With major developments across the business, Narrow Aisle, the UKbased pioneer the Flexi very narrow aisle articulated warehouse truck, is enjoying a year of strong growth.

John Maguire
Narrow Aisle’s Commercial Director

The company has revamped its Tipton factory to increase output, meet growing demand and ensure that it continues to offer its customers in the warehousing and 3PL sectors opposite short lead times, while Narrow Aisle’s ongoing commitment to research and development has resulted in a number of highly significant product developments.

For example, to provide further choice, Narrow Aisle has developed the technology to offer the Flexi range of Lithium-power trucks.

Introduced to wide acclaim on the company’s stand at this year’s CeMAT at Hannover Messe, the launch of new Flexi Lithium trucks will prompt operators of LPGpowered articulated trucks to evaluate their current and future fleet operating costs as well as the effectiveness of their trucks during multi-shift utilisation and make comparisons with the low running costs and exceptional performance levels delivered by trucks in the new Flexi Lithium range. And, operators of LPG-powered articulated truck fleets wishing to migrate to the new lithium ion or other battery-electric technology can take advantage of a unique scrappage scheme offered by Narrow Aisle.

In addition, fleet efficiency for users of multi battery-powered Flexi articulated trucks have been further enhanced by Narrow Aisle’s development of the Flexi Easi- Change. A new intelligent forklift truck battery charging and management solution, this new system combines with battery transfer car to allow quick and safe battery changes and brings huge improvements in efficiency and energy saving, as well as a safer working environment for multi-shift fleet users.

In the online area, Narrow Aisle has revamped its main website – www.flexi.co.uk. The portal provides full details of the Flexi range’s special features and cost saving benefits and video footage shows different Flexi models in action across a wide range of end user sites. The development of the new website means that the entire Flexi range and the most recent technological advances are now available for customers and potential customers across the world to access at the click of a mouse!

With Flexi trucks now operating in 80 countries worldwide Narrow Aisle is a truly international business, but the company’s enduring commitment to its Black Country roots and location is reflected in the fact that Narrow Aisle is one of the latest businesses to sign up to Made in the Midlands, an association for manufacturing and engineering firms in this part of England, which, over 200 years ago, was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution began and where innovation and a commitment to manufacturing excellence continues to flourish today.

John Maguire, Narrow Aisle’s Commercial Director, spoke to Warehouse & Logistics News. Warehouse & Logistics News – John, it sounds like Flexi are going from strength to strength! Are you taking on more production, sales and maintenance staff? How about additions to the management team?

The company is growing. We are employing more staff across the business with an emphasis on bringing more young people into the company and the industry. We employ a number of apprentices and this will increase and we will also take on a number of graduates this year, who will add to our multi-lingual and engineering skills base.

WLN – Having followed Narrow Aisle over the years I have this picture of you as a niche supplier of specialist trucks, which complement fleets of large counterbalance and other forklift trucks. Is that still a fair description?

We have always seen our company as a specialist niche developer of innovative and space saving solutions for the logistics and warehousing sector. But, in the last ten years we have taken our core Flexi Warehouse Systems business and expanded beyond our original home market here in the UK.

We now have distribution partners in over sixty countries around the world. In fact, many of our partners are distributors for most if not all of the major materials handling manufacturers.

Our success is, in part, due to the fact that we refuse to simply imitate existing generic MH equipment types and prefer instead to add value through genuine innovation and the development of new and ever-more efficient handling equipment.

WLN – For readers who aren’t familiar with very narrow aisle articulated forklifts as a concept, can you talk us through the benefits of these machines?

With pleasure! As an example, our best-selling line is the Flexi AC 1200. Easy to operate and popular with lift truck drivers, the Flexi AC 1200 increases usable storage space by between 25-50 per cent. And, because – like all models in the Flexi range – it is able to load and unload lorries from the side or from a dock and then deliver pallets directly to the pallet storage in a single operation, it eliminates double handling of loads and the need to operate a counterbalanced machine outside and a reach truck inside the store. As a result forklift fleet operating costs are slashed.

WLN – What kind of businesses and what size operations do you see as the typical end users for the Flexi AC range?

In the early days when the market was developing, many customers were in the SME category. However, over time larger warehouse operators have recognised the cost saving benefits that Flexi VNA technology can bring to their logistics processes and supply chains.

For example, one of our more recent developments is the Flexi SToRMAX. It’s a revolutionary product that increases pallet density by over 50 per cent compared to traditional reach trucks. The SToRMAX is exceptionally popular with largescale food manufacturers due to its ability to minimise the cost per pallet stored and the fast throughput rates it brings to an operation.

WLN – What future Flexi developments can we expect?

We definitely see our Flexi range developing into other intralogistics segments, but we do not want to imitate or copy other generic MHE products already in the market.

However, we are finding new applications and uses for the Flexi across the industry. For instance, the recent Flexi PiCK development has put our product firmly in the carton layer picking arena – which has been a real growth area in North America for some time and is increasingly being adopted across Europe.

WLN – How do your trucks fit into the concept of intralogistics, as in optimising, integrating, automating and managing the logistical flow of information and material goods inside a fulfilment or distribution centre?

In a way the Flexi was the first MHE product to take on the intralogistics challenge back in 1990. Our fundamental concept to eliminate double handling between ‘road and rack’ made that first step possible. The advent of barcodes, RFID and WMS has made streamlining of these processes a reality for many customers.

WLN – Staying with intralogistics, do you get involved in the design and planning of customers’ warehouses and racking layouts, to help optimise performance?

Our company has always offered a full design service to potential customers. Of course, three decades ago this involved layouts produced on drawing boards, but things have moved on tremendously with CAD software now used to produce multiple layout options very quickly. The technology allows us to check the feasibility of system solutions in an array of different configurations or buildings, but it still remains essential to collate customer throughput data and take into account the need to pick and assemble orders from the outset of any storage design if success is to be achieved.

WLN – You’ve revamped your UK factory to increase output and reduce lead times. What percentage output increases are you looking at? What is the typical lead time for delivery of a Flexi machine?

Our current development plan will allow us to grow at more than 20 per cent per annum for the next three years. We are also working on a significant growth plan for the Americas and Asia, which are markets that we believe offer huge extra potential. In fact, the North American market is very important to us; as everyone knows, the US economy is very buoyant at present and a great deal of money is being invested by the e-Fulfilment industry on new centres and increasing space utilisation.

We are also investing to ensure that our global customers can obtain Flexi products on practical lead times. This is vital as many Flexi users are in the 3PL sector and often need rapid implementation of new facilities to service new customer projects. And, of course, we offer a full short term rental fleet facility to support these projects.

WLN – Is the extra output in response from customers in a particular part of the world, a particular industry sector or both?

We have seen a growth in demand across the board. In our key markets, such as the UK, a lot of demand is coming from articulated truck users whose existing equipment supplier has failed to keep pace with product development or not delivered the levels of after sales support expected. In addition, new customers to the articulated truck concept have a need to lift heavier loads to higher levels – which makes our HiLOAD and HiMAX ranges an ideal choice.

WLN – Do you make Flexi trucks in any other countries or just in the UK?

There is a great deal of press coverage these days about ‘trade agreements’ when, in fact, these challenges have been around for many years. In order for us to access the larger global market 15 years ago we established an OEM partnership with what is now a division of TICO in Taiwan. This arrangement allows us to build our Flexi product and distribute it to many markets in South Asia, Africa and the Americas quickly and easily. All our Flexi trucks share identical components and parts that we source from MHE industry quality Tier One suppliers – many of whom are based in Germany. This is one of the reasons why our products have achieved a reputation for durability and low operating costs across the world.

WLN – You recently introduced lithium ion battery power. What difference will that technology offer to the trucks’ performance?

It will make a major difference. First, thanks to developments in lithium-ion battery technology, Flexi AC Lithium trucks require zero battery maintenance. Lithium ion also means faster battery charging times. The Flexi Lithium range batteries that can be fully charged within one or two hours, even if the battery is fully discharged, which ensures that truck uptime is optimised. In addition, the Flexi AC Lithium battery’s ability to distribute consistent power levels each hour means maximum warehouse throughput efficiency is realised, even during the longest and busiest shifts. It is also worth considering that there are many differing engine emission and operation noise standards and rules across the world, which makes the operation of iC engine-powered trucks more and more difficult in many markets. Just like in cities Lithium power is a great solution for this.

WLN – Point taken about emission controls, but it’s still a big decision for customers to get rid of their old LPG machines! What help are you offering them?

We’re offering a free consultancy service to users of all makes of LPGpowered articulated forklift trucks so they can compare the benefits of LPG and lithium ion. We have also launched a scrappage scheme that gives operators of LPG-powered articulated trucks the chance to take older, less efficient forklift trucks out of their fleets and replace them with the latest ultra-efficient Flexi AC Lithium technology in the most costeffective way possible.

WLN – Have you developed your lithium ion batteries yourselves?

The development of all batterypowered trucks requires some design, specification and software to allow the electric truck to work reliably and safely. The Flexi LiTHIUM range is no different; we work with quality battery pack manufacturers and then design and build our truck to match all the parameters required for the lithium ion cells to discharge their energy correctly. With lithium ion we have a proven and safe battery technology that can be used to provide multishift availability, eliminate harmful emissions and minimise noise at the operator’s ear.

WLN – How are sales of LP Gas trucks holding up against batterypowered machines?

Sales of LP Gas-powered warehouse-based trucks have been declining for a while for several reasons. Compared to mains electric power, LP Gas is expensive and the time taken to change or refill each gas bottle means that truck downtime can be a problem at some sites unless a bulk tank can be justified. In addition, the control systems and catalytic converters required to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from LPG emissions add significantly to a LPG truck’s operating costs.

WLN – Speaking of batteries, you launched the Flexi Easi-Change at the CV Show. Can you tell us about those?

The Flexi Easi-Change is a new intelligent forklift truck battery ‘Call Forward’ charging and change management system that further improves lift truck fleet efficiency for users of battery-powered Flexi articulated trucks. When combined with highly efficient HF chargers, energy costs can be reduced by up to 50 per cent compared with previous systems.

WLN – How easy is it to get parts for Flexi trucks and what is the lead time?

Very easy! Narrow Aisle Ltd operates a central parts store at its UK headquarters from where product distribution and aftersales back-up is provided to Flexi users in over 60 countries around the world. To ensure maximum parts availability we ensure our Flexi trucks are designed and built with mostly common components across the range. In addition, when introducing new models and upgrades, we always make sure that new components introduced can be retrospectively fitted.

WLN – Can people order and buy spare parts on line?

Our on line Flexi Parts website is under construction and will go live this year. This will add a convenient new access point to the full range of spare parts, service consumables and components for all Flexi customers worldwide.

WLN – You recently joined Made in the Midlands, the business association. How important are your Midlands roots to you as a business?

They are extremely important to us. The Black Country is named for its historic links to the start of the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago in this area of the West Midlands. A strong local identity has been formed and there is still a great tradition of product innovation, processes and manufacturing development across the region especially in the automotive industry, which we are proud to be part of.

WLN – You’ve been at Logimat and CeMAT at Hannover Messe already this year. Are you exhibiting at any UK shows in 2018?

The IntralogistEx Show was a great success in spring this year and we have just completed another successful Multimodal event at the NEC, so it’s been quite a year already! Our next major expo is the Warehouse Technology Group live demonstration. It features the latest automated systems for intralogistics and takes place at the Mantra Innovation Centre in Manchester on 13th June. This showcase of market leading providers of WMS, automated picking and sortation, storage and handling systems has become a very important event for our company as many of the key customers who are at the forefront of e-commerce and fulfilment attend looking for solutions. We will also exhibit at shows in India and the UAE later in the year.

WLN – With so much going on, it sounds like a very exciting year in prospect. Where do you see Narrow Aisle a year from now?

Our company has many new projects in the pipeline. Our chosen market segment is growing strongly in all those markets outside Europe that are being promoted by our government and we will continue to develop these new markets. Our Flexi LiTHIUM product range has attracted great interest and we expect the delivery of the first units to start later this year.

The technology developed for this product will start to transfer to the rest of the range next year making the addition of ‘cobotic’ operator systems to help improve efficiency, faster safe driving, more accurate pallet selection possible and all at lower cost! All very exciting prospects for our super dedicated team at Great Bridge and all our partners around the world.