Last year was marked by significant geopolitical uncertainty, fragile economic growth and a plethora of technological advances, giving forklift manufacturers, vendors, buyers and end-users significant challenges and opportunities.
Financial results from late last year included revised earnings forecasts from the major European manufacturers, most of which are anticipating falling demand in their key markets and product sectors.
Andreas Krinninger, chairman of the board of management of Linde Material Handling, tells that economic uncertainty will continue and "will require flexibility and responsiveness from both our customers and us".
"We have prepared ourselves to be able to manage market increases or decreases swiftly. With our customers, we engage to identify process and equipment adjustments that support them in managing in these challenging times. Together, we question processes and optimise materials handling workflows - to make processes faster, safer and more cost-efficient.
"In times of uncertainty, we recognise that customers turn to those they trust. Therefore, we are quite proud of the strong demand that we see for our offering. This underscores the trust in Linde Material Handling as trustworthy experts and as a partner providing performant and efficient solutions," he says.
The global economic uncertainty is also front of mind for Davide Roncari, president and CEO of Cascade Corporation. "In the past year, certain economic indicators have shown a slowdown in most global markets along with tariff sanctions, adverse political situations, impending Brexit and more. These economic conditions certainly could continue to pose a challenge for the industry in 2020, but the hope is that the global market will only have a short setback.'
Fortunately, he observes, Cascade is a global company with sales, distribution and manufacturing in 30 locations around the world. "This enables us to respond to the needs of local markets, reduce logistics costs for the customer, and mitigate the impact of these shifts." As for Brexit, "Cascade is in a unique position to offset some of the Brexit impact as it's the only attachment and fork company to own facilities on both the European mainland and the UK with our fork plant in Manchester."
China, one of the world's largest markets and for many years a major growth engine for the whole industry, is also slowing.
Hangcha spokeswoman Tina Lou cites statistics from CITA indicating sales volumes of around 306,000 units for the first half of last year - down 0.31% year-on-year. "The main reasons are that the global economic growth is slowing down, China-US trade frictions are intensifying, and the domestic
economy is in decline," she explains, noting that the industrial vehicle market has entered a period of adjustment.
For Mark Manninen, vice president of sales and marketing for UniCarriers Americas Corporation, tariffs were probably the largest factor, influencing a market volume decrease of between 10% and 12%. "For the Latin American market, geopolitical instability also had a strong influence.
"In addition, the impact of labour shortages is making it challenging for forklift users to find operators, which is driving the increased interest in automation. We're seeing the need for automation over traditional materials handling being more and more commonplace," he says.
Shifts in power solutions
The evolving nature of logistics, with the growth of 24/7 urban warehouses, is one of the key drivers of change, according to Paul Murray, JCB's Teletruk general manager.
He identifies the growing need for quiet, pollution-free operations: "The fact is emissions, noise and the need to maximise all available space are as important as productivity and running cost considerations when it comes to choosing materials handling equipment for an urban warehouse operation."
Murray explains that while IC engine-powered models in the JCB Logistics Teletruk range meet the most stringent emissions regulations, JCB is experiencing huge interest in its electric-powered Teletruk range from companies that operate facilities within or close to residential areas.
"Like all battery electric forklifts, electric Teletruks give off no harmful emissions. They are also quiet in use. JCB is a leader in innovative clean diesel technology but our launch of an electric-powered model means the Teletruk can be used both inside and outside a store," Murray says.
John Maguire, managing director of Narrow Aisle, also notes a shift in power sources. "We believe that many users of LP gas-powered handling equipment in warehousing are switching to machines that run on lithium-ion batteries as the ideal way of reducing running costs, exhaust emissions and operational noise levels," he says.
"LPG is costly and linked to global oil prices, and from an operational point of view, the time taken to change or fill each gas bottle means that truck downtime can be a problem for some high utilisation customers. If a bulk tank can be justified, then storage of multiple bottles can be avoided."
Maguire adds that the control systems and catalytic converters required to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide emissions from LPG engines add significantly to a truck's operating costs, "so it's easy to see why many people are talking about lithium-ion trucks as a cost-effective alternative to LPG machines".
Martin McVicar, CEO and co-founder of Combilift, also identifies emissions requirements, especially the new diesel engine emissions standards, as the reason many customers are moving over to LPG or electric-powered trucks. Combilift's solution is to offer two types of engine: certified engines for the more regulated markets and non-certified ones for the non-regulated/ developing markets. "From a manufacturer's point of view, this may make for more complexity in the production process (as most manufacturers find it easier to implement any changes across the board), but we want to be able to offer our customers products that are the most convenient for their use, for reliability and for after-sales service."
Robin Behnam, a spokesman for French manufacturer Manitou, says his company anticipated "the energy transition phenomenon" a few years ago and shifted its production accordingly from diesel to electric, but also from diesel to LPG and dual fuel. Like Combilift, Manitou "takes into account the specifics of each country and its level of industrial maturity".
The shift towards electrics also impacts the attachment market, according to Cascade's Roncari: "Market trends are showing a greater adoption of electric forklifts along with the need to minimise the impact on the environment, so the ability to optimise attachments to reduce energy use is becoming increasingly important. Our energy efficient designs, like the hydraulic systems on our paper roll clamps and carton clamps for example, use less energy during operation and maximise lift truck efficiency."
Many in the industry, like FLTA's Waples, see lithium-ion battery technology as one of the big trends continuing in 2020. Waples attributes its popularity to the charging ability and lengthier life spans that support longer shifts.
Lithium-powered equipment is comprising a growing share of production for Europe's largest manufacturer, Jungheinrich - so much so that the company formed a joint venture, JT Energy Systems, to meet the growing demand.
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