Rough and tumble: telehandler or verticle mast forklift?

15 April 2008

Has the versatile and productive telehandler become the machine of choice, replacing the workhorse vertical mast forklift? John Wyatt reports

The jury seems to still be out on the question of whether the forward reach telehandler will phase out the straight mast forklift in North America. Interviews with a spectrum of distributors, end users and manufacturers, reveal an array of verdicts. For the most part, opinions vary based on who is using the equipment and where. It is clear, for example, that dealers servicing the material handling markets had a different point of view from those who deal with the agricultural sector.

Jim Beale, general manager of Pompano Beach, FL–based Gordy's Equipment of Broward Inc., prefers the use of the forward reach telehandler. As a rental company, Gordy's supplies telehandlers to construction subcontractors that are mostly masonry, concrete and stucco applicators. Gordy's fleet includes the Pettibone telehandler models 10056, 10044, 8044, 6036 and T8044.

“Although we use straight mast forklifts in our warehouse, we seldom get requests to rent or buy machines to use in the field,” Beale says. “I see the entire construction industry making the shift to telehandlers.”

Beale says the versatility of the forward reach telehandler is uncompromising, and the vertical mast machine's straight–up reach is not ideal for his customers’ needs. In southern Florida, he says a lot of the jobs are new developments near the oceanfront, which has very fine “sugar sand” that doesn't pack and is extremely difficult for maneuvering. Because of this, telehandlers perform the best on the job. Additionally, many of these jobs require a forward reach because of the landscape.

Reach out

“Rough terrain forklifts offer the distinct advantage of reach,” says Brian Boeckman, product parent of North American telehandlers of JLG. “This advantage becomes apparent in applications where it is not practical to position the machine next to the load or the desired landing zone.”

The goal of rental companies and manufacturers is to match the end users’ needs with the correct machine for the job. As an example, Beale says that on a housing tract, the operator may not necessarily need to reach much higher than the second floor roof, but the job may be two to three miles long and an operator may travel back and forth all day. So, a telehandler that travels at a 25–plus mile per hour speed will save the contractor time and money.

“We probably have a larger percentage of high–rise buildings in south Florida than in most areas,” Beale says. “These jobs are tight, fast–paced and safety is always a concern. Steel, forms, and supplies are often scattered around the job making the forward reach of a telehandler an absolute must. All of our machines have a 12–foot, 6–inch turning radius and three steering modes making it easer to maneuver on tight jobs. We have quite a few machines with a 56–foot lift capacity. Using the frame leveling function prior to extending the boom is the only way we could make lifts to the sixth floor safely. This is a huge advantage over vertical mast forklifts.”

Just as good

Over in the heartland, distributor of industrial and rough terrain forklift lines Hercu–Lift, of Maple Plains, MN, views the question of vertical mast machine and telehandler usage more balanced. Sales manager Duane Oestreich confirms that 15 years ago, sales for the straight mast machine were much higher, and he could see a direct correlation of sales dropping for these machines with the growth of the forward reach machine. However, when judging the machines, he says application is the key.

“We still rent straight mast machines,” Oestreich says. “Any application that a variable can do, a straight mast can do.”

Hercu–Lift's fleet includes machines by Ingersoll Rand and Load Lifter. Vertical machines that offer four–wheel drive make it a more competitive product, Oestreich says. When asked what design changes could be made to make the straight mast machine more appealing in the material handling market, he comments on the cab and easy access.

“It's about a 50/50 split with those who don't want a cab,” he says. “Those that don't want a cab are users that are on and off the machine and want easy access.” For operators that are constantly on and off the machine, Oestreich made the point that an open cab space may be more practical.

Farmers market

Although praising telehandlers for their usefulness on construction sites, Doug Peterson of A.R. Williams Materials Handling Ltd. is a strong advocate for the straight mast machine, especially in the agricultural market. The company, located in Calgary, Alberta, sells a lot of vertical mast machines to lumberyards, oilfield supply companies, steel yards, and the like. Peterson says that although there has been a move from vertical mast lifts to the reach machines in the construction industry, there is still a very viable market for the straight mast machines in other sectors. In his opinion, there are still many applications in which vertical mast machines are more productive and they are lower priced.

A.R. Williams represents the Sellick line of rough terrain lift trucks, and Peterson says there are many applications that fit very well with this product. In Alberta, winters are very severe and he needs a line of machines that operate strongly on unimproved surfaces. He says he sells a lot of the rough terrain forklifts to farmers, who need a rugged machine that can drive on snow and maneuver securely in the spring, when everything thaws out and the ground conditions become very soft.

“Over the last 12 months, Sellick and other straight mast manufacturers have improved their product for visibility, and other ergonomic and aesthetic features,” says Peterson, who explains how there is a labor shortage in his area, so any improvements the manufacturers make to the machines, such as ergonomics and a cab that features A/C, heat and other frills, are selling points that offer operators comfort and shelter from the weather and elements.

“We feel as long as there are unimproved yards, snow and soft ground there will always be a need for the rough terrain straight mast forklift,” Peterson says.

However, other parties think the forward reach handlers are superior, and equally match maneuverability when it comes to operating under sketchy winter conditions. Jack Walker, of J.W. Walker & Sons, uses his JCB Loadall units to push snow, praising how the machines’ ease of use and comfort allows his crews to work year round. He does believe the vertical mast machine will eventually be replaced because its reach is limited and its functions are too basic for his needs.

“I see the vertical mast machine being phased out, because of safety and versatility,” says Walker. “If you' re on uneven ground, they can be hard to place material on, such as a scaffold for instance. I think you have less options on the straight mast machines. I don't think there's as much visibility for the operator, as well. It's because you' re behind the load versus being underneath it.” However, Walker admits that his company will use the straight mast from time to time, but prefers the “beefiness” of his Loadalls.

Here to stay

Ryan Ford, construction telescopic specialist with Manitou North America, absolutely believes the vertical mast machine will not disappear from job sites. He says the machine is a mainstay in the industry and that his company is committed to continuing its production. He admits that the telehandler has outgrown mast machines in terms of sales, but as the dealers have noted above, the application will dictate the more appropriate machine to use.

As many manufacturers have reported, 2006 was a record year for telehandler sales. Ford says Manitou pushed 16,000 units last year, with 2005 close to a third less with 11,000. For the company's masted truck line, it had sales of 2,500 in 2006 with the year before somewhere around 1,800. For the company and the industry as a whole, sales were up in 2006, Ford says.

“If you talk to other people a few years ago, such as rental companies and end users, they said the straight mast was a dinosaur,” says Ford. “If you look at integrated manufacturers, like us, that manufacture both [telehandlers and straight mast], we paint a different picture. We do see where the telehandler is growing. But the straight mast still handles the same thing, it moves materials. It could be used in the industrial side of the business. The straight mast has a place in unimproved surfaces, agriculture as well. We put this truck in the orange groves and orchards.”

Others observe that sometimes less is more. Given the application, many end users and operators see the benefits in a vertical mast machine for their respective applications and would find an over–sized vehicle too much for a particular job. Also noted was the fact that straight masts are very easy to train users on, with intuitive and easy to learn controls.

The vertical mast rough terrain forklift in North America is a mature market with limited growth, says Dell White, sales and marketing manager for Sellick Equipment. However, he does believe there will always be a need for rough terrain vertical mast machines, and that the growth of the market will be achieved by the further development of niche markets. The company released a line of vertical masts called the S series, which range from a 6,000– to 12,000–pound capacity range. This series replaced the company's existing SD models.

“Vertical mast rough terrain forklifts are still appealing to the rental industry, as well as oher markets, for the simple fact they fill a need that conventional pneumatic forklifts cannot – that being the ability to negotiate adverse ground conditions and provide better stability due to a wider stance than conventional forklifts with similar capacities,” he says.

Although the data does indicate that telehandlers are in higher demand, have taken the lead in sales volume, and are the machine of choice on construction sites, the straight mast machine is still a valuable material handling tool. For those applications that don't require the reach but still need a rugged machine that can move quickly around the job site, offers ease of use and provides comfort to the end users, the straight mast seems like a logical choice.

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