Material Handling On Today's Job Sites

By Steve Hudson | September 28, 2010

On today's construction sites, time is most assuredly money — and time spent handling construction materials on the job is an increasingly important part of the overall picture.

Material handling impacts just about every aspect of every single construction project. If it's a site work job, you've got to handle excavated material and fill. If it's an underground utility project, at the very least you'll have to handle pipe and bedding stone. Are you building a bridge? Materials will include concrete, rebar, deck forms, and more. On a building project, materials handled may range from brick and block to steel, mortar, siding, and roofing, to name just a few. The list goes on and on.

Efficient material handling — and the "material" really can be anything from stone to steel — means efficient completion of the project, sometimes with performance bonuses attached. But inefficient material handling can slow down job progress, require duplication of effort, negatively impact efficiency, and — in some cases — lead to accidents and injuries.

Clearly, efficient on-site material handling can pay off in a big way. Today's contractors understand this, too, and place a premium on equipment and systems that maximize efficiency and productivity.

Material Handling Equipment: An Overview

To deal with the wide variety of materials used in today's construction projects, contractors turn to a variety of equipment.

Traditionally, many contractors think of a "material handler" as some sort of variable-reach telescoping boom forklift. Such machines, which are frequently in evidence on many building construction sites, feature a telescoping boom and are typically outfitted with forks for easy handling of materials such as block, mortar, sheetrock, and plywood. But they may also be fitted with quick coupler systems to allow the use of many different types of attachments for enhanced versatility on the job. Whether unloading materials from trucks or delivering those materials to various parts of the project, telehandlers continue to be what most people think of when the subject is equipment for material handling.

But there's a lot more to modern material handling than telehandlers. For example, cranes are another class of material handling equipment. When heavy lifting is required, a crane is generally preferred over other material handling systems. For that reason, cranes take care of most material handling work on projects such as bridges, where the loads can be heavy, or on high-rise buildings, where telehandlers don't provide the necessary reach. Cranes also stay busy on many sites unloading trucks — a critical aspect of material handling on just about any job.

With today's focus on versatility, excavators have become key material handlers on many projects. A quick coupler system and an arsenal of attachments can quickly turn a hydraulic excavator into an exceptionally versatile material handling machine, and most excavator manufacturers offer excavators in material handling configurations. Particularly in the scrap handling market, such machines are in big demand.

Loaders, too, help many contractors meet the material handling demands of their projects. Again, the key is a quick-change attachment system. Such a system can allow a loader to handle stone one minute, then switch to forks to move pallets of brick or block before utilizing still other attachments to handle even more diverse tasks.

Skid-steer loaders, the little brothers of larger loaders, have also found a permanent place on the telehandling scene. These smaller machines work well in tight spaces and are especially popular with building, masonry and landscaping contractors. Tracked versions of these machines, which provide low ground pressure and excellent stability, are becoming equally popular. In fact, when outfitted with attachments, both skid steers and compact track loaders offer tight-quarters material handling versatility, which is just what many contractors require.

One other area of material handing includes conveyor systems. Obviously, conveyor material handlers are not suitable for every job. But where large quantities of material must be moved over long distances from point A to point B (as on the new runway project at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport several years ago, where material had to be transported from off-site sources to a major construction site at one of the world's busiest airports), an elaborate conveyor system provided an ideal material handling solution.

Most contractors, of course, will stick to more traditional material handling solutions — that is, to telehandlers, loaders, excavators, cranes, and the like. But whatever their specific needs, today's contractors are thinking about versatility when it comes to material handling. They're not afraid to look at innovative solutions, and they're certainly not afraid to look outside the box.

Equipment Designed For Safety, Productivity

What specific elements do today's contractors favor when selecting material handling equipment?

"It all comes down to two things," one contractor observed recently, "and those two things are productivity and safety."

Safety is paramount. Remember, material handlers handle material — and to do so safely, the load must be under complete control at all times. This consideration drives not only load handling and maneuverability considerations but also impacts cab design and control positioning. For instance, cabs on many modern material handlers are being designed with more glass and with attention to machine body design — all with an eye to giving the operator more visibility.

Similarly, controls are being positioned for the most efficient use — ideally to allow the operator to change settings or manipulate controls without looking away from the work at hand. Each of these considerations impacts safety, of course, but they also enhance productivity. The time saved may be just a fraction of a minute. But they represent time that the operator is not moving material, and those moments add up.

Another factor increasingly seen in today's material handlers is attention to a comfortable operator's environment. Cabs, for example, may be secured using mounting systems designed to minimize fatigue-producing vibration. Comfortable seating and ergonomic control systems continue to be important too and allow the operator to spend more time in the machine. Remember: Every time an operator decides to stop work for a stretch break, the production stops too.

Serviceability and Reliability

Any contractor will tell you that a material handler that is sitting idle is a material handler that isn't making any money for the contractor. Uptime is a major concern among contractors, and today's material handling equipment is being designed with uptime and serviceability in mind.

One way that manufacturers are doing this is seen in the trend towards higher torque and lower-RPM engines. A lower RPM generally means less stress on the engine, and that in turn means less down time and reduced maintenance costs (and of course less lost productivity). Load-sensing hydraulics help in that area, too, by providing power only when it's needed, further reducing engine wear and tear.

Going hand in hand with such technical factors is the matter of serviceability and maintenance. Today's contractors look for material handlers that offer easy serviceability, with easy access to service points, for example. Even such factors as handrail placement can enhance serviceability, making it easier for the operator to safely check out the machine prior to each day's work. If checks are easier to perform, operators are more likely to complete them — and the result can be greater efficiency and even less downtime as operators become more likely to attend to basic inspection and maintenance issues.

For The Future: Flexibility, Flexibility And Flexibility

As contractors look for the best material handling systems for use in today's challenging business environment, it seems clear that the focus will be on efficiency and flexibility. Anyone who's been in this industry for very long knows that the demand for material handling is always present — and knows that the machine which gets used is frequently the one that's nearest at hand. When that's the best machine for the job, all is well and good. But such is not always the case, and machines can be called on for material handling tasks for which they were not designed.

To deal with that reality, today's contractors are tending to favor flexibility in the material handlers they use on their jobs. Attachments, as already noted, go a long way toward enhancing a material handler's flexibility. But so do factors such as versatility, maneuverability, serviceability, safety, operator comfort, and intuitive ease of use.

What will the next wave of material handlers look like? Today's machines provide a clue. The focus will likely continue to be on those very factors. Contractors can expect increasingly sleek designs as designers work toward maximum visibility. The future should also bring control systems that are even easier to use than today's best — can the first head-up display be too far in the future? Increased attention to comfort will make the material handler of tomorrow a veritable office on wheels (or tracks) in which the operator can work comfortably and efficiently for long periods of time. The list of possibilities goes on and on.

But whatever the look and feel of future material handling equipment, the key will still be the operator. Designing machines that an experienced operator can quickly master will certainly be another key consideration, particularly in these days of scarce manpower, but such designs will perhaps provide the greatest benefits of all. After all, the key to any machine's efficiency is always going to be the one who actually puts the key into the machine. Without question, an effective merging of operator and machine will maximize productivity — and that will always mean a better bottom line. Even as material handling equipment continues to evolve and develop, that's one thing that will not change.