A recent study by BigCommerce.com revealed that 51% of Americans prefer online shopping, with e-commerce growing by 23% every year. The research predicts this trend will pick up its pace as brands increasingly embrace omnichannel and voice platforms to simplify customers’ digital shopping experiences.
As e-commerce escalates, so will last-mile logistics, defined as the final step in the delivery process from a distribution center or brick-and-mortar store to the shipment’s destination, be it a smaller regional store, office building, or even a customer’s residence. Though this last mile often involves the transport of smaller-sized packages by parcel or small package carriers, more and more shipments include larger items, such as furniture or appliances, that are ordered online and delivered directly to the customer.
The e-commerce explosion has presented both opportunities and challenges to retailers, as well as regional fleets, LTL and truckload carriers. One headache is getting products into areas that were never designed for Class 8 rigs. Once carriers successfully navigate narrow streets fraught with obstacles such as mailboxes, low power lines, trees and people, drivers then must move products off trailers, many of which have been spec’d to deliver shipments directly to docks rather than unloaded on city streets or in residential driveways.
Companies such as XPO Logistics have responded to these new demands by adding smaller straight trucks and updating their fleets with new technologies designed to meet the unique challenges of last mile logistics. XPO Logistics Chief Operating Officer Troy Cooper explains in a press release that as the shipper works to grow its last-mile footprint to 85 service hubs, it also has had to “make significant investments in facilities, technology, staffing and training.”
One technology being added by companies such as XPO isn’t new, but is gaining in popularity.
“The explosion of last-mile deliveries in the last couple of years has resulted in more liftgates being put on trucks than ever before,” says Anton Griessner, vice president of marketing and business development at Maxon Lift, a Santa Fe Springs, California-based liftgate manufacturer celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
He explains, “Liftgates allow deliveries in areas that do not have a dock. If you’re going from dock to dock, you can drive a forklift in and carry the cargo right out. But if you’re delivering an appliance to someone’s house, and you need to get it onto the ground, a liftgate can help you do that.”
Look for liftgate innovations
Kurt Walker, director of sales and marketing at Anthony Liftgates, a Pontiac, Illinois-based company that has been in the liftgate business since 1941, agrees that e-commerce is the driving force behind the rapid expansion in liftgate use across the trucking industry. In fact, he says in 2017, Anthony Liftgates sold more liftgates in a calendar year than ever before.
Liftgate manufacturers are responding in kind to this increased demand with innovations designed to help move product from the truck to the street to the customer’s doorstep with ease. Griessner categorizes these innovations into three main buckets: reliability, performance, and safety.
“Reliability, because at the end of the day the liftgate is a work tool. The worst-case scenario for a fleet would be showing up to make a delivery and having the liftgate malfunction, making it impossible to deliver the shipment,” Griessner says. “Performance is also important because they need to make these deliveries as efficiently as possible. The third bucket is safety, because operators and bystanders need to be kept safe as these deliveries are made. A liftgate is a device sitting on the back of a truck that goes up and down, so safety must be considered.”
Expand liftgate longevity
One of the top considerations when spec’ing a liftgate is lifecycle. Where in the past, a delivery truck might remain in use for five to seven years, Walker says that number has been trending upward over the last decade. “Five to seven years was also the expectation customers once had for liftgates,” he says. “But today, the average truck is on the road for 10-12 years, so customers want a liftgate that lasts equally as long.”
To extend the lifecycle and eliminate maintenance, manufacturers have begun galvanizing the steel used in these products. This reduces the use of paint-covered steel, which can corrode quickly and chip off as a liftgate scrapes the ground. Galvanized steel is simply steel that has been covered in a thin coating of zinc oxide, which protects the metal from corrosion, oxidation, and other elements that can weaken it.
Griessner points out painted steel begins to corrode in two years, and within five years, it can weaken a liftgate to a point where it’s unusable. Galvanizing, he says, can protect steel for up to 70 years. In the case of liftgates, it can keep them structurally sound for up to 20 years. “There are bearings, bushings, and other components that will not endure this timeframe,” he says. “But galvanizing steel has provided a tremendous improvement in performance and reliability.”
Though Walker agrees galvanizing has been a great alternative to paint, he identifies the use of aluminum as another trend that is also adding longevity to these products.
Fleets increasingly see aluminum as an attractive material as they move toward lightweighting to increase fuel economy and gain in freight efficiency. Liftgates are no exception to this trend, and a liftgate with aluminum platforms, structural components, and columns can weigh one-third less than its steel counterparts.
“Ten years ago, everything was painted steel, but now 30% or more liftgates are aluminum. The primary benefit is that it’s lightweight, but it’s also easier to operate and corrosion resistant,” Walker says. “It is more expensive than steel, but it’s definitely an option to consider.”
Solve power problems
Rundown batteries are a common problem on trailers spec’d with liftgates — an unacceptable scenario when timely deliveries are the name of today’s e-commerce game.
“This is a pet peeve of mine; liftgates killing batteries because customers are either powering it from the chassis battery or they’re powering it from their own set of dedicated batteries,” says Walker. “They don’t realize how much power a liftgate can consume, especially when it’s lifting. If a driver is delivering cargo in areas where no-idle laws are in place, a liftgate will quickly drain the batteries on a chassis. You can easily wind up with your chassis stranded because you’re running your batteries down too low and you can’t start your truck. A smart control system is a good way to ensure a constant power supply.”
Anthony Liftgates’ Smart Control puts a control switch, cutoff switch, a battery gauge, and a cycle counter into a single liftgate control unit. It offers a low battery light to alert users when batteries are running low.
While a smart control helps control battery drain, Walker says fleets also need to pay attention to how many cycles they are doing during a delivery day and how the system is being charged. (One cycle is equivalent to a single up-and-down action of the liftgate.) “If you’re doing 30 cycles a day on chassis batteries, you’re going to blow through batteries quickly,” he says. “That’s where you’re going to need to start looking at dedicated batteries and possibly a boosting charge system to be sure you do not kill your chassis batteries too quickly.”
Remember that a liftgate will consume more power when it’s lifting weight than when it’s running up and down empty. “If you’re doing mostly drop offs, the liftgate is going to use very little power,” he says. “But if you’re dropping a cart off and picking up another one that weighs 2,000 to 3,000 pounds in a single cycle, that will add a lot to power consumption.”
Some fleets have been experimenting with solar power as a viable solution to liftgate power problems, adds Griessner, who notes that solar power is a “great supplemental charging system, especially for trailers sitting in a yard for weeks. Solar power can keep the batteries charged, even when the trailer is disconnected from the truck.”
Though it once was acceptable to use simple power systems — basically a single cable running from the truck to batteries that power the liftgate — this is not an option in the more robust and frequent delivery applications of an e-commerce world. “Solar power and DC/DC converters can boost the charge voltage for the batteries running the gate,” Walker says.
Power connections also warrant a closer look, notes Griessner, who says liftgates should meet IP67, IP68 standards. This ensures sealed connections that keep both dust and water out. Arc suppression also can be added to shield the solenoids operating a liftgate’s pump and motor.
“This makes this technology more reliable, less prone to wear and tear and less prone to corrosion,” he says.
Keep an eye on safety
In 2011, a worker lost a toe after his foot was caught in a pinch point between a liftgate and the body of the truck while loading for delivery. In 2013, a truck driver sustained serious personal injuries when the truck’s liftgate malfunctioned. In recent months, a driver was hurt after striking a trailer with its liftgate deployed. Safety must be top of mind whenever liftgates are used, particularly in last-mile deliveries in residential neighborhoods or busy urban areas.
Walker encourages fleets to put flashing LED lights and signage on liftgates to make them more visible. Adding traction to the liftgate platform can provide grip that prevents slips and falls as the trailer is loaded and unloaded. Platforms with ridges and knurling provide grip in both directions. Adding grip handles can further boost worker stability on the platform.
Finally, Griessner points out it behooves fleet operators to ensure they do as much as possible to prevent the possibility of a hand, finger or foot getting caught in a liftgate’s hydraulic components. He recommends barriers over any moving points in the hydraulic system and safety railings to prevent falls.
“We offer a technology called Smartspace, where the lifting platform stops 1/8 of an inch before it hits the floor, so if someone’s hand was on the threshold of the truck, their fingers would not get pinched,” he says.
With the right liftgate on a truck, fleets can meet the challenges presented by last-mile logistics head on, and deliver products reliably, efficiently and safely to city streets and residential driveways.
Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, who writes about a variety of topics, including supply chain and logistics.