China has no doubt now become the “Black Country” of the refined Black Smiths industries of the  1870s to 1950s. Back in the day, if you wanted a 6m length of angle, a wheel or an axle collar, you made it. And when I say ‘made it’ you dug the ore, smelted it and forged it into the grade and type of material you needed. Later on, that progressed to specialised products such as trolleys, barrows and lifting equipment. The iron works of the 1870s were the powerhouses of construction, manufacturing and handling equipment. What happened to them all? Those who were masters of all trades could provide volume in none of them, the investments were enormous, so that took out 40% of their businesses for a start. Employment laws became tougher and finally cheap imports put pay to the rest, a problem we continue to struggle with today.

China started to get into global metal goods production starting with the single trip container amongst other things.

Personally, I like the idea of Visa free travel, free trade in Europe and the world being my oyster. Whilst we sort out the rules all over again, whatever that means, let’s take a look at what we have at the Blacksmith’s end of things.

How Well Does Your Equipment Stand up to the Job?

When I first went to China in the 90s the economy was helter-skelter locked into supplying the west. China used to be Japan’s best-kept secret, encouraged by the USA. Eventually, it was enticed to supply the west by the lure of big dollars and they were not geared up for it. Europe was not ready either with an established metal goods industry set up. Self-regulated for the commercial world, we, the makers, worked to codes of practice that simply were not entertained by China. So it wasn’t that they didn’t play by the rules, it was more that they couldn’t and didn’t know how. Oblivious to the mass destruction of our basic blacksmith’s industries millions of jobs went south because our economy was so localised, we were not able to turn the corner and supply the globe. Our labour and land were simply not competitive, and we were not the only nation caught with our pants down either. Almost overnight unregulated steel goods flooded in, from tiny monkey bikes to pallet trucks. It was the death knell for our industry.

The first massive difference was wheels, castors and axle tolerances. Being blunt they were appalling. Largely geared up to supply the American mail order, cheap as chips catalogue industry, which was totally unregulated and absolutely disastrous for industrial use. This terrible equipment soon flooded our market and at $3.00 each we couldn’t even buy the wheels, which had a 5mm tolerance bore to the axle, which meant the wheels wobbled. The axle diameter of 15mm and inferior steel simply wasn’t up to any type of industrial work and that type of equipment is still coming into the UK today and selling at preposterous prices. The weight load is based on static loadings which are a nonsense in engineering terms for equipment that’s dynamically loaded. I actually tested a UK sack barrow at just over £100.00 against a £13.00 “Costco type” equivalent and at the same maximum stated load, the import failed 27 times, when the UK one only needed replacement wheels. That made the Chinese product over £324.00 do the same job as our UK one. They are getting better at building them and the UK is a small part of their target strategy. The more we go on importing this equipment the less choice we have.

Far from improving performances, our costs are covertly going up and up. Special WTO agreements have failed to deal with this and when four years ago at CEMAT in Hanover bodies were being set up to regulate the industry, they were then, in my opinion, under-resourced and scratching the surface, such is the scale of the problem. Since we are apparently changing the rules, perhaps this is the time to re-visit our own engineering standards and think more constructively about the quality of our acquisitions and use and application of precious world resources. Our own industries, which are not really global, but which in desperation are sourcing apparently cheaper components, are learning the lessons the hard way. By the time we finally achieve a correctly specified piece of steel, properly prepared to task and meet the regulations the way they are implemented, surprisingly far from a windfall of profiteering cash for a container of goods, there is only a distribution margin.

Materials handling equipment is not a fashion accessory. Internet sites are packed full of containerised ‘one size fits all’ cheap trolleys and pallet trucks, which are now regarded as disposable. It actually costs more to service them than what the goods are worth. A pallet truck in China will set you back less than £50.00. I should think welding in open toe shoes and employing extremely young people without any regard to safety has moved on a bit since the 90s. You may take the view that it is an improvement for them and they are better off with us than without us. I don’t agree. Since there is only a distribution margin left now, we should be able to compete, with all that that means for our own economy.

Careers, including the return of apprentices and crafting skills, sustain the working environment and don’t need an armada of container ships to support them and could all be back on the cards. This will, in turn, be making equipment at a sensible price, fit for purpose and easily fixable. Until only recently this equipment was completely inflexible and pretty much unrepairable and on many items not even worth repairing. This is is largely the case today and in my opinion, adds up to 5 million lost skilled jobs.

So we now are reduced to importing cheap inferior equipment at huge environmental cost. I think it is time to take another look at what we can all do to change this whilst we have the chance. The people of Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle regularly pay millions and millions of pounds to watch world-class football players imported from all over the planet at the expense of their own youngsters. The issue is that some globalisation is acceptable, however, too much of a good thing becomes self-defeating. The materials handling industry is a very good example of how badly things can go wrong and very largely through ignorance and because we had no voice. By the time this changed it was too late.

So next time you are on the internet buying equipment take some time to ask:

  1. Where the product was made
  2. Whether it has been given the right safe working load (static for shelving, dynamic for mobile)
  3. If it looks like it is up to the task
  4. Expected lifespan
  5. Cost of ownership
  6. Spares support

We are always happy to help! Get in touch if you need expert advice on material handling equipment.

Here is why your pallet truck will last about 12 months in most commercial applications before it needs attention. You can buy it for well under £200.00 if you know where to look. A set of wheels will cost you nearly half of that. However, for not much more money, it is possible to have better quality hydraulics, made in Europe, better wheels and axles. The costs between service intervals decrease and the percentage cost of ownership plummets. It’s a bit like fine wine, the more you pay the bigger the percentage of quality goes with it. Unlike wine, in this house anyway, it will last longer and give better service. Worth keeping in mind! Look out for the companies on the internet that still design and make what you need. I would suggest they will give you much more bang for your buck.

What Else is Out There to Get the Job Done?

Bogies: Take up to two or more tonnes with ease. Can be winched or track mounted. Move Pianos, lifeboats, machinery.

Trolleys: With platforms sides, shelves, trays, covers, soft containers, vehicle and property friendly, smart, instant identification system and RFID trackable. Offer a vast support to distribution both on and off-site, WIP options and silent running, forkliftable are all out there. This is a great start to cutting down on double handling. Power pack can also be fitted.

Trucks: Aside from pallet trucks, there are turntable trucks up to 100 tonnes from 200kgs. They have cages, sides and shelves, and can be towed by hand or powered by fork trucks. Tow trucks singly or in train and with the addition of Ackerman steering will follow each other round corners without cutting the corner. Brakes, lights and weatherproof canopies are just some of the go-t0 options.

Barrows: Barrows make great tools for sharing heavy loads in tight spaces, they can convert into trucks to give a multitasking piece of equipment that easily adapts for van and delivery work. Again, power packs are available. White goods, sacks, crates, bins and luggage are all barrow jobs, single and two-wheeled versions with bodies are perfect for loose materials.

Carts: Distinguishable by their horizontal handles which allow them to be pushed and pulled on large diameter wheels, popular in the mills and stations. They have been in use up to the 70s and are now mainly mall displays and railway station memorabilia and film props.

What Materials to Use

These days it is largely steel and stainless steel, with an array of mill-made worktops. Joinery timber tops, liners, sides and shelves are still available if you know who to ask.

What to Choose in Wheels

Wheels would be fitted to carts, barrows, trucks and bogies but trolleys are always mounted on castors. Go for barrows, carts or trucks for rough ground. Bogies and trolleys like smooth floors.

  • Trucks – a cushion tyre usually does most things, including not getting punctures
  • Heavy loads and soft groundwork – don’t underestimate pneumatic
  • Heavy loads – plastics, polyurethane
  • Heavy-duty manufacturing jobs – steel
  • Silent or sensitive floors – nylon rubber
  • Bakeries or hot areas – Nylon or steel and corrosive or abrasive polyurethane lasts well with sealed bearings
  • Wet applications – plain bore nylon on stainless axles works well. Dairies eat bearings and steel so stainless and sealed bearings work well.
  • Mud – Pneumatic, soft ground lay boards.

Other Equipment

Choose stainless steel for food, pharmaceutical, chemical and medical industries.

A whole range of variants exists for specialised furniture handling for production, transport and maintenance applications. We should also mention table stackers, milk crate handlers, dolly bases for stacked boxes, wheeled stillages and, of course, roll cages, which may soon be replaced by an entirely new grocery delivery concept.

Top Down Problems

Hands up if you have ever had to offload a lorry on a steep gradient? You will know that the second the load is fully airborne it self-levels and if you aren’t seriously careful that means four tonnes swinging right through and into the lorry cab. Oops! Worse if you are in the way!

For this reason and the risk of slipping, it is forbidden to get onto a loaded trailer to sling a load. All I can say to that is technically we should have run out of flatbed trailers 15 years ago and there would be a trailer park somewhere full of trailers with ‘unoffloadable’ goods. If you watched the video linked to this article you can see that there is, in fact, a person on the back of the trailer we featured. The short answer is that the trailer should be sent to a specialist yard with the right gear for the job. However, someone still has to connect something to the load to free lift it. If anyone has the answer, let us know, we will publish it!

For everything else, there is an armoury of fork truck attachments including 4-fork fitments for long loads, crane hooks, slings, chains and clamping systems. Then spreaders and jibs also play a role, most of which will also adapt for cranes.

Browse Forklift Attachments

Grass, Gravel and Glides

Once out of the factory a whole raft of problems faces the materials handling enthusiast. If you paid £400.00 to be an appointed person, well done. Gravel, grass and soft ground need a different approach.

Timber, plastic or metal decking is really the answer, a bit like conveyor rollers essential for load spreading. By preparing a “runway” you can easily and quickly make your own loading bay. So if Sainsbury’s are delivering to you outdoors New Years Eve party, think about scaffolding planks. They are available for hire and make excellent immediate runways to move supplies over the most beautiful and well-kept of lawns without damage.  A few more can protect the grass from fireworks damage and make setting up displays a good deal more orderly too.

Harbours and factories with good concrete ground can make excellent load bearing surfaces for heavy machinery or even boats with machinery skates and air glides. With the aid of jack sets, the roller assemblies are manoeuvred into position and the load can be lowered. Again powered options exist.

Written by the Material Handling Hub Correspondent Paul Casebourne

Cover Image © Wacker Neuson