Heavy lifting made easier in modular manufacturing

Combilift CEO and co-founder, Martin McVicar, and Timber Building Systems production manager, Darren Wylie, speak with Manufacturers’ Monthly about the benefits of Combilift’s materials handling solutions in the modular manufacturing sector.


Increasing space, improving safety and speeding up the process for transporting products onsite are important considerations in the pre-fabrication business.

Pre-fabrication, or modular manufacturing, has been around in Australia for a number of years, and responds to the difficulties in finding skills and labour for onsite construction. This is a challenge in Australia as well as in many developed countries. Combilift CEO and co-founder, Martin McVicar, believes the Australian market is a major driver for growth in modular manufacturing.

“Assembling buildings from prefabricated modules enables construction to occur within a controlled factory environment. This allows for greater automation and improved quality management, as there are fewer variables that can affect the construction process,” he said.

The three most common types of materials used in the modular construction sector are steel, timber and concrete, and Combilift’s product portfolio is designed to improve safety and efficiency for manufacturers needing to handle these large and potentially tricky loads.

“Take steel for example. It’s typically a long product, so using conventional forklifts to move it around a factory is going to be problematic. Using our multidirectional forklifts enables these loads to be transported laterally which not only saves a lot of valuable space but also enables much safer handling,” McVicar said.

Larger and oversized elements such as prefabricated concrete sections can be even more challenging to handle, and the Combilift straddle carrier range has proved to be an efficient and cost-effective solution. With capacities from 20t up to 125t, these are ideal alternatives to heavy-duty reach stackers or cranes, as they have a light unladen weight and are exceptionally manoeuvrable.

“Our forklifts and straddle carriers are all designed for indoor and outdoor operation. So, as well as being able to lift and move any segment of a modular building within the manufacturing area, whatever size or shape, they can also transfer finished elements to loading areas for despatch,” McVicar said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Combilift has seen an increased demand for its multidirectional forklifts, with requests flowing in from the healthcare, residential and education sectors. “In many countries around the world, schools are struggling to implement social distancing in classrooms, so they are adding additional portable buildings to their existing premises. and this is same in the healthcare sector,” McVicar said. “We were already seeing growth in the residential sector before COVID-19, but healthcare, clean room and commercial applications are now expanding too.”

“Modular manufacturing is a sector that can really benefit from the wide range of products we now offer,” he continued. “This mix, that can be used across one facility, now includes our pedestrian operated forklifts which are compact, can move easily around busy manufacturing areas, and offer a very safe environment for personnel. There is a growing demand for models such as the Combi-WR4 multidirectional pedestrian reach stacker.”

“We are starting to see increasing interest from larger manufacturers who are creating fully built modular segments, which basically leave the factory complete, and interest in the Australian market has grown in the last couple of months,” Mc Vicar said.

Improving safety and efficiency for Australian manufacturers

Australian prefabricated building manufacturer, Timber Building Systems (TBS), part of the Meyer Timber Group of companies, has been using the Combilift multi directional C Series since 2018.

Having taken delivery of the first Combilift ever delivered to Australia almost 20 years ago, the Meyer Timber Group continues to benefit from the increased productivity and space savings afforded by the multidirectional forklifts, and more recently, for modular construction.

Prefabricated wall panels and all components are prepared onsite in order to increase the speed of build. The product is then lifted straight onto a packing truck.

“It’s certainly about increasing space and safety within the warehouse, but it’s also increasing the speed of getting the product onto site, because normally, people have to use an overhead gantry within their warehouse or facility. There are some cost savings associated with being able to do a single lift from the floor straight onto the back of a truck,” McVicar said.

“One of the biggest issues we have is the length of materials we have – our wall and floor panels average about nine to 10 metres long,” TBS product manager Darren Wylie said.

“The multidirectional capability of our Combilift helps move these around our plant more efficiently,” he said. “When we used a conventional forklift, because the lengths were so long, and our aisleways were about the same size, we weren’t able to easily move them around. When we did, because we had equipment laid on the shop floor, we had to lift loads of timber up high and transport them over workstations, which posed a risk to workers nearby on the production lines. From an OH&S point of view it’s now much safer with the Combilift, as it travels sideways along the aisles.”

McVicar projected growth for modular construction is already taking place in Australia, with companies such as TBS one of many in the movement across Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia definitely takes a big portion of that growth,” he said.