A brand-new factory. Perhaps a dream for most manufacturers. However, that’s not the case for forklift truck manufacturer and material handling solutions provider, Combilift, following 20 years of hard graft.

At the beginning of May, in the picturesque town of Monaghan, Ireland, reporters, press and media from across the globe gathered to attend the official opening of the company’s new global headquarters and manufacturing facility.

Built at a cost of €50 million, the business claims to be “one of the largest manufacturing operations under one single roof in the Republic of Ireland”, with a 46,500m² purpose–built factory that stands proud on a 100-acre site.

Welcome to Combilift

Upon entering, attendees find themselves on the ground-floor reception area. This leads to a 50-seat cinema training room on the second floor, and a new 5,000m² office space that is spread across the ground and first floors – housing several departments, including a specialist research and development team.

At the side of the factory, 600 tonnes of steel are loaded through the doors each week, while inside, 60 welding bays and three plasma cutting machines are used to cut steel into shape.

Once complete, these pieces, depending on size, are transferred to one of three automatic shot blasters, where they are cleaned, strengthened and polished before being transferred to one of three paint lines, complete with drying rooms, which use sustainable water-based paints containing 70% fewer volatile organic compounds than regular solvent-based paints.

Incorporating the latest manufacturing processes with a focus on sustainability, the new factory aims to enable Combilift to double its output in a single shift across all production lines.

At the heart of the factory there are four 90-metre moving assembly lines that help to produce a finished truck every 15 minutes. The factory also houses both an internal electrical department and a large spare parts department, so that spare parts can be shipped across dealer networks, and there are even 12,000 pallet locations throughout the site to ensure ample storage space for parts and components.

Once the forklifts have reached the end of the assembly line, they are moved into the pre-delivery testing area to ensure that there are no problems, such as fluid leaks or mechanical issues.

Combilift says that there is just a seven-day turnaround time between fabrication to final product and that more than 50 truckloads of finished products are dispatched from the factory each week.

Mass customisation

So, how has a company of just 20 years’ heritage been able to grow so fast? Speaking at the event, Combilift’s managing director, Martin McVicar, attributed the impressive growth to the products’ focus on flexibility.

He explained: “Mass customisation is the new frontier as customers are increasingly expecting products to be tailored to their requirements.”

The firm invests 7% of its annual turnover in research and development to enhance its customisation capability and to maximise ROI
for its customers. It also offers a free logistics and warehouse design service that enables customers to see the benefit that its products
will bring to their business.

McVicar added: “The flexibility in our new facility means that we can continue to accommodate any request for a customised material handling solution. We also see ourselves as much more than a forklift manufacturer and are transforming the transport and logistics
sector with our innovative, space-spacing products and our services.”

A focus on energy-efficiency

Most manufacturers across the UK are aware that one of the biggest costs on site is energy (see p18), whether that be electric, water, gas or another variable. Combilift is aware of this too and, as a result, has been clever in the design of its new building.

When it comes to lighting, nearly a quarter of the roof space is covered in skylights, meaning that staff aren’t subjected to artificial lighting. And, where artificial lighting is required, the
firm has opted for 1,100 LED lights, with individual PIR sensors.

Solar panels also help to supply 185kW of energy with a 1MW biomass plant fuelled by recycled wood to heat the spraying booths and assembly area, while 110,000 litres of rain water can be harvested for jet washing purposes.

Local employment boost

The impact that Combilift has had also reaches far beyond the factory gates. Its workforce is made up of 550 people from the local area and 100 more globally, and it is even eyeing up new employment opportunities as it seeks to expand the workforce with the creation of 200 new jobs in the next three years.

These roles include skilled technicians, design engineers, logistics and supply chain specialists and those with mechanical and electrical mechatronics skills. Local suppliers have also benefited from the forklift truck manufacturer.

McVicar explained: “We have employed an additional 230 people since we announced our plans for this factory in 2015 and the combination of this state-of-the-art production plant and the growing skilled workforce will allow us to double production within the next five years.”

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar added: “Combilift is an incredible, home-grown, Monaghan success story. When the company was founded 20 years ago, it had three employees, a brilliant concept, and the ambition to make it a reality. Combilift is playing a significant role in Monaghan’s success, and I would like to congratulate the company on their achievements to date and wish them every success for the future.”

During a press briefing at the factory visit, Manufacturing Management asked McVicar whether Brexit is likely to cause any problems for the workforce as Monaghan is a part of the much-scrutinised Border Region.

He responded: “Fifty-two of our employees currently live in Northern Ireland and they travel across the border daily. Of course, when the Brexit vote took place in 2016 that was a big worry for our employees that live there, but we all got a lot of consolidation at the end of last year, when there was an agreement between the British government, Europe and Ireland that there would be no hard, physical border on island – there would be free movement of employees and people back and forth on the border. So, we are very comfortable that it shouldn’t be an issue regardless of the final outcome of Brexit.”

Growth set to continue

It is no wonder McVicar is so positive about the future, as looking at the company’s history, Combilift has been on the up ever since it was established in 1998. It developed its first multidirectional all-wheel-drive IC-engine-powered forklift in the same year and in the first year of operation it produced 18 units – 17 of which were exported.

The company has more than doubled in the last five years and now has 40,000 units in operation in over 85 countries, with the product portfolio having expanded way beyond its first multidirectional model

McVicar said: “Combilift has always focused on a number of niche market segments and has a proven track record of launching one or two new products annually.

“In the first 10 years we focussed on the long load material handling sector with the multidirectional range which revolutionised the handling of long materials, allowing customers to handle long products in less space more safely.”

Between 2008 and 2018 Combilift diversified its product ranged by developing a number of space saving warehouse and heavy load handling products. Pedestrian products have also been introduced into the range in the last five years, enabling it to gain a foothold in this growing market.

“There is a growing demand for pedestrian trucks, driven by safety concerns where customers and employees are in the vicinity of operating forklifts,” said McVicar. “It is our intention to significantly expand this range, as can be seen with the launch of the new high lift capacity Combilift Powered Pallet Truck.”

It is clear that McVicar and Combilift know what they want and are doing everything they can to achieve it.

The firm has experienced huge success since it was established 20 years ago and the new factory, buzzing workforce and impressive growth plans can only be a good thing for the business, Monaghan and the rest of Ireland.

A true manufacturing hero.