With diesel prices soaring ever-higher, many van operators are anxious to reduce the weight of any equipment they fit to their vehicles in the hope that they'll save fuel. That includes load area storage systems, says Chris Jones, UK sales director at Sortimo, and manufacturers active in this sector of the market are responding to customer pleas.
Sortimo , for instance, has just launched a service case called T-BOXX in the UK. Made from high-grade plastic, it's got a transparent lid and at 2.3kg is one-third lighter than the firm's equivalent steel case.
It's designed to slot into Sortimo's Globelyst storage system, which relies on an aluminium framework made up of a series of bracings; spaceframe technology in effect. It's an approach that can reduce weight by from 20 to 30 per cent.
Simply specifying alloy as opposed to steel shelves can cut weight by from 2kg to 3kg per shelf, says Jones; a useful saving.
Any drawbacks? “Alloy has 90 per cent of the carrying capacity of steel and is from four to six per cent more expensive at present,” he points out.
There's also the concern that alloy may be less able than steel to withstand the battering that some trades dish out.
Some manufacturers - Bri-Stor and Modul-System for example - are helping van operators fight the flab by making extensive use of lightweight high-strength steel. No matter what is employed, however, one thing is pretty much guaranteed; rising raw material costs mean that racking, which is made up of plastic and rubber as well as metal, is going to get more expensive.
“We put our prices up by five per cent in January,” says Modul-System UK general manager, Kevin Tillotson.
“We're not planning any more increases during the rest of this year and we're trying to absorb any further increases in raw material costs ourselves. However it's becoming very difficult.”
“The ballooning cost of steel and plastic is hitting us hard, no question about it,” says a director of a racking manufacturing business, who asked not to be named. “We'll do our best to hold down price rises, but I'm sure they'll have to go up by several percentage points by the end of the year.”
Matters are not helped by the fact that many racking systems are produced in countries in the euro zone; sterling has fallen dramatically against the euro. Further upward pressure is being brought to bear on prices as a consequence, and rising freight bills – again related to the ballooning cost of diesel – are making matters even worse.
Nothing daunted, racking makers are continuing to introduce fresh packages to cater for the new models that have gone on sale in the UK over the past 12 months.
Modul-System, for instance, has developed systems for Citroën's Nemo, Peugeot's Bipper and Fiat's Fiorino, while Edstrom has come up with a package for Volkswagen's Caddy Maxi. It includes shelving, drawer units and drawers and storage boxes.
Nor is the tough economic climate inhibiting innovation. Modul-System has introduced something called Compact Series, which incorporates a slot-and-wheel mechanism that locks the storage boxes it contains into place.
Using a spring release, the mechanism is designed in such a way that the boxes do not have to be lifted as they are removed. As a consequence more rows of boxes can be installed, increased onboard stowage capacity by up to 25 per cent.
In addition the company is launching clip-on plastic windows capable of increasing a box's capacity by more than 100 per cent.
“Something else we've introduced is a folding arm secured to the van's bulkhead that can hold a laptop so that the driver can use it easily,” Tillotson says. It allows the driver to tap away on a keyboard while his van is parked, then fold the arm back and put the laptop away when it's time to drive off.
Well-designed, good-quality onboard storage systems do not come cheap. A package for a Mercedes-Benz Vito Compact with racking on each side of the load area will set you back around £850, says Jones, rising to nearer £1,800 to £2,000 if you want something really sophisticated.
“Remember though that some customers expect to be able to switch all the cabinets, racks and so on to the next van they acquire, and to the one after that,” he says. If that's the plan, then any package selected has to be durable; and products that last tend to be more expensive than those that do not.
Given the modular design of Sortimo's system it's easy for customers to, say, swap a drawer unit for a set of shelves when the storage units are being moved from one van to the next if their requirements change, says Jones. He makes the further point that no drilling is required to install the units – they locate to existing mounting points on the vehicle.
Avoiding drilling wherever possible is wise because it can result in corrosion and the invalidation of the van's paintwork and body warranty. If drilling has to take place, then the hole created should be treated thoroughly to prevent the onset of rust.
Not everybody needs such a robust storage package as the one outlined above of course, or wants to spend that sort of money. Racks featuring louvred panels with a selection of storage boxes attached to them that can be slid out through the rear doors of a panel van for easy access can be obtained for as little as £500 to £600.
Remember that a well-designed racking system should help ensure that the tools you require to do your job aren't left behind at the depot. If a drill isn't sitting in the place designated for it then you'll spot the fact before you set off, and take action.
That's far better than discovering its absence once you've reached your destination and having to drive all the way back to home base to collect it.
Businesses active in the sector still seem to be willing to invest in new facilities as well as new products.
Now a sister company of Modul-System, Tevo has acquired extra premises for its Bourne End, Buckinghamshire headquarters to increase the level of stock it can hold and improve the service it provides. Not to be outdone, Sortimo is opening an installation centre at Birchwood near Warrington to complement the facilities it offers at its UK headquarters in Old Sarum near Salisbury.
Down in Cornwall, Bott has just spent £800,000 extending its site in Bude. As well as new office accommodation, the complex boasts a new showroom and training centre.
In addition it's pumped £700,000 into a sophisticated machine tool that should help boost production efficiency. The Salvagnini P4-2516 can bend mild steel up to 2.5mm thick.
Conscious of the catastrophe likely to ensue if shelves break away and drawers burst open during a collision, hurling screwdrivers, hammers and so on all around the inside of a vehicle, virtually all the leading players have had their products crash-tested.
Modul-System had its packages successfully put through the mill at Volvo's car safety centre in Gothenburg, Sweden. The tests were carried out against a collision pulse of at least 20g for 30 milliseconds to replicate what happens in a 30mph-plus smash.
Fleet customers want to see the results of such tests, says Jones. “The utilities, for instance, certainly ask for them in tender documents,” he observes.
“Having seen the evidence, what they then typically do is give us a set of the tools and parts that their engineers have to carry with them and ask us to design a storage system that will house them efficiently and safely.”
“Testing is not having as much impact on buyer attitudes as we might think though,” reckons Tillotson. “While there are many responsible operators out there who follow best practice, others seem quite happy with dodgy home-made racking knocked together out of wood, and a lot of them still chuck everything on the floor of their vehicle.
“Many smaller firms in particular don't seem to appreciate how important testing is.”
Perhaps they should be reminded that if you are involved in a 30mph head-on collision with a stationary vehicle, then the laws of physics mean that a 75kg load suddenly weighs three tonnes. Something else worth bearing in mind is that the police and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency have been cracking down on operators who fail to secure their loads properly.
Commercial Vehicle Racking Association chairman, Andrew Humphrey, would like the UK racking industry to be regulated to make sure the highest possible safety standard are met
“Any regulations ought to address the way in which systems should be expected to behave in an accident and ensure that they are fit for purpose,” he states. Mandatory crash-testing would be one approach and Humphrey and his colleagues are looking at the sort of legislation that is in force in other countries worldwide.
“We're discussing the matter with other trade associations and with end-users, but it may be sometime before legislation comes into force,” he observes. Humphrey is also Bri-Stor's group managing director.
Another aspect of health and safety is taxing the minds of both equipment suppliers and responsible owners of high roof vans; how best to set about loading and unloading ladders stowed on roof racks without the need to clamber up on top of the vehicle.
Do that and you risk tumbling off, suffering injury; and the Health and Safety Executive is treating the prevention of falls from height seriously and taking action against employers who allow such things to happen as one of its top priorities.
One option is to fit a system that allows you to take ladders off and put them back on again while remaining safely on the ground.
Bri-Stor, for example, offers one that it markets under the Easi-Load banner. Other firms with such devices in their portfolio include Rhino Products and TrukRax.
As well as improving safely, it speeds up the whole loading and unloading process. Bri-Stor cites the example of mobile engineers working for one of its clients who typically used to take more than 10 minutes to extract ladders from their vans.
“With Easi-Load in place they can complete the task in a fraction of the time,” says a company spokesman. Improved efficiency plus enhanced safety from a single product. Now that's got to be worth looking at.
Not to be outdone, Rhino is introducing the ?Rhine Safestow' to enable safe and easy loading/unloading of ladders which it claims is the safest method and will eliminate many injuries associated from ?climbing up' on high roof van models.
This system is manufactured from light but sturdy aluminium
profiles with self-supporting gas struts which enable ladders up to a maximum of 50kg to be lowered/raised within ?seconds'.
As can be seen there is no shortage of racking options, from the simplest systems to the really substantial. For reasons of safety and security we would recommend highly specifying a full steel bulkhead if one isn't supplied as standard.