Technology

An Irish encounter

The official opening of Combilift’s new global headquarters and manufacturing facility in Monaghan, Ireland, was on an epic scale by our country’s standards. Ruth Le Pla was flown to Ireland to check it out.

THE COUNTRY TOWN of Monaghan is a 17-hour flight to Dubai, another eight hours to Dublin Airport and a short-hop 90-minute drive through a spring green landscape for a welcome rest. Stray just a short distance up the road in the other direction, and you slip over the invisible border to County Armagh in Northern Ireland.

County Monaghan flies under the typical tourist radar. It is known for its lakes, lacemaking and farmer-poet Patrick Kavanagh whose images lined the walls in the hotel where I stayed and whose initials formed the name of the bar serving the ubiquitous Irish Guinness.

The small town of Monaghan is home to Combilift. The firm manufactures heavy lifting equipment and provides material handling solutions. It has built its business on the oxymoronic concept of mass producing customised product.

Martin McVicar says Combilift has built its business on mass customisation.

Co-founder and managing director Martin McVicar says this is the “new frontier”. It’s a way to tailor products so they’re exactly what customers want, and for Combilift to continually lift its game by learning as it works hand-in-glove with customers.

Built at a cost of €50 million (around $83.8 million), Combilift’s new 46,500 square metre global headquarters and manufacturing facility is what has brought me across the world.

I’m one of 2500 international visitors attending a series of official opening events. Irish Prime Minister (An Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar is one of many dignitaries presiding over the various events that culminate in evenings of prime beef, Irish coffee and flamboyant Irish dancers stamping and leaping high up on the tables amongst the guests.

Such is Combilift’s prominence in the town that an open day just for locals reportedly drew in a further 3400 people to see for themselves what all the talk was about.

Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Combilift has grown from a kick-start staff of three. Its current workforce is now 550, and the new facilities and expansion mode mean a further 200 new jobs are on the cards in the next three years.

All of this paves the way for production to double in the next five years. The new purpose-built factory is set on a 100-acre site allowing room for further expansion when required.

It takes us three hours to tour the facilities, stopping for demonstrations and explanations of a wide range of heavy load handling machinery, multi-directional powered forklifts and space-saving warehouse products.

The facility means Combilift’s different divisions now all operate in one building.

Four 90 metre moving assembly lines produce one finished truck every 15 minutes. There are 60 welding bays, two plasma cutting machines, three paint lines and three automatic shot blasters to cater for different products of different sizes. Some 12,000 pallet locations ensure ample storage space for parts and components.

There’s a 50-seat cinema training room, 5000m2 of office space and a dedicated Research and Development and Testing Centre. (Combilift reinjects seven percent of its annual turnover back into R&D.)

770×470 2” Combilift’s Combi-SC straddle carriers are designed to handle containers, and long and over-sized loads.

The company dispatches more than 50 truckloads of finished products from the factory each week. It currently exports 98 percent of its products to 85 countries through an international dealer network.

The Kiwi connection

Father and son team Dave and Scott Comber represent Combilift in our country with a strong focus on the company’s straddle carriers and mobile gantries.

Dave, who has been in his role since 2013, says clients include steel specialist Eastbridge, building construction company Calder Stewart, Hastings’ Tomoana Warehousing and Mainfreight.

Napier-based Eastbridge operates two Combilift mobile gantries with a combined lift of 70 tonne. Dave says Eastbridge, which specialises in the supply of steel bridging, towers, poles and heavy steel fabrication, typically uses the mobile gantries singly or in tandem for shifting bridge beams.

In Milton, just south of Dunedin, Calder Stewart operates a Combilift standard straddle carrier SC3 for loading its fabricated structural steel onto trucks.

Bought in 2017 and assembled in April this year, the carrier helps lift workforce productivity and streamlines processes.

“Previously, Calder Stewart was having to put one of its truck trailers into its factory,” says Dave.

“It would have been a lengthy process to load steel piece-by-piece, tying up the trailer for a whole day.

“Now the load is assembled in the same footprint as a truck trailer. When the trailer becomes available they pick up the whole load, so the trailer only needs to be on site for about an hour.”

Dave says Combilift’s new facilities in Ireland will ultimately speed up delivery of equipment for customers in our country. Current lead times are 28 weeks for manufacturing and eight weeks shipping.

He adds; there’s a general misconception in the contracting and road transport industries that, because these machines are quite large and relatively new to New Zealand, they are a lot more expensive than what they are.

“That constantly surprises me. I’ve had a report that one of my customers told a competitor that a standard straddle would cost $1 million. They’re about half that price. So, it surprises me people would believe that. 

“Our equipment is an economic alternative way to handle big heavy loads.

“People are often surprised about the solutions we can come up with for them by customising the equipment.

The price for a mobile gantry starts at around €160,000 – about $NZ268,000 – Dave adds.

“But mass customisation means I don’t think we’ve ever made two units the same.”


This article was first published in the July 2018 issue of NZ Contractor Magazine.

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