In common with many businesses, the Irish manufacturer of handling solutions Combilift will be relieved to see the back of this year, and hopes for better things in 2021! But there were a few highlights in 2020, and Combilift delivered on its reputation for innovation in more ways than one.

When Covid-19 was still considered to be a problem confined to certain regions of China, members of the Combilift team were heading to Hanover for the audit stage of the IFOY (International Intralogistics and Forklift Truck of the Year) 2020 Award.

Combilift was the only manufacturer to gain two nominations for this award – the Combi-CBE4 forklift and the Combi-CS pedestrian counterbalance stacker were both finalists in their categories. They underwent thorough checks by industry experts and journalists from international media for qualities such as design, innovation, ergonomics, safety and sustainability.

The Combi-CBE4 combines compact counterbalance design with multidirectional capability, and features Combilift’s internationally patented independent electric traction. This provides all front- and rear-drive wheels with 100% traction control, negating the need for differential lock on slippery surfaces. 

The Combi-CS is the only pedestrian counterbalance stacker that will operate in a conventional reach truck aisle, for space-saving and productive storage and handling. Combilift’s unique, internationally patented multi-position tiller arm, which can be turned to the left or right of the unit, allows the operator to remain at the side of the machine. This substantially improves visibility – and therefore safety – in areas where other personnel or members of the public may be present.

The results were announced in a virtual event in July, with the Combi-CS being declared the winner in the Warehouse Truck Lowlifter Category. “The trophy will jostle for space amongst the many other industry awards that Combilift has won since the company was established 22 years ago,” says a spokesperson. 

As the pandemic spread, Combilift drew on its expertise in engineering and software design to develop the Combi-Ventilate, a splitter device which turns one ventilator into multiple ventilation stations. This non-profit endeavour was aimed at addressing the lack or shortage of ventilators in the health service.

This move was widely praised by clinicians such as Dr Michael Power, national clinical lead, Critical Care Programme, Irish health service, who said: “The Combi-Ventilate is a valuable attachment for ventilators, it costs a fraction of a standard ventilator and can be installed very easily into an ICU unit environment. This project is an excellent example of collaboration between the engineering and manufacturing industry and the Health Service Executive (HSE).” 

It became obvious over time that although companies were getting back to business, the need for social distancing would be around for the foreseeable future. Combilift’s team of design engineers turned their attention to the manufacturing sector, which faced the challenge of how to get back to normal output levels while creating extra space in production areas, enabling employees to maintain safe distances from each other. 

Combilift’s site-survey and free warehouse layout service became a virtual one, using video calling apps to view areas that may be in need of space optimisation. Combilift’s animations and 3D designs show how to achieve a substantial increase in storage capacity by maximising the production areas – which is where profit is made – while reducing the space for storage of raw materials and finished products, which engenders costs. By optimising both these areas, companies can comply with safety requirements while maintaining output, says Combilift.  

“The year has definitely not turned out quite as we had expected”, says Combilift CEO and co-founder Martin McVicar, “but I like to think we were able to transfer our skills in providing safer handling equipment to help out other sectors. Our order books and recent sales figures also indicate that 2021 will be a good year for us, and as soon as trade fairs can resume we look forward to meeting all our contacts in person once again.”

For 2021, the focus on safety in general and in the handling sector in particular will be a lasting by-product of the pandemic, so reducing risk will continue to be a key concern. From Combilift’s point of view, this means that demand for any MHE that guarantees a safer working environment – such as its range of products – will grow.   

Another major issue for warehousing and logistics operations is the soaring growth of ecommerce. According to the Office for National Statistics, online sales in the UK in July 2020, as a percentage of total retail sales, was 28.1%, compared to 18.7% during the same period last year. This represents an almost +50% increase YoY. 

Online sales are unlikely to drop back to pre-Covid levels – they are more likely to increase – so warehousing space will continue to be at an all-time premium. Users of handling equipment will therefore be looking for products that enable maximum use of this very valuable commodity.

“In spite of the circumstances this year, we have actually seen an increase in orders for the past month compared with the same period in 2019, which bears this out,”  explains Martin.   

“On a personal level, I hope that a vaccine will be developed to protect the global population, so that life can go back to whatever normal may look like. From a business point of view, I am also looking forward to welcoming visitors back to our factory and attending trade fairs once they can safely be resumed. 

“These have always been a major framework for demonstrating our products, and I hope for example that we can be at both Ligna and W21 next year to show the innovations that we continually develop for the furniture, joinery and timber sectors.”