Helping manufacturers achieve long-term growth during COVID-19

CEO and co-founder at Combilift, Martin McVicar, speaks to Manufacturers’ Monthly about COVID-19 restrictions, keeping production levels up and meeting customers’ needs.

A standing challenge for many manufacturers worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic is finding the space to implement social distancing measures.

A socially-distanced production area has become a key initiative at Irish specialist materials handling manufacturer, Combilift – while continuing to innovate and push to create better machinery to meet customer expectations.

In Ireland, the recommended social distancing is two metres and Combilift understands this is an added constraint with customers that have warehousing facilities.

Within its own facilities, the company has introduced a two-shift system instead of its traditional one-shift operation. This means that there are only around 350 employees per shift on-site at its 46,500sqm manufacturing facility. The company has introduced measures like a key fob entry system to minimise the spread of germs. Employees are scanned by thermal cameras when they arrive on-site to make sure no-one has a temperature, and they also have to wear facemasks.

Their concerns regarding safety within their premises is the reason why they have stayed successful during the pandemic. Commitment to keeping production levels consistent to meet the demands of international customers like those from Australia are important to them.

Combilift CEO and co-founder, Martin McVicar, said Australia has been a consistently strong market for the company for years.

“It is generally our fourth largest market globally and we work in over 85 markets. We’ve also seen very strong growth in recent years, again as companies look to find ways of doing more with less,” he said.

With regards to COVID-19 production and supply timelines, McVicar said that because they have been able to get back to production quite quickly, that factor, combined with the advantages of having a split shift, means there has been an increase in demand from Australian manufacturers.

“The uptick in demand not only from Australia, but also globally, as organisations look to increase productivity, and at the same time ensure that they abide by the necessary social distancing requirements,” he said. “In Australia, this combined with Australian government stimulus such as the $150,000 Instant Asset Write off, means that many organisations are taking the opportunity to improve safety and productivity in what is a very fast changing economic environment.”

In terms of helping Combilift customers meet the current challenges, McVicar said that he understands it has been difficult for many to get back to normal levels of production.

“To have enough space to socially distance in a site has been very challenging for most of our customers. You either have to increase the area in which you are running production, or run two shifts of operation. Significant changes to operation have been required,” McVicar said.

With this change in production and demand for a rethink of what manufacturing and logistics sites look like, McVicar said there has been a huge increase in expressions of interest for Combilift’s narrow aisle forklift trucks.

Three-in-one design affords flexibility for operators

McVicar said the number of enquiries for Combilift’s Aisle Master have doubled recently.

The model features a three-in-one design that combines a conventional forklift with a reach truck and a narrow aisle forklift and is suitable for indoor and outdoor use.

“The articulation of the mast not only saves space, up to 33 per cent over a reach truck or 50 per cent over a counterbalance forklift  – but also provides the operator with free sight of the material as it is being stored in or removed from  the racking system,” McVicar said.

The Aisle Masters are designed to allow maximum comfort for the operators, while at the same time making it easy to access the unit from both sides.

“We have spent a lot of time ensuring ergonomic design simple fingertip operation with well supported arm rests and comfortable, spacious cab,” McVicar said.

Martin McVicar, CEO of Combilift

In terms of reach, the Aisle Masters trucks over articulate to 205 degrees to allow operators access to even the hardest to get pallet in a very narrow aisle. The machine is also operated in factory environments as narrow as 1.8 metres. This allows manufacturers to rethink their warehouse layout to maintain production, accommodate social distancing, and become more cost-effective as a result.

“The amount of space that needs to be allocated to storage or racking can be cut down, up to halved, when compared to conventional counterbalance forklifts,” McVicar said.

“A lot more space can be dedicated to production. At the moment, because of COVID-19, that is particularly important, but at any time that means there is more space dedicated to the areas of the business that make money – production.”

Joining the global movement

Besides forklift warehousing solutions for customers, Combilift has joined the global effort to combat COVID-19 by producing its own brand of ventilators, with help from the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) since mid-March this year.

Combi-Ventilate is a split device that turns a single machine into multiple stations that can be shared by two people.

“By analysing this ventilator, we realised that the flow of oxygen and air could ventilate up to four patients. Pair this discovery with the known fact that there are not enough ventilators in the world and our engineers set out trying to establish a way that we could use one ventilator for two patients,” Mc Vicar said.

Using the Combi-Ventilate prototype, medical professionals can now monitor airflow after it has been split.

“Currently, there is no way of monitoring what patient A or B is getting. No-one has been able to establish a sophisticated splitter system,” Mc Vicar said.

Tight warehouses can pose challenges for social distancing.

The ventilator, which took five weeks to develop, was manufactured at 25 per cent of the total cost of a new ventilator. It was developed by a team of mechatronic and software engineers in five weeks. The splitter uses standard pipes and fittings for easy assembly and its individual patient filters prevent cross contamination.

Combilift engineers established that a ventilator created enough air flow for more than one patient. By discovering this, the engineers worked to establish a way that one ventilator could be used for more than one patient.

Each patient has a dedicated screen which allows medical professionals to individually monitor their vital information, including live values, data on patient history and statistics and adjustable alarm settings.

“We have made Combi-Ventilate under the same ethics and with the same objective as we do with all our Combilift products, which is about doing more with less,” McVicar said.