Telehandlers: Past, Present, and Future

In the construction industry, a person doesn't have to look very far to see innovative uses for traditional machines. What was once a novelty, telescopic handlers have become a common fixture on jobsites; and today, contractors envision broader applications for these machines. By looking back at trends impacting telehandlers, we can begin to speculate on the future of telehandlers in construction.

The past

The 1970s saw the beginning of what we now know as the telehandler. Back then, the biggest users of telehandlers were mason contractors, but selling “reaching forks” was difficult, as jobs were typically set up to load scaffolding from one side. Convincing contractors that placing material directly behind workers would more than make up for the 25% higher cost of the machine didn't happen overnight.

In those days, the standard lift height was 30 feet with up to 42 feet available only as an option on 8,000-pound machines. Because contractors were unfamiliar with the equipment and potential applications, telescopic handlers were limited more by conventional thinking than by actual machine specifications.

During the 1980s, increasing labor costs encouraged broader utilization by masons, framers, and general contractors made available through AED-type distributors and large national rental centers, such as Hertz and Prime Equipment. This decade saw the emergence of the 5,000- and 10,000-pound machines as contractors began to find uses outside of conventional forklift applications.

The cost of labor sent the need for these material handlers to its highest level in the 1990s when manufacturing volumes doubled then tripled. The telescopic handler had become a fixture on jobsites, often being the first machine to arrive and the last to leave. Likewise, multiple machines working a single job was not an uncommon sight.

Lift height soared to 55 feet, but was replaced by forward reach as the most important criteria in machine selection. As such, there came a greater interest in equipping machines with different attachments, such as truss booms, winches, light material buckets, sweepers, and augers, making these already versatile machines even more so.

Distribution of telehandlers changed dramatically in the 1990s as national distributors and rental centers consolidated. Rental fleets grew much larger to accommodate the needs of contractors. During this time, machines purchased for rental outpaced direct sales to contractors in excess of 10 to 1.

The present

Today, with the number of distributors of telehandlers shrinking, parts and service outlets are as rare as hen's teeth. Compounding the problem, large national rental companies tend to offer few services to end users. As product support becomes a thing of the past, many contractors have been forced to hire service technicians to keep their own machines operating. Contractors can no longer depend on the facility that sold them the telehandler to come repair it, much less stock parts locally for it. Even as their need for telehandlers grows, contractors face greater difficulty keeping their machines operating.

As a result, manufacturers are finding that they need to fill that void, which some are doing by providing greater dealer support.

The future

Product trends point to both larger and smaller telescopic handlers. In both cases, telescopic handlers will begin to impact other areas of construction at the expense of other types of equipment, including small cranes and skid steer loaders, respectively. The largest machines will find ways to off-load materials in a more precise manner by using boom transfer in conjunction with rotation.

The popularity of compact machines has a lot to do with the ability to add reach to the vast assortment of common quick-attach components already available on the market. Combine this versatility with a three-point rear hitch that allows the machine to operate as a utility tractor to run mowers, side rakes, backhoes and any other PTO-driven attachment; and you have a machine that utilizes both ends to get work accomplished. With this in mind, the compact telehandler will surely be the machine of the next 20 years.

In general, the more uses that can be found for the machine to perform the better its return on investment will be for contractors and rental fleet owners.

Although telehandlers and their distribution have changed over the years, the need for product support, as well as parts and service, has not. All things being equal, the manufacturer that supports its machines for end users will be the company that prevails in the marketplace. As the number of competitors from both North America and Europe continues to increase, all manufacturers should be vying for that top spot in the service and support category.

Likewise, end users trying to make a buying decision • for both new and used equipment • will more likely consider the availability of parts and service. Note that the value of used equipment is much greater where parts and knowledgeable service is available at the local level.

Versatility and acceptance into broader applications will continue to position telescopic handlers as time and money savers for owners. But without a good foundation of service and support, that potential cost savings could disappear into thin air.

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About the Author: 

James Hoogervorst

James E. Hoogervorst, “Hoogie”, has been promoting telescopic handlers for 37 years, with a career that began in the 1970s at Loed (which later became Gradall). In the 1980s and '90s, he worked for Lull as General Manager and Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Following a brief retirement, in 2002 he became CEO of Highlift Equipment, which specializes in offering parts, service, and troubleshooting expertise of telescopic handlers. Again, after a short time away from the industry, he joined Pettibone as its west coast regional manager.