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Home » Materials handling: efficiency through a variety of solutions

Materials handling: efficiency through a variety of solutions

By Benjamin Brits

The warehousing and cold store sector in South Africa is currently undergoing rapid growth and with this, the requirement of materials handling solutions to suit, from the good-old yard forklift to complete and intricate fully autonomous solutions. The large investment into the sector is not surprising as effectively the entire world has had to re-look their supply lines – including perishable foods and medicines – all brought about by the side effects of the persisting Coronavirus pandemic that has also exposed several open doors in the cold chain. Further, driven by the fact that the staggering food waste statistics that continue to prevail have been linked to various elements of the existing cold supply chain, savings and efficiency today are more important than ever for sustainable businesses.

The sector conditions are also seeing a shift as consumer behaviour has changed, leading to different methodologies needing to be applied in storage and processing of goods. While some choose to increase throughput, others may choose to bolster stock levels. Each of these outcomes would produce a different need in handling of goods. Materials handling solutions in the cold chain start right from the producer and ends in the refrigerated cabinets or fridges at outlets.

Electric forklifts are ideal for moving and loading of produce at farms and fresh produce markets. Photo by Linde Materials Handling
Electric forklifts are ideal for moving and loading of produce at farms and fresh produce markets. Photo by Linde Materials Handling
Stackers and forklifts are amongst the most common materials handling equipment to be found in storage facilities. Photo by Linde Materials Handling
Stackers and forklifts are amongst the most common materials handling equipment to be found in storage facilities. Photo by Linde Materials Handling
Materials handling solutions come in a very wide array of options specific to facility needs. Photo by Jungheinrich South Africa
Materials handling solutions come in a very wide array of options specific to facility needs. Photo by Jungheinrich South Africa

As you enter this world of equipment, the initial vastness may be intimidating as you are faced with solutions that range from a simple hand pallet jack, to a fully autonomous mole-type system, and lifting capacity of anything from one to 50 tonnes. Catering to clients that have small operations and, on the converse, massive facilities with a lot of equipment, suppliers can offer hundreds of different configurations to meet individual and customised needs.

Visiting your nearest materials handling supplier, or as most people will do – visit the supplier’s website for information or brochures will provide you with a range of equipment, and we don’t intend to cover that in this article, but rather highlight a few points facility owners or managers should consider in their existing processes, for new facilities being established and international trends that change the way business happens locally.

Reach stackers, pallet handlers, scissor lifts, forklifts, telescopic handlers, turret trucks, and more are what you can expect to encounter in the storage sector, all catering to the handling of goods in a particular element of the supply chain.

Materials handling equipment can then almost be ‘sub-categorised’ as models are available and specifically designed for all the different areas of a facility from the yard where loading or offloading of trucks or containers is happening, to staging areas and holding rooms, and then further to shuttling functions where goods need to travel longer distances between points and storing and picking processes. A combination of these functions is determined by the facility’s products and system flow.

Materials handling equipment options and recommendations

While the intention of any materials handling equipment is to address the best efficiency in operations, and given some facilities are small and others are very large, there is seldom a one-size-fits-all approach when considering what equipment best suits the need.

Trends have seen a definite shift over the last 18 months to various rental models in materials handling solutions, although some direct purchasing still occurs for larger chain group owners who have established methods and systems. This has primarily been driven by the strategy of facility owners to reduce un-necessary capital expenditure but also to ensure that they have flexibility to access new technology as it enters the market to potentially create further operational efficiency.

“When talking about choice in materials handling, Jungheinrich for example has over 600 variations of equipment catering to warehouse and cold store environments, and these come with various drive or fuel sources. In South Africa, there are diesel, gas, and electric options available – while electric options further offer lead acid and lithium-ion battery technology. When looking at application, there is no hard rule that either fuel or drive source is better than the other. The recommendation will always be around what is best suited for the particular application of the client’s business,” says the team from Jungheinrich South Africa (managing director Ralf Bangert, national sales manager Chad Short and logistics systems manager Mike Botoulas).

The process of ultimately selecting the right solution in fact is not a quick one. It is very seldom that clients just say I want an X-tonne forklift and one is delivered without a thorough evaluation. Many factors would be involved such as what goods are in question to be handled, if the facility is a new one – in which case some suppliers will also provide a materials flow management solution, or in cases of existing facilities what parameters need to be known such as doorway access, width of racking aisles or available turning areas, how goods are delivered and collected and what the expected storage/shelf-turnover may be.

Other factors may include additional integration of items like conveyor systems and traffic flow management in cases of very large facilities. All these scenarios could be supplied with manual, walk behind, standing units and various sit-on models that are fully manual or semi-autonomous, where it all comes down to the least working hours with the highest throughput efficiency, and minimal downtime expectations of the users. Coupled to those expectations are solution that can grow proportionately with operations and the ever-important fact of ‘future-proof systems’ as facility managers continue to seek out ways to maintain a competitive edge.

Once there is an understanding of the site, the most suitable way of moving goods or pallets from A to B can be determined. “When a customer has a new warehouse with nothing inside it, we are able to ensure travelling distances are as short as possible because the less your equipment has to work the less operational costs are involved, so efficiency is extremely important as well as the time involved throughout the material movement process. The same strategy could be applied for existing facilities where other factors could come into play such as combining new technology with any existing equipment. It is also possible in both cases where a customised units can be built for the client to meet their exact requirements,” adds Jungheinrich.

Another important recommendation that is brought forward by several suppliers is ensuring that whatever solution is suggested and implemented, that this fully utilises the equipment’s capacity. There is no point in having equipment intended to improve efficiency when it’s only working at 40 or 50% of its capacity.

“Height is another element that needs consideration as many clients today are opting for higher stores to increase capacity upwards. So, space to work vertically is also an important factor above the comments noted already, this too plays a factor in machine choice for the facility. If you want to talk about overall efficiency, you need to be aware that the operator will spend as much time loading and unloading shelves as getting goods from A to B. This is another reason a full understanding of operations is required. All too often we see the reality that the prior equipment recommended is not suitable for the application and this in turn creates a negative impression on the customer, and industry, because the equipment supplied is not doing what it is supposed to do,” says Mishen Naidoo, engineering solutions manager at Manitou Southern Africa.

Warehouse environments both for dry and cold storage can be supplied with various materials handling solutions. Photo by Linde Materials Handling
Warehouse environments both for dry and cold storage can be supplied with various materials handling solutions. Photo by Linde Materials Handling
A very narrow aisle (VNA) guided turret truck used in a freezer store. Photo by Jungheinrich South Africa
A very narrow aisle (VNA) guided turret truck used in a freezer store. Photo by Jungheinrich South Africa
Rough terrain forklifts can be used for a variety of indoor and outdoor applications, from moving around building materials to loading produce cartons in an agricultural environment. Photo by Manitou South Africa
Rough terrain forklifts can be used for a variety of indoor and outdoor applications, from moving around building materials to loading produce cartons in an agricultural environment. Photo by Manitou South Africa

Facility managers should also be aware of the differences between warehouse-type environments and rough terrain equipment. A standard materials handling unit wouldn’t last very many hours in a rough terrain setting.

According to Revaro Materials Handling South Africa, that specialises in a range of diesel equipment, “Standard range forklifts are suited for regular warehouse use or smooth terrain operation outdoors where the ground is compacted, paved or gravel. All terrain ranges work well on smooth, paved, gravel, dirt, sandy and muddy terrains while 4×4 articulated forklifts are very well suited to the agriculture industry and include all-weather cabs for all weather conditions.”

Rough terrain equipment is basically a combination of articulated axles, two- or four-wheel drive capability, rough terrain wheels and tyres to ensure traction, specific drive trains and masts designed to handle shock, and special filtration for dusty or sandy conditions.

“A number of attachments are also available to fit most materials handling equipment and all depend on the product that is getting moved around and can even be customised to meet specific requirements of the facility, for example clamps to carry barrels or drums,” adds Jozua Coetzee, business development manager sales and aftermarket at Eazi Access – distributors of the Linde Materials Handling brand.

Coetzee adds, “A lot of focus always goes to efficiency and machine technology itself while ergonomics has become so important to keep the operators comfortable, alert and give them additional support in the form of data, sensing equipment, automatic slowing around corners and fatigue alerts. There are already many hazards in the environment and when long shifts are a reality, many more things can go wrong, so it’s very important to assist operators to avoid incidents that can be extremely costly and ensure their safety. Cabin comfort is also a necessity while operating in extreme cold conditions such as freezer stores.”

Electric, diesel and gas model application considerations

Naturally within a warehouse or cold store, the use of diesel or gas drive choices is not recommended because of the potential contamination of goods, but also the emissions that can cause workers to be put at risk without a sufficient quality of air.

Gas may be more applicable for a client in certain areas with abundance of gas-availability than diesel for example based on costs, but in areas where gas is not readily available it would naturally not be practical. Gas or diesel tankers could be deployed to various sites as a solution; however, this would require a lot more health and safety standards to be observed and could be seen as further risk through potential theft and so security factors would need to be included at the site planning and management.

You may be wondering why gas is included in several supplier offerings. Gas is seen as a cleaner alternative to run combustion engines and produce far less emissions. This fuel type for engines was originally developed for use in the pharmaceutical and certain food industries because diesel was considered ‘a dirty old product’. Even though a lot of advancements have been made over many decades, diesel is a fossil fuel and is known to leave a smell within an environment as well as a residue on products. For the most part, in South Africa, gas as a fuel solution is extremely expensive and use is reserved for special applications.

As developments progressed in the materials handling space, neither gas or diesel fuels were longer considered appropriate for use in any process involving medicines or foods because of the potentially harmful associated elements, and so electric drives were rapidly developed to cater to these industries that required alternative means to move bulk goods around.

Concerns are regularly raised however with the use of electric equipment in the local environment that experiences greatly varying climate conditions such as heavy rains and so electric units have been painted as an inappropriate selection for any outdoor work.

To this factor the Jungheinrich team notes, “As a global company, we have representation all around the world and 98% of the models we sell are in the electric ranges. The conditions where this equipment type operates is in snow, rain, acidic or corrosive environments, sleet, dust, and the heat. Electric equipment is obviously not intended to be submerged or drenched in water however most of this equipment does include certain water and dust proof resistance according to the IP rating system on the electrical connectors, joins and batteries, so, this equipment is effectively designed to work in a variety of environmental conditions and not only indoors.”

When looking at solutions particularly for cold and freezer stores, facility managers or owners should be aware of the necessity of certain components being waterproof not only for operation in wet conditions, but because sudden change in temperatures between a freezer store and even ambient South African averages is going to create condensation around the electrical components.

“Your electronics and your machine itself need to have particular protection in these applications and be well insulated mainly because of temperature variations that will cause natural condensate. Safety is also key when considering controls like levers and pedals that may build up ice and slipping hazards causing accidents. As important to the equipment, I have to stress the need for the correct driver thermally insulated personal protective equipment (PPE) in accordance with the law. With that in mind, equipment for cold applications may differ slightly to accommodate operators with bulky jackets and gloves, for example. It’s not as easy to hold a steering wheel with gloves on as so many people overlook,” adds Naidoo.

Electric driven equipment, as mentioned previously, can be configured using the older lead acid or newer-technology lithium-ion batteries. The main difference between these is the charging time and practicality of use. Lead acid batteries require significant maintenance and, depending on the amount of equipment operating at a facility, a large area allocation for a battery charging station, and emission extraction system as certain gases are produced during the charge cycle, is needed. There may further be a requirement for safety cabinets and wash stations, and larger infrastructure the bigger the facility fleet becomes. Essentially, the battery bay could reach the size where maintenance, checking and changeovers keep employees busy full-time.

Lead acid batteries further require a charge cycle of 8+ hours uninterrupted to be fully charged and have a certain amount of charges before they expire. So, in a specific example, if you charge the lead acid battery for two hours – one charge is taken away from the life span and the battery would not last very long before needing a swop out again. Another significant element is that with lead acid batteries you require at least two batteries per unit to avoid over discharge damage. Changeovers also often get overlooked in terms of time as this cost can quickly escalate when considering a five-year period of service – perhaps over 300 hours of labour per machine.

Lithium-ion technology is in the process of taking over many electrically driven products and the materials handling sector is not excluded. Although a higher cost option at this point in time, conversely to lead acid technology, these batteries are closed units with zero maintenance needs. They can be charged for any length of time that is required and have a set charge capacity, for example, 10 000 hours. There are also no change-outs required with this option and have the added benefit of fast-charging, essentially meaning that a quick 15-minute charge can boost battery capacity to 40%.

Solar battery charging is another advance that Jungheinrich is pioneering to enable remote location sites to also have the ability to make use of the latest technology where conventional power is often erratic or doesn’t exist at all. This proves a valuable addition for the farming community that also required these types of equipment to speed up loading and moving of fresh produce.

“Although electric equipment has by far taken preference in the local environment as a cleaner solution, diesel and gas equipment has also been developed and can be fitted with things such as special particle filters that control the amount of emissions produced in a space. The rise of electric equipment is also due to the fact that today’s electric options can deliver any solution that a conventional engine-driven machine can, from small three-wheel forklifts all the way to multi-pallet handlers that can reduce the amount of runs in a facility,” adds Coetzee.

To note as another important point too is that although a lot of focus is on the equipment type in these storage facilities, the actual storage mechanisms are directly linked to the overall solution clients’ need to be advised on, and this includes the type and style of racking because utilisation of available space has become extremely important. A facility could have several racking and storage styles such as live racking, drive-in racking, or block stacking so this is also a key factor to include.

Differentiating brands from one another

“Selling a forklift anyone can do. In some countries you can even buy this type of equipment at the corner store. This is not the type of service we provide our clients. We always consider the long-term relationship aspect and listen to their needs and make recommendations based on our expertise and global resources. We also don’t go in and sell what’s good for us or just what we have in stock at the time, we insist to sell the right solution. Lithium-ion units are a much better technology than the rest in our opinion, but it doesn’t mean this needs to be used in every single application. If a client is using their machine for two hours a day and charging it once a week, it would not make sense to sell them this solution because it will just be more costly and un-necessary because a lead acid battery solution in this instance will be suitable and also last for a very long time, given the require maintenance is kept up.

“Lithium-ion would be more suitable for a client that runs double or triple shifts where charging can quickly be done between breaks or lunchtimes. For us it’s all about giving the client what is right for their needs. Of course, they will always have the final decision, but we want to ensure we advise them as the professional provider in this field. What potential clients also need to consider is a supplier’s growth, backup service and global presence and thus availability of parts, servicing and the benefits of research and development,” says Jungheinrich.

“We are sitting in a very different situation, being post-pandemic. Before, a customer was after reliability at whatever cost – willing to spend their bottom dollars to ensure that machines are up and running as far as possible. What is different now is everything is about price, combined with service and how quickly breakdowns can be resolved. We have introduced a short-term rental solution model where customers pay per use. So, for instance we have another hard lockdown and are unable to use the machinery, the client pays only a base rate for the equipment and then as your activity increases, they can pay a proportional rate to the hours used. It’s obviously important to try different models in today’s environment to remain relevant and this model, although still a small sample size, has been well received in the market. Businesses need to think outside of the box in today’s times,” says Naidoo.

“Setting a company apart in a competitive environment is about longevity of relationships but further the development of new technology, track record, footprint and distance clients need to get to you, and the size of your service and maintenance teams. Also providing the right solutions as has been mentioned is vitally important. These are all factors that make a difference in the client’s business and what builds trust and is even more important the bigger the volumes of goods you need to move where uptime is critical. Most companies today operate on the just-in-time method and so avoiding any kinds of delays or interruptions is key to operational efficiency, and hence quality moves higher up the list of importance,” Coetzee says.

Revaro adds “Quality and product support we believe are key pillars to a strong brand. Any machine is only as good as the people supporting the brand, and of course the availability of spares. The Revaro team strives to put the customer first and stock not only the original Revaro parts, but also OPM for any make of forklift. Revaro has several technical teams that can service and repair a client’s equipment on-site or off-site. In addition to this we also have many service agents throughout South Africa that can assist clients.”

Elements in service and maintenance

Simple cleaning routines are recommended based on hours of use for all equipment such as washing down. A common issue is greasing that is not done and because of dust build up, without the necessary maintenance in this aspect, premature failures occur.

“Another very important point in maintenance that we find with a number of customers and is a greater culprit in breakdowns because it can fool almost anyone – is the quality of diesel used. Although most equipment manufactures for the local environment are quite resilient, bad fuel can cause injector and pump failure – which are serious. Further we have seen than simple maintenance is neglected like filter replacements and the use of cheap service parts that all contribute to additional and related wear and tear on equipment,” adds Naidoo.

“If I had to advise clients around maintenance, there are obvious regular maintenance aspects that can be undertaken to prevent breakdowns as mentioned, but related factors to maintenance also need as much consideration. One such example is the surface that your equipment is operating on. If floors or yards have cracks, potholes, or speed bumps you have to protect your equipment against these simple things because they need to continue to operate in a stable condition. Masts and forks need to be accurate, sometimes very high up with a full load, but continual exposure to bad surfaces will create heavy and un-necessary wear on all parts because this equipment is not supposed to be subject to shock conditions that can damage equipment in a very short space of time,” adds Coetzee.

“Before the delivery of any product it will have a pre-delivery inspection (PDI) performed, which ensures machines are operational and up to the task purchased for. Our forklifts are delivered with a user manual for ease of reference for users and owners, and if the manual’s operating and service instructions are adhered to, we guarantee many hours of hassle-free operation. We also supply all service parts that allow qualified independent technicians to perform required services, as well as appointed service agents in the various areas we service,” says Revaro.

Developments in automation and the future

The process of automating many industries is in fact already underway today. Many years back there was only manual handling techniques, then came trolleys, then combustion engines and now we are already far along on new-technology electric and electronic equipment as more businesses and governments are pushing for green sustainable systems.

Autonomous systems in South Africa are very much still in the infancy phase, however, we have access to many international trends as well as international companies establishing themselves locally that make use of various levels of autonomy that know and understand the benefits of it, and therefore implement predictive and set material flows to maximise their throughputs.

Although South Africa has historically been labour driven because of cheap costs, labour instability and increasing uncertainties by employers is slowly pushing many industries towards autonomous systems and in fact a number of local developments have already taken up high levels of autonomy in their facilities and this is gaining much more widespread interest.

“Many clients are increasingly interested in the technologies between manual options and fully automated systems where we try and bridge that gap as much as possible. We have got a shuttle model, which is regarded as an autonomous system, you press a button, it runs on a channel, and pick items based on a specific code. This model is scalable by adding other components like cranes and automatic guided vehicle. We are slowly starting to see those solutions getting into facilities and a much keener approach to technology and full intra-logistics solutions by our clients. Locally there has to be the adoption in mindset of where business is going to be in 10 years or more and get away from the mindset of planning only three months ahead. It wasn’t too long ago that we were thinking to reach eight meters up would never happen, while we now can have equipment reaching 18 meters locally and in other countries even higher than this where floor space is limited and height increases are the only options for businesses in the storage game,” says Jungheinrich.

Many believe therefore that electric equipment and solutions are the future. The internal combustion engine is also reaching end of life. Looking at engine manufacturers, there is already commitment to not manufacture combustion engines anymore between 2030 and 2040, and while only a few companies were initially involved in electric cars, most manufacturers today have some or other electric options already. If this is the trend in the transportation arena, it is obvious that this will follow into other related sectors.

“I think that when it comes to mobile equipment, automation is a trend that we will see adopted because in the manufacturing sector this is already far along. We could expect to see a combination of mobile and fixed equipment such as conveyor systems that you already see implemented in dry storage facilities where more automation is already progressing well. However, automation becoming a reality in South Africa would mean that we have to sort out our power issues before we even look at this as a mainstream solution. Having entire warehouses shut down because of power outages would be disastrous, so until we have some reasonable stability in that regard, I don’t personally see full automation solutions in the very near future,” says Naidoo.

With the addition of the available attachments for materials handling equipment, so many manual tasks have already been taken over. With the availability of customised solutions such as various sensor technology, fall protection, proximity detection, cameras and various data inputs, most suppliers are confident that autonomy or at least semi-autonomous solutions will continue to gain momentum and market share.

“In South Africa, because of the dynamics of our economy, there has been an association of autonomy affecting jobs and so companies have almost distanced themselves from it in the past, however considering where the rest of the world is going, automation is playing a very big role in these types of environments and employment is in fact not as dramatically affected as people are led to believe. There will always be a need for human involvement, and I personally think that within the next four to five years, automation will become a big reality as we too have to keep up with changes in the markets and global trends such as consumer behaviour and the need to speed up delivery and processing. The pharmaceutical industry has already almost entirely transitioned and other sectors are sure to follow similar paths,” concludes Coetzee.

Contributors to this article:

Eazi Access / Linde Materials Handling South Africa
Jungheinrich South Africa
Manitou South Africa
Revaro Materials Handling South Africa

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