Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Forklift Cowboys

Early in my career, right out of college, I was tasked as young engineer to design and install barriers in the industrial plant where I worked that had a small fleet of forklifts driving around the facility.  It was a tire making plant, and fork lifts were everywhere, hauling pallets of rubber and wire, bobbins of extruded rubber, and other raw materials and finished goods all around the plant, quickly.  A clueless industrial engineer partnered with caterpillar to install a automated guided vehicle (AGV) - a robotic forklift - that was supposed to do the work faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than the human drivers on their clumsy forklifts.  Turned out that simple little things, like a shop rag "carelessly" discarded in the path of the AGV, and even if nothing was left in its path, the lethargically paced AGV could not match the precision and speed that a skilled human operator was capable of doing even while half-asleep.  The fork lift drivers were indeed cowboys, often racing each other, getting their work done as fast as possible to take longer smoke breaks, regardless of how much damage they might cause to their forklift, or the surrounding plant.  Maintenance would fix that, so why worry?  Production is what mattered.

The second company I worked for 6 years later, was a hostile unionized environment where the forklift drivers were known as "material handlers" and they believed themselves to be superior in the union caste system to the lowly production workers.  This was a automotive electronics plant - which has since closed and moved to China - and it had only 2 moving forklifts, so traceability as to who rammed what, was a little easier to figure out, and I was no longer the lowly design engineer, but rather, the only facilities engineer on 2nd shift responsible for the smooth function of a high volume automotive OEM supplier factory.  Reducing & repairing  the damage while trying to wrangle the cowboys (or a morbidly obese cowgirl, in one case, who accused me of "sexual harassment" with her shop steward as witness, because I recorded in my Daytimer[TM] for a solid month her non-compliance in wearing steel toed safety shoes) was a never-ending battle. 

Very tired of working 2nd shift, I got a better job, the equivalent of my boss's job, at a medical device manufacturer much closer to home, and on day shift.  I got to see Nathan Jr & Dr Desert flower more (but back then, she was not a doctor yet, nor had she ever visited the desert) and at the medical device plant there was only 1 forklift, and one well behaved forklift cowboy who knew that they would be held accountable.  Forklift damage around the plant - at which I was the Facilities Engineering Manager - was extremely minimal in this environment, but precautions were still taken.  We expanded the plant during my tenure there with a 2 floor warehouse & manufacturing area.  I designed the elevator to be large enough to handle a pallet, but not deep enough to take a forklift upstairs - since the floor could not have supported the weight of a forklift in the upper floor.  It only took the singular forklift cowboy 6 months to ram the elevator door that Otis Elevator had to come out and fix. 

A 1/4 century ago there were no "off the shelf" forklift barriers as there are ubiquitously available today.  Industry realized it was more profitable to cheaply build forklift barriers in China and sell them through Grainger, McMaster Carr, and other industry mail order catalogs.  By the time I got to the electronics and medical device manufacturers, these barriers were becoming more commonly available.  It appears that in the video clip below, that the facility pictured:

- located the shelves too close together
- lacked any useful forklift barriers
- had never had a walk-through from their corporate insurance representative
- might have been run by the clueless industrial engineer I dealt with at the beginning of my career
- didn't properly wrangle their forklift cowboy

Don't fear for the forklift cowboy here.  The roll-over cage on the industrial forklift is designed to support the forklift's weight, which is far heavier than the goods stocked on the flimsy shelves.  If the cowboy stayed in the forklift and didn't try to jump out, they're probably fine.  Fired (unless they're the owner's idiot son) but fine. 

I have to say, I've never seen such a clean, total, catastrophic warehouse collapse than what is pictured here.  In the foreground, you can see a labeling and shipping desk, and scale.  This camera was probably mounted near the ceiling, between 2 dock doors, looking into the warehouse.  Upon the 15th or 20th time I watched it, I noticed a 2nd forklift cowboy to the right, their forklift blocking the transverse aisle way. It appears that forklift cowboy #2 tries to accelerate out of frame at the last minute, but not fast enough to escape the collapse already in progress.  With as much forklift damage as I've had to deal with in my career, this is like a train wreck I can't stop watching.  I'm just glad it was not my plant.

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