Aisle-Master manufactures a range of articulated trucks designed for space saving and more profitable handling and storage operations. Developed and manufactured at the premises of its parent company Combilift in Monaghan, Ireland, the trucks have a proven reputation for long life operation and reliability.
Due to the Aisle-Master’s ability to replace a combination of reach and counter-balance forklifts it is not surprising that more and more companies across a wide variety of industry sectors are switching to the Aisle-Master system, which can increase storage capacity in existing premises by as much as 50%, a dramatic improvement which results in significant reduction of operating costs per pallet. With an established global network of dealerships in more than 50 countries, the company has seen a marked increase in sales in the last year. It has undertaken a redesign of the original range and introduced new models for specific industries such as the cold store sector. Aisle-Masters are also instantly recognizable with their new warehouse safety yellow livery. Warehouse and Logistics News caught up with MD Martin McVicar to talk about recent developments and future plans.
Warehouse & Logistics News – What does your job involve day to day? Has your role changed since last year?
My job is so varied that it is impossible to describe a typical day, which can start and finish at any hour due to my ongoing contact with dealers around the world. I am still very actively involved in all stages of the design and manufacturing process, and like to get onto the factory floor as much as possible to check progress on the production line. We have a policy of inviting current and potential customers and dealers to the factory so I spend a lot of time showing them our new developments. A large part of my year is also spent travelling, to meet customers and dealers and to identify new markets. My role is essentially as it has been since we established Combilift in 1998, but possibly even busier now that we have Aisle-Master as part of the product portfolio, with more time spent on business development.
W&LN – 2011: how was it for you and Aisle Master?
It has been a very good year. In spite of gloomy reports in some areas of the media, we have seen many of our markets grow. Last year I predicted global growth of around 50% for Aisle-Master and we have surpassed this with an 85% increase in sales. This has been due to the introduction of new products as well as the fact that we have been able to use our original network of Combilift dealers around the world to drive sales. Having a global presence enables us to withstand slumps in some markets and capitalize on growth in others. As we manufacture the product from scratch at the factory we can keep a close eye on production costs and we have been able to keep prices stable.
W&LN – What is your particular proposition for customers in the warehouse & logistics sector? Has that changed since last year?
Aisle-Masters continue to play an integral part in logistics and warehousing operations. The cost savings and improved profitability they offer are still major reasons for customers switching to our products, as they can increase the amount of storage space available, by operating in very narrow aisles. A reduced footprint housing increased volume does away with the extra costs associated with renting additional warehousing, reduces overheads on rent and utilities, and lowers the carbon footprint. Super elastic tyres mean that Aisle-Masters can be used indoors and out, reducing, if not eliminating the requirement for different types of vehicles. There is also no need to invest in super flat floors in the warehouse, unlike operation with other traditional types of VNA turret trucks. Customers can also benefit from the long standing expertise of our engineers in warehouse planning and design. In close cooperation with the client we offer to design and layout the premises, ending up with a 3D-simulation of the result. The client can get a feel of his new site by means of a virtual walk-through of the new warehouse before it is even built.
W&LN – How has the narrow aisle sector been performing in 2011? What do you see as the most important recent developments in the sector?
The sector has performed very well, particularly when compared with the reach truck market which saw an increase of just 11% in the UK this year (compared to our figure for this area of 50%), indicating a move towards the more versatile articulated solutions we offer. The increasing volume of imported goods and the rise of internet ordering have led to a growth in the warehousing sector and consequently the demand for cost effective and space saving storage. Distribution centres focus on the storage cost per pallet and Aisle-Master enables them to keep this to a minimum.
W&LN – Have you moved into any new business areas during 2011?
We have recently strengthened our position in the cold store sector. In collaboration with cold store operators we have developed a model specifically designed for the rigorous demands of this industry. The costs incurred per ft2 in cold stores make the Aisle-Master’s space saving capabilities particularly attractive in any case, and the new cab design offers a warm and comfortable operating environment, reducing the amount of break time needed for operators, which in turn leads to increased productivity. Extremely cold environments can be unforgiving on equipment so we have engineered this model to withstand long exposure to temperatures as low as – 30° C and fitted them with 930 amp batteries for powerful performance. Two of the first of these to be sold in the UK are now in operation at Slough based IM Logistics which has set up a new cold storage facility for Montana Bakery, a supplier of a wide range of bakery products for retailers, airlines and sandwich manufacturers. The Aisle-Masters were the perfect solution as the company needed trucks able to work in the very narrow confines of the newly installed live racking system at a temperature of -22º.
W&LN – Has your company grown in the last 12 months?
During the year we have exceeded our highest levels of 2008 when it comes to personnel and sales figures. We have taken on over 50 new staff and our head count at the manufacturing facility and HQ is now 220. We have built a dedicated new facility for one of our new products, the straddle carrier, which needed a larger production area than our forklifts due to its size. Although a very different concept to the Aisle-Master this is of great interest to logistics companies due to its cost effective handling of containers. We produced in excess of 2,300 units in total across our product range in the last 12 months.
W&LN – In previous interviews you have always stressed the importance of investment in R&D. Is this still the case?
Absolutely, in 2009 we made cut backs in many areas except R&D where we remain committed to investing 9% – 10% of our annual turnover in R&D. This enabled us to be out there with new products when the market picked up at the end of last year. Customers who had put off buying new equipment until this year were nevertheless using the time to evaluate their handling methods, and we were one step ahead of many manufacturers when budgets became available. Quite a few customers now using our new narrow chassis 15E model for example are new converts to the articulated method, having ditched other types of trucks after seeing the advantages we offer. One thing is a certainty at Aisle-Master – we will never stop refining and improving our range.
W&LN – How are your existing products and services doing?
As you know, we manufacture a wide range of 4-way forklifts under the Combilift brand, and the 4-way counterbalance design Combi-CB has seen major growth in a wide range of sectors. One of our major strengths is our solution based approach to our complete product range, and collaboration with our clients ensures that they get the optimum package for their requirements.
W&LN – You mentioned the new cold store truck. Have you launched any other new products this year? If so, what are they and how are they performing?
Both the Aisle-Master and Combilift brands are well known for their innovation, and true to form we have introduced a range of new products over the year. The first 15E very narrow chassis Aisle-Master was on show at IMHX last November and is now in serial production. With a lift capacity of 1.5t and a width of just 1030mm this has been enthusiastically received by companies who traditionally handle lighter loads in lower bay applications but who want to move away from, for example, traditional VNA systems. The 15E enables them to operate in pre existing very narrow aisles, offers the versatility of indoor and outdoor operation and is able to work in block stacking applications. Combilift has also diversified into other product sectors with the introduction of the Combi-RT designed for the live poultry sector, which complements the Aisle-Masters already working in poultry processing plants.
W&LN – What’s been your company’s single biggest achievement in business this year?
Production output in 2011 exceeds our best year to date which was 2008, so we are definitely bucking the trend compared to most manufacturers in our sector. Due to the simplicity, quality, reliability and ease of maintenance of our products we can sell pretty much anywhere in the world.
W&LN – What was your personal favorite business moment in 2011?
I have been taking part in the LEADERSHIP 4 GROWTH program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California, which has given me a good insight into leadership strategies for global business success. It is a collaboration between Stanford University and Enterprise Ireland and the three modules I have attended have been extremely informative and rewarding.
W&LN – If your company had to go through 2011 again, what would you do differently?
Relocate the factory to a better climate! We had some dreadful problems with the bad weather last winter.
W&LN – You are well known for your export activity. Have you moved into any new countries in 2011?
Ever since the first Aisle-Master was produced we have targeted the export market. To be honest, when you manufacture in Ireland you have to look abroad if you want to get to the level of sales that we now enjoy. We were at CeMAT China this year so have moved into that market, as well as Brazil and Russia. All of these growing markets represent major opportunities for the Aisle-Master. Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have come on board this year as well. The cost of land for developing new warehousing facilities in these areas is surprisingly high, so trucks such as Aisle-Master which can offer excellent pallet density and cost savings from the outset are an attractive proposition.
W&LN – Have you won any awards in 2011, or been accredited to any new industry standards during this time?
We are shortlisted in the Innovation category for the upcoming FLTA Awards for the Combi-RT, and are also now ISO 9001 Certified.
W&LN – Which industry sectors are your customers in? What applications do people use your products/services for?
The common thread amongst all Aisle-Master customers whatever size their operation, is the desire to save space and cut costs. Applications range from large fleets operating in CDC’s such as 99p Stores, down to smaller operations that use just the one Aisle-Master which has totally transformed their handling and storage procedures and increased profitability. When it comes to industry sectors, apart from our strong presence in the food, pharmaceutical, offshore, 3pl and manufacturing areas which is to be expected, it is quite fascinating to see where else the trucks are in operation: manufacturers of greenhouses; producers of bathroom equipment; grass seed suppliers; specialists in the overhauling of train parts; even a chocolate factory!
W&LN – Do you sell your products direct or through distributors? Has that strategy changed in the last year?
We continue to work with a wide network of dealerships in the UK and across the world. More and more dealers in the UK are choosing the Aisle-Master as their articulated truck of choice due to its reputation for extremely reliable operation, its build quality and low maintenance costs. Our second to none 5 year / 5,000 hours parts warranty on new models is of great benefit to our clients, who can rest assured that they will not incur unexpected costs. Any forklift dealership with a customer requiring an articulated truck is welcome to get in touch. If customers in the UK have a preferred forklift dealer, we naturally go along with their wishes. We also supply Aisle-Masters to the major truck manufacturers when their customers need articulated trucks.
W&LN – Can you name any of your major projects in the last 12 months, and talk about what you have done for them?
In Russia for example we have finalized a seven truck deal with Tander, the largest supermarket chain in the country, comparable to Tesco. The Aisle-Masters will be working at one of their central distribution centres in a high lift application of 10.7m. We are also now supplying a large 3pl company which is headquartered in Chippenham, and have a major project running with Aggreko plc, the world’s leading supplier of temporary power and temperature control solutions. Aggreko already uses a wide range of Combilift products and will be putting Aisle-Masters into its new production plant in Scotland.
W&LN – How does your forward order book compare with a year ago? What about the waiting list for your (products) compared with a year ago?
We have a very healthy order book. This brings plus and minuses however, as due to demand the lead time of about 14 weeks is longer than I would prefer.
W&LN – Which trade shows did you exhibit at in 2011? How were they?
The focus this year was mainly on large international trade fairs such as the CeMAT in Germany and China, and the timber based show Ligna. There is a lot of untapped potential for articulated trucks in Europe where the concept is less well known, and these shows allowed us to demonstrate Aisle-Master’s benefits to a wide international audience. As always, the Hannover events were a great success – the Germans know a thing or two about running trade fairs! Closer to home we attended the inaugural Temperature Controlled Storage and Distribution event in Peterborough for the premiere of the cold store model. We have also exhibited at handling shows in the Middle East, and at a number of very industry specific trade fairs. Our dealers around the world also organize their own trade fair participation.
W&LN – As the Christmas period is traditionally the busiest time of year for the UK warehousing and logistics industry, what challenges has your company been facing?
This is less of an issue for us as a manufacturer – we just need to be able to fulfill orders that are placed at certain times of the year by companies in anticipation of the extra volumes they will handle from September onwards. It is our customers who face the most exacting challenges as they are typically looking at a surge in business. The proven reliability of our products, quick and easy maintenance schedules and their 24/7 operational capability enables busy warehouses to increase the number of shifts to keep up with demand. 99p Stores for example copes with over 52,000 pallet movements a week at this time of year, twice its normal amount. For customers looking to tide themselves over at this time of year we also assist them by offering short term rental trucks.
W&LN – As a company, what are your New Year’s resolutions for 2012?
W&LN – What are your plans for 2012?
We are planning to be very proactive in getting more potential dealers and customers over to the factory so that they can see at first hand the design, manufacturing, assembly and quality control processes that go into the brand. We are only a short hop over the water in any case. True to our reputation for innovation we also have new developments in the pipeline, but I am not giving away any company secrets at this stage!
W&LN – Where do you see your company in three years’ time?
We are committed to achieving 100% growth in our Aisle-Master sales and production output within 3 years.
W&LN – And finally, what would you like Father Christmas to bring your company in 2012?!
Peace, happiness and prosperity for our clients and personnel – without whom we would not have been able to achieve the level of success we enjoy in the global marketplace.
Tel: +353 (0)47 80400
UK Tel: 07870 976 758