Loading and unloading heavy items in and out of a van need not pose any problems as Steve Banner discovers in this first part of a look at the latest developments in the manual handling market. In this feature he focuses on tail-lifts and ramps.
Tumbling light commercial sales over the past few months have affected manufacturers of ancillary equipment too. “The tail-lift market is pretty depressed,” says Paul Addis, managing director of tail-lift maker Ratcliff Palfinger. “In fact if I’m honest, it’s stagnant.”
“Our revenue will be down this year and we’ve had to take action to reduce our cost base,” he continues. “It’s a case of battening down the hatches.”
Not that it’s all doom and gloom, he stresses. “At least the sales decline we’ve suffered has been no worse than the decline in the light commercial market itself and at least we’ve been able to maintain our level of spending on research and development,” he says. “If anything the recession has given us a chance to regroup and we should emerge a leaner and fitter company when it ends; and it will end one day.”
Addis is also encouraged by the continued willingness of tail-lift owners to spend money on maintenance. So far as he can see there’s no evidence that firms are skimping on servicing in the illusory hope that they might save some cash.
“In fact we’re seeing increased interest in maintenance contracts, with customers paying a fixed amount each month to ensure their tail-lifts are properly looked after,” he observes.
Richard Short, sales director at Penny Hydraulics — it makes light cranes as well as tail-lifts — agrees that businesses aren’t cutting back on service and repair. “We’ve seen an increase in parts sales,” he reports. “Remember that people are keeping their tail-lifts and cranes for a bit longer than they might otherwise have done.”
Like Ratcliff Palfinger, Penny Hydraulics has not taken an axe to R&D spending despite today’s tough times. “In fact we’ve strengthened our development team,” says Short.
Something that’s undoubtedly helping Ratcliff Palfinger make headway in the current economic climate says Addis is the breadth of its range.
Traditionally the company has been best-known for its column lifts, but 2007 saw Palfinger acquire cantilever lift specialist MBB. The firm’s British activities have now been integrated into the Ratcliff Palfinger operation.
“The two ranges complement each other nicely and cantilevers seem to be becoming more widely accepted in the UK,” Addis says. One advantage of fitting a cantilever is that operation tends to be fully automatic. However, the lift will probably be slightly heavier than a column lift of equivalent capacity.
An example of a cantilever available from Ratcliff Palfinger is the MBB Minifix 500. As its designation suggests, it’s capable of raising 500kg. It weighs from 156kg and features an alloy platform 1,575mm deep and 1,400mm wide. A spring-loaded roll stop, flashing warning lights that operate when the platform is in use and a hinged bridge plate all come as standard.
An example of a column lift is the RQ527 Flexi-Lift. It too will hoist half a tonne, weights start at 150kg and customers can choose from either fixed or folding alloy platforms with depths ranging from 750mm to 1,125mm.
DEL marketing manager, Paul Kelly, agrees with Addis that times are grim. “I reckon demand for tail-lifts is down roughly 30 per cent overall, but DEL seems to be doing quite well in comparison with some of the other manufacturers,” he contends. Once reason says Kelly is the interest in its 500kg-capacity Dump Over and Dump Thru column lifts, which tend to be popular with local authorities. Designed to be mounted on tippers, in both cases their platforms substitute for the rear tailgate.
With the Dump Over the platform can be stowed below cargo floor level, which means that it doesn’t get in the way if a load is being tipped. With the Dump Thru the platform’s pivot pins can be removed quickly, allowing it to swing free when cargo is being discharged.
These days DEL Equipment is owned by Cargotec. Best-known for its Hiab range of loader cranes, Cargotec also owns tail-lift specialist Zepro.
While the market is harsh, sales of Tipmaster’s Tommy Lift are not down as much as overall vehicle sales, says managing director, Matthew Terry. Far from being gloomy, he is planning to launch a new 500kg-capacity column lift within the next two months.
It will be possible to fit it to Luton bodies, he says. While Tipmaster is best-known for its tipper bodies, it also produces upwards of 40 to 50 box and Luton bodies annually. “I’ll be happy if we do 30 or 40 this year though, given the economic climate,” Terry says. “Usually we supply them to customers and dealers who already take our tipper bodies.” Tipmaster also sells a range of small cranes under the Swift Lift branding.
Operational safety is always an issue with tail-lifts and there’s increased interest in the use of safety gates. Offered as an option, they’re fitted to the platform to stop the user accidentally falling off the edge. “The uptake among light commercial operators is fairly low, however,” says Addis.
Ratcliff Palfinger, Penny Hydraulics, DEL, Zepro and Tipmaster are by no means the only companies that supply tail-lifts. Other players in the market include Ross & Bonnyman, Dhollandia, Bar Cargolift and Anteo.
The last-named firm’s range embraces internally and externally mounted tail-lifts for vans, with capacities of from 320kg to 750kg. Its full line-up includes column, cantilever, tuckaway and retractable lifts.
Dhollandia has launched a lightweight 500kg-capacity column lift, the DH-VOC, that’s available with an optional steel mesh platform. Designed to avoid dirt building up, increasing the risk of people slipping – a concern if the vehicle has to go to, say, muddy building sites regularly – it also cuts wind-resistance if the lift is fitted to an open-backed body.
Never forget that tail-lifts and cranes drain power from your battery, so fit a battery protection device. It will stop them working if it looks as though you won’t have enough juice left to re-start your vehicle’s engine.
Never forget either that, as indicated earlier, powered lifting aids need regular maintenance. “It is not expensive, but it needs to be done,” says Judge. “One of the things we recommend with our cranes, for instance, is weekly greasing, but that need not take long,” he continues. “The 013, for example, only has a handful of grease nipples.”
Tail-lift or crane, the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER) require that it must undergo a regular thorough examination by a competent person; a suitably qualified technician, for example. That should ensure that the device remains safe to use and forestall disaster.
An alternative to both a tail-lift and a crane may be to use a ramp, assuming of course that a load is capable of being wheeled up it and there’s sufficient room for the ramp to be deployed.
Ramp supplier WM System, for example, offers no less than 600 different models — they go up in 50mm widths and lengths — with capacities of up to no less than 1,800kg depending on the version you choose. The ramps are alloy — it’s a one-man job to deploy them, says the company — but galvanised steel is available as an alternative. They weigh from 40kg to 125kg and demountable or semi-permanent versions can be specified.
Ramps have the advantages that they won’t drain your battery and don’t need the sort of servicing that a tail-lift or a crane does. Look after them and they’ll last; they may even outlast your van.
Tail-lifts and ramps are indispensable in this day and age if heavy lifting is required. Legislation is in place to make sure companies comply, but there is definitely no shortage of solutions on offer. We take a look at light cranes next month.