Major changes have taken place in the tail-lift and light crane industry over the past 12 months. The biggest shock was the demise of old-established, Peterborough-based, commercial vehicle engineering specialist and tail lift maker Ray Smith Group (RSG) just before last Christmas with the loss of over 150 jobs. Intense price competition was one of the key reasons for the firm's collapse say former RSG executives, with one major fleet deal lost to a rival who undercut it by 30 per cent.
RSG could be making a return to the British market, however, in another guise. “We've got a project to re-launch elements of the company,” says Anton Griessner, vice president of marketing and business development at American tail lift manufacturer Maxon.
A more recent change is the acquisition of tail lift producer DEL Equipment by Cargotec. Best-known for its Hiab range of loader cranes, Cargotec also owns tail lift specialist Zepro.
One consequence of the deal is that DEL products will be sold through Zepro outlets worldwide while Zepro products will be available from the DEL network throughout the UK. In addition they will continue to be marketed through existing St Helens-based distributor Zepro UK.
“DEL makes nearly 6,000 tail lifts a year and we specialise in column lifts,” says marketing manager, Paul Kelly. “Zepro doesn't make lifts of that type so we complement each other nicely.”
Becoming part of a big worldwide group dedicated to producing cargo handling equipment is without doubt good news for DEL. As well as provided it with substantial technical and financial resources it is bound to help it open up fresh export markets which should contribute to a healthy future.
“Exports only account for one per cent of our business at present and we're already talking to contacts in Spain,” says Kelly. “Hopefully we'll be looking at opportunities in Russia and the Middle East soon.”
Changes in the fortunes of some manufacturers are being accompanied by the introduction of a variety of new products as well as improvements to existing offerings.
Penny Hydraulics, for example, has recently introduced new versions of its 500kg and 1,000kg capacity Swing Lift cranes. Both models feature a new frame design along with hydraulic slews and boom extensions.
It has also joined forces with Nissan to offer its products on the manufacturer's light commercials through the Nissan dealer network.
With its headquarters not far from Chesterfield in Derbyshire, Penny has been involved in a variety of different projects for fleet operators.
For the Royal Mail it's developed a special version of its Load Lift designed for vans grossing at up to 3.5 tonnes. It's being used to help load and unload special wheeled cages — usually referred to as York cages — weighing some 250kg that are full of post being transferred between main sorting offices
It's also come up with a clever device in conjunction with Atkins Highway Services to help lift gully and drain covers — they can weigh up to 100kg — and minimise the need for manual handling. It's based on two hydraulic rams; one mounted horizontally to extend and retract the lifter, and one mounted vertically to lift and lower the lid.
Last year saw Palfinger acquire MBB, and MBB's UK activities are now being integrated into the Ratcliff Palfinger operation. Ratcliff Palfinger is without doubt the best-known name in the British tail lift business and its sales team is now looking after MBB Palfinger products.
The line-up includes the 500kg-capacity cantilever-type MBB Minifix. Weighing a modest 156kg it fits the majority of panel vans and comes with an alloy platform 1,575mm deep x 1,400m wide. A 1,850mm-deep platform is also available for high roof models.
Minifix features include a roll stop, foot controls and a vehicle-mounted hinged aluminium bridging plate.
Also available is the MBB Althlet quattro cantilever with two lift and two tilt cylinders and an alloy platform 1,550mm deep x up to 2,500mm wide.
Not to be outdone, DEL has just launched a new tail lift specially designed for tippers and known as the Dump Over. Complete with galvanised steel work and on offer with either an alloy or a steel platform — the former is likely to be by far and away the most popular, says Kelly — it will lift up to 1,000kg.
It typically weighs around 200kg, around 50kg less than the old Dump Over model when an alloy platform was specified.
Anybody using a tail lift has to treat safety as a priority. That's why DEL has developed a new mesh platform for Speedy Hire's dropsides complete with safety rails.
The tool and equipment hire specialist has just launched a UK-wide awareness campaign to help combat the rising number of back injuries resulting from manual handling.
According to official statistics, 400,000 people suffer from back pain caused or made worse by their work. It leads to 4m lost working days each year and costs industry more than £5bn; a good argument for investing in mechanical handling aids where possible and practical.
No matter which company you buy your tail lift or crane from, it's likely that you'll pay more for it than you would have done 12 months ago thanks to rising raw material costs.
“We've seen a 42 per cent rise in the price of steel and a 30 per cent increase in the cost of aluminium,” says Matthew Terry, managing director of Tipmaster.
Best-known for its tipper bodies, the London firm also supplies Tommy Lift tail lifts as well as Swift Lift cranes. Designed with the needs of operators of vehicles such as dropsides and pick-ups in mind, the former can handle loads of up to 500kg. A special version available for vans can raise items weighing up to 300kg and can in some cases be fitted adjacent to the vehicle's side loading door rather than close to the back doors if the aperture is big enough. An electro-hydraulic lifting arm, Swift Lift can tackle 300kg loads.
As well as coping with soaring material prices, Continental tail lift and crane manufacturers attempting to sell their products on this side of the Channel have additionally been hit by the slide in the value of Sterling against the Euro. That's made their wares more costly.
“In one or two cases they've held their prices, but have quietly made their spares more expensive to compensate, sometimes to the tune of 30 to 40 per cent,” claims Ratcliff Palfinger sales director, Tony Biggs. “We don't think that's a fair tactic.
“The prices of our tail lifts will have to go up this year given the current circumstances, but we will try to implement any increases slowly, fairly and across the board.”
While the slump in the value of the pound makes imported components fitted by UK assemblers to their products pricier, on balance it should make it easier for Ratcliff Palfinger to sell its products in mainland Europe. In practice, however, it hasn't had much of an impact on the company's export efforts so far.
“If the column lift were widely accepted in Europe outside the UK then it would probably give us an opportunity,” says Biggs. “But it isn't.”
Despite all the pressures on price, at least one UK manufacturer has managed to achieve a reduction. Penny Hydraulics has chopped the cost of its 550kg-capacity cantilever-type Easyloader tail lift to a remarkably low £995.
Easyloader comes with static controls, a battery isolation switch and hydraulic overload protection. Remote controls are available too, as is a hand pump if the vehicle's power fails.
As all the foregoing suggests, there's no lack of competition in the load-handling market in the UK and more names keep appearing.
Imported by Britcom — best known as a large-scale exporter of used trucks — one of the lesser-known ranges of cranes is that made by Effer of Italy. It is a country that's developed into a major crane producer over the past few years with companies such as Fassi enjoying a global presence.
Effer's line-up includes the 360kg-capacity 20 Series. Suitable for a 3.5-tonner, it weighs 330kg.
No matter what type of loading aid you invest in, you have a duty to ensure that drivers are shown how to use it. Ask whoever is supplying it about any training that is available — ask about maintenance and testing procedures too while you're about it — and make sure you avail yourself of it.
Remember that an accident involving a tail-lift or crane that's occurred because the user had no idea of how to operate it could be catastrophic; and is likely to lead to the employer involved being prosecuted.
With stringent health and safety legislation in place — and quite rightly so — the manual handling aids market is buoyant and fiercely competitive. The best advice is to shop around and compare products. Not fitting a tail lift or crane can be a costly mistake if a driver is injured while loading or unloading.