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A Lift in Lean Manufacturing Flexibility and Efficiency

Manufacturing worker uses lift truck during production

Since its development in the early 20th century, the forklift is the undisputed workhorse of the material handling industry. Visit any warehouse and distribution center around the world and you’ll see it in action, moving materials of different sizes and weights in many different applications. Many of the trucks display scrapes, scuffs and scratches that are synonymous with working day after day in harsh and unpredictable environments yet they soldier on, reliably and predictably performing their tasks.

It is this proven durability and flexibility that has brought forklifts into the manufacturing environment. These traits have been a major factor in their continued importance in this rough and rugged workplace. Some transport loads while others are used in flexible manufacturing processes. Here are examples of how forklifts can be put to work in lean manufacturing environments:

Turret stockpickers, like the TSP Series, are designed to work in very narrow aisles, offering warehouses the opportunity to expand their warehouse up rather than out thanks to both their higher lift height and ability to hold greater capacities. By not having to expand outward, companies are able to save on real estate and construction costs.

Because of the turret truck’s versatility, some manufacturers have managed to use it to blend a number of operations – welding, brake press, warehousing, and material handling – into one manufacturing cell, maximizing space in a key manufacturing area. This allows for a reduction of inventory, an increase in productivity, an improved safety environment, a reallocation of labor and improvement of on-time delivery, all while saving space.

Walkie pallet trucks, such as the WP or PW Series, usually operate on receiving/shipping docks and within distribution centers. Some manufacturers use them to transport parts and supplies to assembly lines and stations.

Manufacturers can use walkie stacker trucks, like the M or ST/SX Series, to move assemblies down the assembly line as they move through the assembly process, creating an elevated work platform. Assemblers are able to better position the assembly as it moves through each station along the assembly line.

This solution offers flexibility that a regular conveyor line does not. In the event that a change in the line configuration is needed, the change is made easier than in a fixed line application.

Rider pallet trucks, like the PE or PC Series, work in places such as warehouses and freezer environments, transporting loads and unload trailers. In manufacturing, they are used in a fashion similar to the walkie pallet but are able to handle higher capacity loads capacity, compensating for the greater weight of parts.

As with the walkie stacker trucks, special fixtures can be added to allow the rotation of the assemblies as parts are added at each station. The addition of a tilt table moves each part into an ergonomically safe position, aiming to minimize overstretching and potential injury among the workforce. The system affords the same flexibility as the walkie pallet system, avoiding the limitations of a locked-down conveyance system.

Tow tractors, or tuggers, pull carts of material or perform low-level order picks, but manufacturers can employ them in feeding the assembly lines. By pulling carts loaded with supplies for various stations, tow tractors create a flexible delivery system. At each designated stop, the tow tractor operator exchanges a cart of new work for either an empty cart to retrieve more parts or one containing finished work that can be transported to the next manufacturing station.

This frees additional space at each station, which would usually be occupied by the forklift in a traditional forklift point-to-point supply method. The line is also able to be compressed, giving management the opportunity to reallocate space as needed.

Factors to consider

By increasing efficiency and speed through the cart exchanges, companies may see an increase in labor savings.  Companies, thanks to an increase in the number of replenishments per day, might also be able to better meet fluctuating demand.

To implement forklifts into a manufacturing environment in the best way possible, managers should consider a number of factors.

There must always be an awareness of any new safety or training issues that may need to be addressed following a product change to the assembly line. Companies must work closely with their forklift provider to determine which forklift will best suit their needs and what fixtures, such as the mobile positioning device, may be required.

The material, and its maximum weight, will be a necessary consideration in this process. There must also be a consideration of each forklift’s limitations and requirements, including battery life and recharging. In the case of high-volume manufacturing lines, there may be other more effective transport solutions.

Using forklifts in the manufacturing process may result in many benefits. Thinking differently about moving materials with your manufacturing operations may deliver surprising results.

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