What Type of Material Handling Equipment Is Best for You?

Nearly every business has some type of material handling need involved in their work — whether it's moving boxes through an office or transporting buckets of minerals across a yard. Manufacturers have developed a massive array of equipment options to address these different industry needs. If you need equipment or you're looking to increase efficiency, speed or safety, reviewing your approach to material handling is a great way to do so. With the right equipment, you may be able to do all three.

With such a vast selection of tools, it can be a little daunting to know which is which. That's why we've compiled a guide to material handling to help you find the right piece of equipment for your operation.

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How to Choose the Right Material Handling Equipment for Your Job

Before you delve into the expansive world of material handling equipment, it's important to identify your requirements. Use these tips for choosing material handling equipment to find out what you need from your machinery and what kinds of specifications you'll need to address.

1. The Material

The first thing to consider is the items you'll be moving. Between boxes, food products, loose powders, liquids and more, material handling needs can vary widely. Understand what you're working with and how it may interact with machines by asking the following questions:

  • Type: What are the materials made of? Is it something solid, like wood or metal, or a contained substance, like powder or liquid chemicals? Or, is it something solid with a bit of give, like fabrics or food items? For bulk materials, consider characteristics like particle size and flow behavior.
  • Size and shape: How big are your items, and are they awkwardly shaped? Will you be working with high quantities of small, loose items, or fewer quantities of large, intact items? This factor plays a large part in what kind of storage and transportation options are available.
  • Weight: Especially heavy items will require specific equipment designed for those loads. Always check the weight specifications to ensure you don't damage a machine intended for smaller loads.
  • Unique characteristics: Is the product you're moving volatile, perishable or otherwise sensitive? Chemicals require careful attention to prevent health and safety issues. You'll also want to think about the end result of the item. Are you making food or pharmaceuticals? These applications may require special materials, like stainless steel, or more careful handling procedures.
  • Packaging: What kind of packaging do the items have? Are they on pallets, in drums or wound up on spools? This kind of storage will affect the handling tools you can use. You may need to avoid equipment that could damage fragile or delicate packaging or products.
  • Handling safety: Consider how handling the equipment can affect workers. For example, if working with wood or sharp scrap metal, employees may need personal protective equipment (PPE) like cut-resistant gloves or back braces. Depending on the application, some types of material handling equipment can help make their lives easier and safer by minimizing the risks of injury and ergonomic hazards.

2. The Environment

Before bringing a new machine into your facility, you have to make sure it accommodates the building's demands. The perfect piece of equipment won't do much good if it can't fit in your aisles. You'll need to measure the width of the aisles and know what kinds of racks are in place. Identify any building features that could be a limitation, such as a low ceiling in part or all of the warehouse. You'll also want to note any safety, environmental or regulatory policies you need to abide by. For example, you may need vehicles powered by electricity instead of gas to avoid indoor fumes, or you might need ones with certain built-in safety features.

In addition, consider what movement patterns your items will follow:

  • Route: Will you be moving items in a straight line from one spot to another or something more complex, routing through corners and around people? Routes up and down between a high shelf and the floor differ widely from moving a product across a conveyor belt.
  • Frequency: How often will you be moving products? Continuous operation may be more efficient with automatic tools.

Determine whether your operation is better suited for automated or manual equipment. Manual work is a classic approach for processes that are unpredictable or not repetitive and doesn't require particularly expensive or complicated implementation procedures. Automated machinery, on the other hand, tends to have fewer errors and higher efficiency levels due to increased speed. Companies dealing with large handling volumes and repetitive tasks may find more use for an automated machine than small companies with more selective inventories.

If your application is particularly specialized, you may need to ask yourself if a pre-made solution will work for you. If it doesn't seem like it, you can look for custom-engineered options. Most Cat® rental locations have highly skilled engineers on-site to help you come up with the right solution.

3. The Price

If you set a budget, it may help you narrow down your options. But you'll still need to think about other costs that go along with the equipment:

  • Installation: A machine's size and scope greatly affects its installation cost. For example, a fully automated conveyor system will cost more to install than something like a pallet jack, which is straightforward and usable as-is.
  • Operator training: If you get a new tool or something with unique safety requirements, you may need to spend time training employees on proper use.
  • Maintenance: Every vehicle requires some type of maintenance. Even a hand truck could develop corrosion over the years. Industrial vehicles will need regular maintenance and care during their lifetimes, which is another cost to consider. Raw materials, like oil and parts, can be pricey, as can the skilled labor to make necessary fixes. Of course, if you rent with The Cat Rental Store, you don't need to worry about this factor as we maintain the products for you.
  • Fuel: Some vehicles have different power sources that may be easier for your operation to supply. Find out how much electricity or gasoline a vehicle might consume. If you're in an area with low prices for one of these, this knowledge may help inform your decision.

Don't forget that even though there are other costs to consider, you will also reap benefits from the savings a more efficient machine offers. As productivity improves, your bottom line probably will too.

Price is an important factor to consider when renting material handling equipment. For many companies, rentals are much more affordable and flexible, and they can eliminate costs associated with maintenance, storage and depreciation. Plus, with The Cat Rental Store, you can trust that each piece of equipment you get is made with the care and quality you expect from Caterpillar.

Types and Applications of Material Handling Equipment

Now that you've identified your requirements, let's take a look at the different types of material handling equipment. Most equipment falls under one of four categories, though they can overlap. For instance, an engineered system can include a collection of devices that belong to other categories, such as a storage device. 

There are a lot of options, and it's crucial to find the right one. Here's a rundown of some common material handling equipment that may help improve productivity and efficiency across your operations.

1. Industrial Material Handling Trucks

Industrial trucks include a wide range of equipment that aids in materials handling applications. These trucks may be manually operated devices like hand trucks and pallet jacks, alongside heavier machinery like cherry pickers and sideloaders. Within these options, you may find several different configurations and styles to support various product types. Some are even versatile enough to switch between truck types, like a hand truck and a forklift. There are also different control options, like riding or walking behind a machine.

Some common industrial material handling trucks include:

  • Pallet trucks: Commonly referred to as pallet jacks, these trucks slide into the openings in a pallet and lift it so the truck can move it. Pallet trucks can be electric or manually pumped and are great for moving stacks of boxes or large and heavy items.
  • Hand trucks: Similar to dollies, hand trucks have a small platform on the bottom of a long handle. The operator places the platform underneath the heavy object and tips it so the object is leaning against the handle before transporting it with the help of the truck's two large wheels.
  • Forklifts: Forklifts allow an operator to move heavy loads at low heights and are common in warehouses, stores and manufacturing plants alike. This ride-on vehicle has two forks that protrude from the lifting mechanism to carry materials. Telehandlers can also be used like forklifts with pallet fork attachments to accomplish similar jobs with a little more maneuverability.
  • Walkie stackers: Walkie stackers are similar to forklifts in that they raise pallets and materials, but they are powered with the operator standing behind the machine, not riding on it. They can be manually or electrically powered.
  • Automatic Guided Vehicle (AGV) trucks: AGV trucks can move products as part of an engineered system, which we'll cover later. Some AGVs are also hybrids, which can run manually or autonomously. In either case, they carry loads with a wide range of configuration options.
  • Order pickers: Sometimes called stock pickers, these machines raise the operator on a platform to help them reach high-up materials. Many have forks extending from the platform to assist in moving materials.
  • General material handlers: These large machines are capable of lifting and moving massive loads in a variety of environments with both bulk and standard materials. General material handlers may use claws, buckets and other mechanisms for grabbing different types of materials. Some are specialized for more narrow access or with counterweights for enhanced stability.
  • Platform trucks: A platform truck has a wide, low-to-the-ground platform with a tall handle on the back for steering. These trucks are good for transporting large or flat products. Some models may have additional vertical supports to help keep objects in place.
  • Sideloaders: Sideloaders are also called very narrow aisle trucks (VNAs), which squeeze into tall, narrow aisles and allow an operator to load items from various directions. They are also suitable for large, awkwardly shaped products.

2. Bulk Material Handling

When it comes to large quantities of material — especially those in loose forms — unique storage and transportation setups become necessary. Often, bulk materials include food items, liquids or minerals. Accordingly, bulk materials may require more long-term storage solutions and continuous movement setups like conveyor belts. The equipment you use should address bulk material concerns such as their lump sizes, density, flow and shape.

Examples of bulk material handling equipment include:

  • Bucket elevators: Bucket elevator machines are also called grain legs. They use a system of buckets linked to a chain or belt to carry loose bulk materials vertically.
  • Grain elevators: Grain elevators are, as the name would suggest, specific to grain storage. These tall buildings include equipment similar to bucket elevators to move grain to the top before it transitions out to the processing stage.
  • Stackers: Stackers are often used in a yard to move material into stockpiles with the help of a rail system. These massive machines are common with large piles of items like sand, coal and minerals. They can stack the material in multiple patterns and often use automatic or semi-automatic controls.
  • Reclaimers: Reclaimers do just the opposite of stackers. This equipment gathers material from large piles using various retrieval mechanisms, like large bucket wheels, scrapers, semi-scrapers or portals.
  • Conveyors: Bulk conveyors come in a wide array of configurations that are slightly different than conveyors for regular material handling. For example, bulk conveyors are often troughed to contain loose materials in large quantities. Some, like those for mining applications, are more rugged than others.
  • Silos: Like grain elevators, these huge structures store bulk materials. However, silos don't always have the equipment to move the materials like a grain elevator. Many silos are tower-shaped, but they can also be flat on the ground in a cast-concrete bunker or bag style.
  • Waste handlers: To meet the needs of the waste management industry, multi-purpose waste handlers are designed with large load capacities, enhanced stability and trash-resistant features. They are also compatible with a variety of different grabbing tools.
  • Hoppers: Hoppers are similar to funnels with advanced capabilities. Instead of merely directing the material, hoppers hold it until required for further use. This quality makes them useful for storage applications as well as material handling applications.

3. Storage and Handling

Storage equipment provides a place to keep items when not in transit or production. If you imagine storage in a warehouse or manufacturing environment, you probably think of tall shelves and towering aisles of products. This image is typical of storage equipment, along with more mobile options like pallets and moveable racks.

Long- and short-term storage options can be used at different points in processing. Products may be stored for a brief period before they are transported elsewhere, or they might be stored for longer so the company can amass a more substantial inventory. Many manufacturers invest a lot of time and effort into optimizing their storage situation because organization, floor space and ease of access can be big efficiency boosters. 

Typical storage equipment includes:

  • Pallets: Pallets are large, flat surfaces with slots underneath them for forks from various tools like forklifts and pallet jacks to fit into. Commonly made from wood or plastic, pallets are incredibly versatile and can support heavy loads from 3,000 pounds up to 5,000 pounds. You'll find them across all kinds of warehouses, stores and facilities.
  • Stacking frames: As their name suggests, these frames are stackable and allow you to keep more fragile items on top of one other without damaging or crushing them.
  • Racks: Racks are a basic but essential part of most facilities. They conserve floor space by stacking products vertically and can make items more accessible. Common rack types include drive-through or drive-in racks, pallet racks, sliding racks and push-back racks.
  • Mezzanines: Mezzanines are an indoor flooring system that elevates a platform to offer additional storage. They are useful in warehouses with design types that emphasize modification and mobility. Many are modular, free-standing, supported by racks or the building itself.
  • Shelves, bins and drawers: Shelves may be filled with bins and drawers to make them better suited to smaller, loose materials. Bins and drawers can offer more organization, too. Common types of shelves include those that are boltless, cantilever and revolving.

4. Engineered Systems

The umbrella of engineered systems covers a collection of equipment that all works together to move, store or otherwise handle materials. Some are automated, but others require manual operation to get tasks done. In either case, engineered systems help to automate much of the industrial world. With advances in artificial intelligence and environmental sensing software, robotic systems are becoming more and more accurate and efficient. Even more traditional methods, like conveyor belts, can add speed and efficiency to handling a wide array of materials.

Common engineered systems include:

  • Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS): AS/RS is an automated system that runs alongside a storage area with a shuttle system for retrieval. The shuttle system could be something like a cherry picker that moves horizontally and vertically to access materials, and it is typically computer-controlled. These systems are useful in applications involving high-volume load movement, dense storage areas and high accuracy requirements. They are more common in large operations as a way to reduce labor requirements and improve efficiency. 
  • AGVs: AGVs operate autonomously, with no onboard operator or driver. Advanced software and sensors guide the vehicles throughout a facility, helping them to transport loads along a defined path without running into other objects or people. AGVs may include towing vehicles that pull a trailer behind them, pallet trucks that move loads across the ground level or fork trucks that can reach loads at heights. AGVs can help speed up transportation and automate repetitive tasks. Directional systems can use in-floor wiring, guide tape, lasers and more to steer the vehicle throughout a facility.
  • Conveyor systems: Conveyors move products down the line and can be one of several types, including vibrating, chain, overhead and vertical. Many industries and assembly lines use conveyor belts, including food production, mining, electronics, pharmaceuticals and more. Part of their appeal is the ability to accommodate items with a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

Rent Material Handling Equipment From The Cat® Rental Store

From simple hand trucks and order pickers to massive waste handlers and storage buildings, material handling requires a diverse category of machines. Some pieces of equipment are vital to the daily functioning of companies, while others make life easier for workers and improve efficiency and safety across industries.

If you're looking to get your hands on these tools, The Cat Rental Store has a variety of material handling equipment available. Renting your equipment provides several benefits, including flexible access, up-to-date technology and the elimination of maintenance and storage costs. Browse our selection of rental products today for one that meets your needs. If you need help finding the right tool, reach out to us for a quick quote. Turn to The Cat Rental Store to rent the equipment you need from the people who know what it takes.

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