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An Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar cuts the ribbon to officially open the new facility on 26 April

Combilift celebrates 20 years of lifting innovation – By Lynne Richardson

With over 40,000 Combilifts in operation around the world, what started as a company of three people is now a recognised global brand and the world leader in the market for long-load handling solutions. FTD’s editor travelled to Ireland in late April for the official opening of Combilift’s new global manufacturing facility and HQ, joining over 2000 customers, dealers and media from more than 68 countries worldwide.

Combilift is best known for its wide range of multi-directional forklifts, Aisle-Master articulated trucks and materials handling solutions such as the Combilift Straddle Carrier designed to handle large containers and oversized loads up to 100 tonnes. While long and awkward loads are Combilift’s speciality, the company has recently added a range of compact, pedestrian-operated forklifts for warehousing applications.

The company was established by managing director Martin McVicar and technical director Robert Moffett in 1998, and owing to its continued 7% investment of turnover in research and development, Combilift has produced in excess of 40,000 units since its inception. It currently exports 98% of its products to 85 countries through its 250-strong international dealer network. 

Production to be doubled

With future growth in mind, the company purchased 40 ha of industrial-zoned land on the Monaghan bypass in mid-2015. A fast-tracked consenting process by Monaghan County Council, the local authority, meant planning from submission to decision took just 31 working days. The first sod on the project was turned in August that year. 

Built at a cost of €50 million (NZ$85 million) over a period of 18 months, the new facility includes welding and fabrication bays, blast-polishing and painting booths, four dedicated production lines, all engineering and production facilities for the Combilift Straddle Carrier (previously carried out at a separate facility), a dedicated R&D building and purpose-built testing area, an enhanced spare-parts department, a showroom for international visitors that features every Combilift model available, and adjoining administration offices. 

At 46,500 sq m (500,000 sq ft) in size, the L-shaped building is now the largest manufacturing facility under one roof in Ireland – more than twice the size of the company’s previous manufacturing facilities – and there’s room for expansion. 

The building is certified to international quality and safety management standards, and incorporates a number of environmental enhancement features: a quarter of the roof space is covered in skylights, enabling staff to work in natural daylight; lighting when needed is provided through 100 LED lights equipped with infrared sensors; solar panels supply 185 kW of energy, a 1 MW biomass plant fuelled by recycled wood from pallets heats the spraying booths and assembly areas; and over 110,000 litres of rainwater is harvested for use throughout the facility.

A new computerised ERP system manages each machine throughout its production journey, with information available online for those working on the assembly line and sales and admin staff working in customer service.
The new facility has four dedicated assembly lines – a finished truck rolls off the line every 15 minutes

Official opening

Speaking at the official opening on 26 April, An Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar said: “Combilift is an incredible home-grown Monaghan success story. When the company was founded 20 years ago, it had three employees, a brilliant concept, and the ambition to make it a reality. 

“Combilift is playing a significant role in Monaghan’s success, and I would like to congratulate Robert Moffett and Martin McVicar, their leadership team and staff, and everyone at Combilift on their achievements to date, and wish them every success for the future.”

Also present at the official opening, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys said that Combilift, as one of the most significant employers in Monaghan, had made a hugely positive impact on the county, the border region and Ireland. During an open day where employees brought their families and friends in to visit the facility, over 3400 visitors were welcomed onsite. “This cannot be underestimated. Perhaps above all, the company is living proof that you don’t have to be in a big city to achieve global success. 

“I am delighted that the government, through Enterprise Ireland, has part-funded the manufacturing facility, which paves the way for this exciting business to double its output and create new jobs in the region.”

Mr McVicar says the investment will enable Combilift to meet its ambitious growth plans. “We have employed an additional 230 people since we announced our plans for this factory in 2015 and we are planning to recruit an additional 200 in the next three years.” Most of these opportunities will be for skilled technicians, design engineers, logistics and supply chain specialists, and those with mechanical and electrical mechatronic skills.
All forklift chassis are manufactured onsite – other parts are manufactured and/or assembled offsite

 “The combination of this state-of-the-art production plant and a skilled workforce will allow us to double our output over a single shift across all production lines. A finished truck now rolls off the assembly line every 15 minutes. We expect our total production to double within the next five years,” he adds.

Mass customisation

Over its 20-year history, Combilift has gained a reputation for developing customised products for particular customer requirements. “Customer feedback has been pivotal for new product development, and as there is no one typical set of requirements for individual applications, our production lines were configured at the outset to offer a very high degree of customisation,” says Mr McVicar.

This is evidenced in the high degree of specialised skills within the workforce and very little automation. “We considered adding robotics to our production lines, but the costs simply did not add up,” he notes.

While most Combilift machines are customised, they use standard and readily available components. “This means our products can be easily maintained and serviced wherever in the world they are being used,” Mr McVicar says. Many of the parts are supplied by local manufacturers – the cabs, for example, are made by a local metal prefabricator using machine-control technology. Other components are sourced from and/or assembled overseas – for example, the masts are assembled in Italy; the diesel Kubota engines come from France and GM engines from North America; the hard-wearing rubber tyres are manufactured in Sri Lanka. Only the forklift chassis are manufactured onsite.

The new production plant now sets the company up to be able to offer customisation on a much larger scale. “Mass customisation is the new frontier for both the customer and the manufacturer. Increasingly, customers are expecting products to be tailored to their needs,” says Mr McVicar. 

“Forklift producers that offer customised products generally produce low volume, but Combilift is setting the benchmark by offering the mass customisation of tailored products, resulting in a strategic advantage for our customers,” he adds. “We evolve with our clients, producing new products each year.”

Evolving range

Since 1998, Combilift has manufactured customised products tailored to customers’ needs. But the company’s range is evolving too. 

“We have become much more than a forklift manufacturer focused on handling long loads. Increasingly we are moving into the warehousing space, and are set to transform the transport and logistics sector with our new innovative, space-savings products,” says Mr McVicar.

The company’s first product – the Combilift C4000 – was the world’s first IC engine-powered, all-wheel-drive multi-directional forklift, enabling operations that needed to handle and store long loads safely and efficiently without the need for multiple machines. The concept of a truck that could change the direction of its wheels to move forwards, backwards and sideways, just at the touch of a button, changed the face of materials handling. 

The first C4000 rolled off the production line in 1998 and is still in full operational use at a local Monaghan business. Some 18 Combilifts were produced in that first year, almost all of which were exported; since then, the company has launched one or two new products each year. What was once seen as a niche solution for a few select applications is now an industry standard for the safe and space-saving handling of long and bulky products.

To commemorate its 10th anniversary in 2008, Combilift launched the Combi-CB, a compact counterbalance forklift with the added advantage of multi-directional operation. “We realised that some of our long-load customers also handled mixed loads of palletised goods, so the Combi-CB was developed to handle all their needs,” Mr McVicar says. “It provided advantages to customers who might be using standard conventional counterbalance forklifts, reach trucks, side loaders, or electric four-way forklifts.”

Most customised machine

During the economic downturn following the global financial crisis, Combilift took the initiative to expand its range of products, introducing the range of Aisle-Master articulated trucks into its range in 2010. With the Aisle-Master, the company was able to offer very narrow aisle (VNA) solutions for pallet handling which enable the warehousing, 3PL, food and pharmaceutical sectors, for example, to benefit from maximum pallet density in any given space for lower-per-pallet costs and more streamlined operations all round.

The Combilift Straddle Carrier (Combi-SC) was also introduced in 2010 as a result of customers asking for a machine capable of handling loads in excess of 25 tonnes. Now the most customised machine of the Combilift range, the straddle carrier provides a safe and efficient ‘mobile gantry’ solution for the most extreme load-handling situations, including shipping, aerospace, steel fabricators, wind turbines and precast concrete. 

Economical, highly manoeuvrable and fully customisable, the innovative design of the Combi-SC range combines power and reliability with a lighter footprint unmatched by any comparable technology, delivering outstanding fuel efficiency and the ability to operate on poor terrain without the need for costly reinforcement.
Combilift uses over 30 of its own machines within the facility to move, pick and stack parts

Pedestrian stackers

In the last five years, Combilift has entered the pedestrian forklift market with the introduction of walk-behind and ride-on pallet reach and stacker trucks. These provide the benefit to the operator of safe manoeuvring through the addition of a patented, multi-positional tiller arm which enables push-button rotation of the rear wheel parallel to the chassis and back, allowing the operator to remain in the safest possible position when placing and picking in narrow aisles, namely at the side of the unit rather than between the truck and the racking. This improves forward visibility and greatly reduces the risk of incidents in tight confines.

“The development of these trucks was again driven by customer demand,” says Mr McVicar. “The Bunnings chain of DIY stores in Australia was behind the development of the Combi-CS counterbalanced stacker and Combi-WR walkie reach stacker.”
The Combi-WR walkie reach stacker – one of Combilift’s new warehousing products

The range of powered pallet trucks can lift from 2 tonnes to 16 tonnes and are much smaller and more compact than a standard counterbalance forklift of the same capacity.

Combilift sees a growing demand for pedestrian trucks driven by increasing health and safety regulations around customers and employees being in the same vicinity as an operating forklift, Mr McVicar says. “It is our intention to significantly expand our pedestrian forklift range, as can be seen with the launch of the high-lift-capacity Combilift Powered Pallet Truck (Combi-PPT).”

The company also offers a free logistics and warehouse design service. Combi-Connect allows a potential customer to see the benefits a Combilift product will bring to their business. “Our engineers will design, plan and produce solutions in collaboration with customers by offering material flow analysis and 3D animations to redesign their warehouse and optimise capacity,” Mr McVicar explains.

Success factors

The biggest challenge for the company is the uncertainty of Brexit, Mr McVicar says. Around 10% of its workforce live over the border and around 25% of its exports are destined for the UK. A good deal of its raw material, including the steel, is sourced in the mainland UK and Northern Ireland, which raises the issue of the imposition of VAT and tariffs following Brexit. In addition, a lot of jobs in Northern Ireland are dependent on Combilift. 

Growth, however, is very much on the company’s mind, and Mr McVicar attributes the company’s success to number of factors: the initial ingenious idea for the truck’s design and four-way capabilities; ongoing and substantial investment in R&D; at least one new model launched for every year of the company’s existence; the support of a worldwide network of dealerships; and above all, the willingness to listen to customers to determine actual market demand and to supply tailor-made machines.

And the company shows no signs of sitting back on its laurels. Plans for the future include the development of AGVs that will work in small spaces, guided by GPS and contour mapping. The company has already developed a number of prototypes in this space, but is playing its cards close to its chest. Mr McVicar suggests they may be along the lines of IGVs – intelligently guided vehicles – and might perhaps involve the automation of the pedestrian trucks and the Aisle-Master. “But we don’t launch products until they are market-ready, so you’ll just have to watch this space,” Mr McVicar says.

Indeed, the future looks bright for Combilift, with another 20 years of growth in its sights.

Lynne Richardson travelled to Ireland courtesy of Combilift; for further information, visit www.combilift.com

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