Fitting a tail-lift or a crane to a light commercial not only makes life easier, but it also takes care of health and safety issues as Steve Banner discovered.
Tail-lift manufacturers have seen some tough times over the past couple of years. When light commercial registrations fall there are fewer new vehicles around for their products to be attached to; and that means lower sales. Business looks as though it might be improving at long last however says Richard Short, sales director at Penny Hydraulics.
“Things certainly picked up in the first quarter,” he reports. “In fact we were back to the level of sales we were enjoying in 2006 and 2007.”
“Our tail-lift sales appear to have increased, albeit slightly,” says Tipmaster managing director, Matthew Terry. As well as building tipper bodies, Tipmaster sells the Tommy Lift.
“Trading so far this year is certainly better than it was last year but there’s still uncertainty in the market,” says Ratcliff Palfinger managing director, Paul Addis. Ratcliff Palfinger is well-known for producing column-type tail-lifts; still hugely popular in the UK. “I think there are a few twists and turns to come in the sector,” he continues. “We’re certainly not out of the woods yet.”
In the meantime Ratcliff Palfinger’s Flexi-Lift is winning friends says Addis — the RQ527 Flexi-Lift will hoist 500kg — while operators who run box vans and Lutons at 3.5 tonnes are showing increased interest in the RQR518.
One of its key advantages is that its alloy platform can be used as the body’s rear closure instead of a roller shutter door. “That way you can save around 80kg of weight,” Addis says. “The body’s top panel locks into the platform itself.” Able to lift 500kg, the RQR518’s own weight starts at 200kg depending on specifications.
“One lift we’ve recently introduced is the internally-mounted 500kg-capacity RTP50, which splits vertically,” says Addis. “It can be ordered with a platform 900mm wide and up to 1,500mm deep.
Tail-lift specifications are increasingly likely to include safety guards. A tumble from a tail-lift platform — even one mounted on a 3.5-tonner rather than a heavy truck — could result in injury. In these litigious times employers are also acutely aware that an employee who is hurt at work is likely to take them to court; and the Health & Safety Executive takes a particularly tough line on falls from height in the workplace.
Ryder has specified safety guards on tail-lifts it has acquired from DEL Equipment says DEL marketing manager, Paul Kelly. “There’s certainly more interest among operators in the use of this type of safety measure,” he says.
These days DEL Equipment is owned by Cargotec, which also owns tail-lift maker Zepro. The Zepro connection means that DEL is now busy marketing the 500kg-capacity ZV50 cantilever lift for panel vans. Weighing 165kg it comes with an alloy platform 1,300mm wide and 1,300mm deep. Options available include flashing lights for the platform.
“Alloy platforms have become pretty much the norm over the past eight years,” Kelly says. “Less than one per cent of the lifts we supply are specified with steel platforms.”
Used properly, tail-lifts themselves can of course make a significant contribution to health and safety. Their use means that van drivers aren’t constantly trying to wrestle items that are way too heavy for them in and out of vehicles, risking back injuries, dislocated shoulders and broken fingers. They also make it less likely that product will be damaged as a consequence of being dropped during loading or unloading.
Tail-lifts are often used for quite specialised tasks. Penny Hydraulics, for example, has supplied a bespoke version of its 300kg-capacity Load Lift to Tomra Systems, which manufactures sophisticated automated waste sorting and processing equipment.
The equipment is fitted with cutting heads used to slice and dice alloy cans and plastic bottles. The heads need replacing from time to time; and they’re heavy.
To handle them safely the vans used by Tomra’s engineers have a Load Lift mounted just behind the back doors. It means that only one engineer needs to be dispatched to each job rather than the two or more that used to be required to lift items in and out of the vehicle. It also means that there’s less risk of injury.
Despite their name, tail-lifts don’t necessarily have to be mounted at the rear of a vehicle. With a capacity of up to 350kg, Dhollandia’s new DH-VZS lift, for example, is suitable for loading and unloading goods through a van’s side door.
Weighing 145kg, it stows away in the cargo area and the 1,000mm x 820mm platform — other dimensions are available on request — can be flattened against the van’s bulkhead so that it doesn’t obstruct access.
Equipped with a hinged bridge plate, the platform is pulled out and opened by hand. It’s raised and lowered by using a two-button control box on a wander lead.
The lift can be installed just inside the rear doors as well, as can the 450kg-capacity DH-P2. Also suitable for side mounting, it’s offered with a platform depth of 1,080mm, 1,150mm or 1,350mm and with a width of either 820mm or 920mm.
Tail-lift design is continuing to develop says Short. “One thing we’re doing is looking at various ways of making lifts lighter,” he says. “It’s good news for fuel consumption and good news for payload too.
“If we can get the weight down sufficiently then that may enable the customer to save money by switching to using a smaller van.”
Aftersales support is continuing to develop too. “We’re about to launch an e-commerce web site that allows customers to buy parts and accessories for next-day delivery,” he says.
There’s little evidence that tough economic times are prompting operators to skimp on tail-lift maintenance contends Ratcliff Palfinger. “We saw spares sales fall towards the end of last year, which made us wonder, but they came back strongly again in the first quarter,” Addis reports. “What may have happened is that there was less of a need for parts during the last quarter of 2009 because vehicles were idle and as a consequence their tail-lifts weren’t being use.”
If lifts aren’t in action then clearly they require less servicing. “Overall I think that the adherence of operators to maintenance standards remains pretty good,” Addis says.
Tail-lifts needn’t be all that expensive. Penny says it can offer a 500kg-capacity model that costs no more than £995 plus fitting and delivery; a remarkably low price given that tail-lifts of that size generally cost more like £1,800 to £1,900, delivered and installed.
Ratcliff Palfinger, Dhollandia, Penny Hydraulics, DEL, Zepro and Tipmaster are by no means the only businesses that supply tail-lifts. Ross & Bonnyman and Anteo are both active in the sector too.
A tail-lift of course is not the only means of hoisting cargo on and off a light commercial. A lightweight vehicle-mounted crane is often a suitable alternative
Penny Hydraulics and Tipmaster both make light cranes while loader crane maker Hiab is yet another member of the Cargotec group.
Nor are cranes necessarily massive, unwieldy lumps of metal. Leicestershire brewery Everards has equipped the vans used by its technical services engineers with compact Swing Lift Miniloaders from Penny Hydraulics that fit just behind the back doors.
They can lift 150kg and are used to move drinks coolers and other pieces of equipment in and out of subterranean pub cellars typically less than 3m below ground level. Because the need for physical handling has been reduced, engineers can work alone rather than in pairs and don’t have to call on busy pub staff to help heave items about. The crane’s boom can be set to three different heights and folds away inside the van’s load area when not in use.
What usually happens is that the engineer positions his van so that the rear is as close as possible to the cellar access point. The crane’s integral electric winch then lowers a hook into the cellar so that the failed cooler can be lifted out on special slings. Once that job is done, a replacement cooler is lowered into place.
Tipmaster markets the 300-kg capacity Swift Lift crane for around £1,000. Tipping the scales at a modest 95kg, it’s available with an attachment that allows drums to be lifted.
Also light in weight given its capabilities, at just 125kg excluding stabilisers, is Hiab’s 008 T-1. At the lower-capacity end of the manufacturer’s vast range of loader cranes, it will raise 840kg at 1.1m and 480kg at 1.9m.
Tipmaster regularly swaps Tommy Lifts and Swift Lifts from one vehicle to another as the vehicle they’re fitted to reaches the end of its life with the operator concerned. “Typically that happens once every three or four years,” says Terry.
Clearly that only make sense if the equipment has been properly looked after; a good argument for ensuring that it’s maintained regularly and professionally. Ensure that the work is done by a suitably-qualified technician; and don’t postpone services.
If there’s the requirement to shift heavy items into and out of a light commercial then either a tail-lift or a crane becomes an essential bit of kit. There is, however, no shortage of options on offer.