width we can provide depend on the forklift-truck capabilities. We talk with the companies about dealers’ needs and how we can work to ensure dealers can access everything with new racks.”

Indeed, forklift manufacturers are expanding their capabilities, producing new types to handle the wider range of needs both in the yard and at the site. "Material handling has become one of the most demanding businesses worldwide,” says Bobby Hopkins, product specialist for marketing at Hyster Co. in Greenville, N.C. "On-time deliveries are critical, and having a forklift that can be depended upon is a must.”

Hyster offers a narrow-aisle reach truck with a variety of options for performance modes and operator capabilities. Its line also includes a model that can execute 90º turns inside a trailer, "pinwheeling” to load any size or configuration of pallet into any truck. The trucks offer an optional chassis that allows right-angle stacking inside a 98-ft.-long trailer, special fork tips for entering pallets at right angles and other features. The goal is to use as much space as possible, stacking 22 pallets rather than only 20 into a 40-ft.-long trailer.

Needs at the job site are becoming even more demanding, marketers agree. Truck-mounted lift-truck manufacturers are responding to three key trends in the market, says Bill Pohl, general manager of Princeton Delivery Systems in Columbus, Ohio. "There are needs to create efficiency of labor in delivering products to the job site, to create efficiency for the builder’s crews at the job site to access products after they’ve been delivered and maneuverability on the site around congestion.”

Dealers Speed to Delivery

Dealers want to speed up deliveries, which not only makes drivers more productive but also ensures orders are filled promptly by fewer employees. The use of truck-mounted forklifts allows drivers to unload trucks rather than wait at the site for better access. "Getting the products delivered quickly becomes an imperative for everyone; it’s an expected service today,” says Pohl.

Delivering the products to the exact spot where they will be used also has become an expectation, as builders understand the value of saving time in hauling products around the site. That reduces the builder’s own labor needs and safety concerns. "Having workers haul bags of concrete to where they’ll be used takes a lot of time and causes repetitive stress,” Pohl explains. "Having the dealer’s driver deliver the products right where they will be used avoids injuries and accidents and reduces congestion.”

Congestion at the site has become a key concern in some areas, where sites are hilly and streets are more difficult to traverse. That doesn’t lower customer expectations, marketers say. "There has been a tremendous change in the expectation of how building materials will be delivered,” says Patrick Keenan, product manager for Moffett truck-mounted forklifts at Cargotec in Perrysburg, Ohio. "Job sites are more restricted today, and products are getting longer.” As a result, dealers have to be prepared for new challenges.

Unloading Made Easier

Manufacturers are responding with designs that make offloading the truck easier from any position. Cargotec, for instance, offers trucks on which the wheels can turn 90º to move laterally. They and other companies also are expanding their lines of one-side reach-across models, allowing trucks loaded with pallets two abreast to have both rows unloaded from one side. Princeton’s 4-Way brand unit, for instance, provides the lift capacity and power of its Piggy Back brand models while offering four-direction steering at a flip of a switch. It also provides rough terrain capability.

Sellick Equipment Ltd. in Detroit also offers rough terrain models, focused on safety, visibility, ergonomics and accessibility, says Larry Martin, company spokesman. Capacities range as high as 12,000 lb.

The versatility of the machines can be seen in Cargotec’s model that offers 110-in.-long forks to handle wide structural panels. The forks are interchangeable so the long lengths can be removed for handling lumber.

Complexity Skyrockets

The need to be more efficient and more capable in handling loads has increased because the complexity of the products has skyrocketed, says Princeton’s Pohl. "Engineered wood often is cut to precise specifications for the home being built to save time at the site and ensure it works properly,” he explains. "These pieces are very strong when installed, but they can be fragile in the truck. As a result, if one is damaged, it can’t be readily replaced as lumber previously could be, it has to be reordered. The nature of building materials today is making the supplier more in charge of taking care of the products.”

Driver needs also are being focused on, adds Hyster’s Hopkins. "Operator comfort is an integral part of the design criteria of our lift trucks.” The company works with a third-party ergonomic specialist to evaluate operator muscle effort used while operating trucks. "Businesses consider operator input a vital part of the purchasing process.”

Driver requirements have become more complex because of a variety of influences in the market, he notes. Workers’ compensation has become a bigger concern, while musculoskeletal disorders cost businesses $50 billion annually. Studies also are proving that operator comfort relates directly to productivity. An aging population requires more bodily support, and automakers are showing what can be accomplished. "The automotive industry has set comfort standards that have carried over into the industrial lift-truck market,” Hopkins says. "Operators’ expectations are higher than ever before.”

In fact, everyone’s expectations are higher, from the dealer who wants to boost efficiency to the builder who needs products delivered to precise spots to help his own productivity. As product options continue to expand and new technologies make them longer, wider and heavier, racking manufacturers and forklift makers will respond, often working together to create synergies that aid the building-material dealer.

CRAIG A. SHUTT, senior contributing editor of the magazine, has more than 27 years experience covering the LBM industry.

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