When a company creates products, often the goal is to produce as many as possible as quickly as they can. When it launched in 1998, Combilift took a different route, creating a customer-centric operation that creates customized forklifts.
It’s a business model that doesn’t seem like it would build up success, but 25 years later, Combilift is not only going strong as a debt-free company, it’s revealing new innovations that could change how roofing distributors and suppliers manage material handling.
More than 100 members of the media were invited to celebrate Combilift’s 25th anniversary on Sept. 25 at its headquarters in Monaghan, Ireland, where it unveiled products like telematics and autonomous forklifts it’s bringing to the market this year.
Following a tour of the factory, Martin McVicar, CEO and co-founder of Combilift, spoke with media and employees alike about the company’s history. In the beginning, it produced 18 units, 17 of which were exported out of Ireland. Currently, it’s outputting about 10,000 vehicles a year, but McVicar noted that the company isn’t about to rest on its laurels.
“We always focus on niche markets where we can become a number one player,” he said. “We’re not in the business of making conventional forklift trucks. We want to build and design unique vehicles that bring real solutions for our market segment.”
The company specializes in multidirectional forklifts and long load-handling vehicles that can completely change how materials are stored and moved. As such, Combilift customizes each forklift to the customer’s specifications. Each order is manually checked to make sure all the individual items are ready and available. Everything from the chassis itself to the types of light fixtures and where they’re placed can vary from truck to truck.
The customization model certainly hasn’t slowed down Combilift’s success. It has shipped more than 80,000 machines to 85 countries since its founding, and the company expects to double its business every five years.
One of Combilift’s selling points is its free warehouse optimization service. By shifting around racking systems and making use of Combilift’s multidirectional technology, customers gain extra storage capacity, some as much as 100% more space.
Even customers in the U.S. who have their own internal planning groups will send the drawings to Combilift to double-check their work. In one recent instance, a Beacon facility in Wisconsin gained the ability to house vinyl siding in a building that didn’t have the capacity for long products.
Combilift is known for its innovations in the forklift space, with McVicar saying the company invests 7% of its annual revenue in R&D. That investment was on display during the anniversary celebration with two new products that could change how distributors operate.
The Autonomous Guided Forklift Truck, or AGT, uses technology that allows the 11,000-pound capacity truck to operate on its own through narrow aisles and free-roaming spaces. The navigation system is based on natural features as opposed to wire guidance or artificial landmarks. This means it uses the likes of walls, columns and racking to maneuver.
A load detection system performs a laser scan to check if a load matches the task requested of it. This system also detects if a rack has adequate space to accept a load. Laser sensors installed on the chassis are part of an anti-collision system that meet ANSI requirements. They slow down or even stop the machine when it detects an obstacle. Once it’s done with its work, the forklift drives itself to its charging station.
The Combi-AGT can be operated manually, but the idea is to lower operating costs, improve safety by removing personnel from aisles, and optimize workflow processes. McVicar said one way it helps improve operations is to handle materials or loads that customers request most often.
McVicar said distributors may be excited about automation, but he said it’s just as important for companies to optimize, such as with Combilift’s warehouse or yard optimization services.
“Focus on optimizing what you’re doing before investing in automation,” McVicar said. “People think that when you invest in automation it will cost X, but the implementation can cost X times two or three, so I think that the simple advice is optimize what you’re doing.”
Along the lines of optimization, Combilift also unveiled Combi-Connect, a cloud-based telematics platform that can monitor the status of Combilift equipment. Operational data is gathered from the machines, processed and sent to an online server, which a company can view or incorporate into their own software systems.
Representatives at the 25th anniversary said the data is real-time feedback, giving customers important data to make decisions in a timely manner or determine ways to better optimize their operations by managing routes or maintenance schedules.
While more data can be drawn from electric forklifts, company representatives said the telematics can be used on other vehicles regardless of fuel type.
Customers working with Combilift can rest easy that the company takes sustainability seriously. About 70% of all Combilift trucks are electric-powered. McVicar said instead of the popular lithium batteries, Combilift prefers lead-acid batteries, though lithium options are available. About 90% of the batteries Combilift uses are recycled.
“If you think of the future of recyclability, lithium battery is the norm in the current industry, but lithium batteries, no one really has figured out how to recycle lithium batteries effectively,” said McVicar. “Our strategy is thinking of future environmental impact. If we can build our vehicles around a lead-acid battery, we feel at least it’s recyclable.”
Many of its products have the option of being powered by electricity, including two of its newest forklifts: the Combi-Cube and the Combi-CB 70E. The Combi-Cube incorporates 360-degree steering that enables seamless directional changes, all built into a compact chassis. The Combi-CB 70E also boasts a compact style along with the capacity of a 7-ton capacity counterbalance. Combilift created a choreographed "dance" to show off the Combi-Cube's nimble movements:
Even Combilift’s headquarters, opened in 2018, has been built with sustainability in mind. A 185-kilowatt rooftop solar system helps provide about 10% of the factory’s daily power. About 30% of its roof space is covered in skylights, reducing the need for lighting throughout the day. The company also uses water-based paint on its machines, keeping VOCs at a low, and a 29,000-gallon water collection system gathers water for jet washing and restrooms.
The company is proud of its heritage as well. Heather Humphreys, Minister for Social Protection and Minister for Rural and Community Development spoke about the company’s achievements and the impact it’s had on Monaghan. The 25th anniversary included a dinner and multiple awards given to longtime employees and featured a taste of Irish culture with live Irish music and dancers.
For a better look at the celebration, view our photo gallery.