Ensuring a healthy forklift fleet

Features - Material Handling Equipment Focus

Consider these eight steps for managing a forklift fleet in a recycling environment.

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Craig Bruns

Saying that recycling environments can be tough on equipment is like saying that water can be wet. This is typically seen as a fact by anyone who has ever spent time in such an environment. Special care and attention must be given to properly maintaining and servicing equipment in this environment, ensuring operational performance and uptime. This is especially true for forklifts.

Often thought of as the workhorse of the supply chain, most forklifts operate within warehouses, distribution centers or cross-docking facilities. While these supply chain environments offer their own set of challenges, they typically do not compare with the challenges that forklifts operating in recycling environments face daily.

Both indoors and outdoors, the recycling process can be very dusty and generate a fair amount of debris that can cause damage or negatively affect the performance of a forklift. Often, a recycling process can take place entirely outdoors, which introduces additional challenges, such as changing and unpredictable weather and dirt pathways filled with gravel, large potholes and ruts.

All of this can lead to increased maintenance costs and unexpected downtime for forklift fleets, which can undercut business profitability and growth.

So, what are owners or managers of recycling businesses to do when it comes to maintaining their forklift fleets? Consider eight steps to help give forklifts a fighting chance against the formidable recycling environment.

1. Pick the right forklift. Forklifts that can withstand harsh environments and extended operating hours require an industrial design. This can include an industrial engine with a cast iron head and larger, more robust components; fully enclosed brakes that are protected from debris and have fewer moving parts that can break down; pneumatic (super-elastic) tires that can withstand rough surfaces; rugged cast iron housing to provide thermal and impact protection for the transmission and axle; and a protected undercarriage that helps prevent damage from scrap metal.

2. Establish a strong maintenance program. Given the performance demands and potential hazards in harsh recycling environments, having a good maintenance program is essential. Correctly managing service intervals can spell the difference between profitable or unprofitable operations. Set and strictly follow regular service intervals, paying special attention to those parts of the forklifts that are affected most by the harsh environment. The goal is to keep the forklifts in operation while minimizing unexpected maintenance issues.

A strong and effective maintenance program has two invaluable components. A fleet maintenance management system can provide a simple and efficient way to capture and analyze total maintenance costs for individual forklifts and entire fleets across single or multiple locations. An operator and fleet management system enables you to monitor the health and performance of the lift trucks and ensure that maintenance is completed as scheduled. These systems also can guide operators through preshift checklist inspections, ensuring they are done completely and correctly, which can help identify potential maintenance and safety issues. They also monitor impacts and send notifications as they occur, which can trigger investigations that could identify safety issues or forklift damage resulting from the impact.

3. Invest in a telematics system. A good operator and fleet management system also will help you better understand how and when your forklifts are being used. Being armed with this information, you can make decisions about service and maintenance needs and better manage your resources. The data gathered also could uncover trends or issues that need to be addressed. For instance, if the data show that forklift impacts are routinely happening in one area of your operations, you can consider changing the layout of the area, designating an alternate route with fewer impacts or implementing speed restrictions. Additionally, if certain operators continue to have a high number of impacts, you can consider implementing incentives and additional training to ensure correct behavior.

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4. Analyze maintenance history. Tracking the maintenance history for each of your forklifts helps you identify trends, issues and best practices that occur within your service and maintenance program. A fleet maintenance management system can help document every maintenance issue with the forklift, including the cost of each repair or service, as well as planned maintenance and breakdowns. Operators can use this information to help you identify trends, be more proactive about repairs and make informed replacement/repair decisions.

5. Adopt a proactive approach. Having a good operator and forklift fleet management system in place also enables you to transition from a reactive service and maintenance program to a more proactive predictive one. This includes using historical data to understand use and to schedule regular service and maintenance to anticipate and eliminate potential issues before they result in unplanned downtime. If your historical data show that a particular part wears out on your lift trucks after a certain number of operating hours or points to the most likely cause of a service code, you can schedule your replacement/repair accordingly. If your forklift original equipment manufacturer provides a connected maintenance service, you might want to consider remote health monitoring. This type of service enables the forklift to “call for service” when it is “unhealthy,” which can lead to improved uptime. You also can create a proactive, planned replacement product life cycle formula unique to your organization.

6. Conduct annual equipment health assessments. If performing an assessment for the first time, you are establishing a baseline for future years. Create and maintain an accurate listing of your fleet. Take a photo of every single lift truck and document the age, serial number, hours of operation and the year it was added to your fleet. Moving forward, this will give you the ability to maintain an accurate profile of your fleet, including size, age and cost. By updating the list every year, you can better understand how your fleet changes and plan where you need to be in the future.

7. Track average cost per forklift. As forklifts age, the value they provide to your operations can decline based on increasing maintenance costs. The average cost per model will help you determine the ideal age limit for your forklifts. The formula compares the annual cost of the maintenance and repairs needed with the number of hours the forklift is used within the year. This gives you the cost per hour to operate that lift truck.

A high cost per model doesn’t automatically mean a forklift needs to be replaced, though. Other factors, such as how the forklifts are being used and the frequency of planned maintenance, could be involved. This is especially true in a recycling application. Numbers that are consistently higher than those suggested by your forklift manufacturer could point to necessary adjustments with your service maintenance program. An analysis of these factors is required when researching a potential forklift replacement.

8. Identify a planned maintenance (PM) to breakdown ratio. Establishing and closely monitoring your PM to breakdown ratio is a good indicator of how your service and maintenance program is performing. It’s as simple as tracking all invoices or work orders for your forklifts annually and comparing year-to-year numbers to get an average. Once you identify a ratio that best works for you, try to adhere to that ratio. Make sure to track whether the work orders arise from operator error/abuse or from routine planned maintenance or breakdown issues. This will help you identify additional areas where you can make improvements.

Recycling environments are no ordinary environments. Debris, dust, uneven surfaces and weather all can cripple a forklift, bringing your operation to a standstill. That’s why you must take every available step to help ensure a healthy fleet that minimizes downtime and keeps your operation productive.

Craig Bruns is vice president of customer support at Crown Equipment Corp., New Bremen, Ohio. More information is available at www.crown.com.