Combilift strikes a new balance

December 19, 2008   by Joe Terrett

Combilift Ltd. has been helping companies move loads in and out of tight spots for 10 years now, and to mark its first decade of operation, the Irish forklift manufacturer has introduced a new counterbalance truck called the Combi-CB.

This is something a little different for the company, which entered the marketplace in 1998 focusing on the long/awkward-load niche. It was established by company director Robert Moffett and managing director Martin McVicar, both of whom came from Moffet Engineering. Moffet developed the successful Mounty truck-mounted forklift for the family business and McVicar was the firm’s chief engineer. When the business was sold in 1997, they teamed up to introduce the world’s first engine-powered three-wheel drive, multi-directional forklift. Typical applications include PVC extrusions, steel stock, lumber and many other wide loads that don’t sit comfortably on a pallet that’s on the move.

The Combi-CB easily handles palletized goods or long loads and is aimed at companies using conventional counterbalance forklifts, reach trucks, side loaders, or electric four-way forklifts.

It has been in development for two years, with more than 100 units in operation at customer locations. But on Sept. 9, the company was ready to unveil the Combi-CB to the world and flew in journalists (myself included) from 22 of its global markets, distributors and customers to see the forklift in action.

Running on rubber
First some specs. Available in liquid propane (LP), diesel and electric configurations, it has Combilift’s three-wheel, manoeuvrable drive and operates in four directions, running on rubber for indoor or outdoor use. A 200-millimetre side shift is standard and it features a 1,400-millimetre fork carriage. Options include an enclosed cabin with a heater for less hospitable environments; a hydraulic fork positioner that lifts from ground level; and a detachable four-fork spreader bar, which is handy for long loads. Since there’s no platform, materials can be stacked from the floor up, allowing for 100% use of lower storage areas. And because it’s small, the Combi-CB easily zips in and out of containers to haul pallets or long loads directly to the warehouse.

Two years ago Combilift officially opened a new 100,000 square-foot manufacturing facility on a 46-acre site in County Monaghan, a beautiful bit of country that accounts for roughly 500 square miles of rolling hills in the north Midlands of Ireland. The manufacturer has added 20,000 square-feet of production space to accommodate production of the new vehicle, and is optimistic about sales. Phillip Condell, an engineer and manager of the CB line, said the plant produces five trucks per week but has the capacity to produce 10. And McVicar expects 300 to 400 of the forklifts will hit the market in 2009 adding $15.8 million to the balance sheet and about 20 jobs.

The official launch included a Combi-CB ballet that featured skilled forklift drivers performing tightly choreographed lifting and moving chores to music. Then everyone hit the road to check out the units in real work environments.

One of the first customer testers was Maurice Graham Ltd., a building materials company in Monaghan. Similar to a Rona outlet here, it operates a massive yard that includes a 64,000 square-foot warehouse.

“When we were putting up the new shed, we didn’t realize just how much we do with the forklift,” said owner Allistair Graham.

Graham availed himself of Combilift’s free layout service to configure the warehouse according to the Combi-CB’s narrower manoeuvring capabilities, and was able to add three racks for its inventory.

“Adding even one rack saves a lot of money,” said Graham, who bought the Combi-CB two months into the test.

Combilift is very much into customization and Graham required one design change. The length of the forklift’s prongs interfered with the operator’s view. Shorter prongs and the carriage dropping lower offered a better line of sight.

Customization proved to be a key selling point for forest products giant Weyerhaeuser, which last year had six Combilifts in its 72 distribution centres. It will increase the number to 130 at 40 sites by the end of this year, according to Chuck Antonides, lean director for iLevel (a supplier to the residential structural frame market).

The Weyerhaeuser business had been using another brand of forklift with a giant counterweight on its back end to lift the massive frame structures, some 60-feet, as high as 18 feet. A load like that moving around can get a bit wobbly. The forklift brand had been in use for many years or so and Antonides said the employees were comfortable with it. But the Combilifts had the counterweight built in and with their superior manoeuvrability, not only were they safer to operate, they could potentially deliver a massive space reduction and shorten cycle time, which to a lean production guy like Antonides, is of some significance.

So he asked why there weren’t more Combilift’s in the system and got a list of 22 things the operators didn’t like, among them: no side lift, the controls are different, and the cab space is too small; but with some additional research the list grew to 44 items ranging from small to great significance.

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