New Directions for Lift Trucks

March 1, 2003
There are several trends and news items that may have an impact on domestic and global lift truck markets: Clark's rescue from Chapter 11, developments

There are several trends and news items that may have an impact on domestic and global lift truck markets: Clark's rescue from Chapter 11, developments in AC drive technology, and proposed regulatory changes are the primary examples. Material Handling Management had the opportunity to interview Larry Wuench, executive vice president, Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift Trucks America, for his assessment of what these trends will mean to his industry and to his customers. -- Tom Andel, chief editor

MHM: How do you think Clark's being bought and getting out of Chapter 11 will affect the industry?

Wuench: The new owners seemed to have come out of nowhere. They bought Daewoo's bus business years ago, and they seem to be making that work. The owner seems to be an entrepreneurial, no-nonsense businessman and I have every belief that he will do his damnedest to turn Clark around.

MHM: Do you anticipate some major innovations coming from them?

Wuench: I don't think that's on the near horizon; they'll have to first stabilize their operations. I know he has plans to buy the Asian and German operations. In the next two or three years he'll probably work on consolidation and find his way in the marketplace. I think initially he'll have more of an impact on Daewoo than on some of the rest of us, but in the long term, Clark's back in the game. I don't think they'll be anything less than a full player five years from now. I think they'll be a niche player until he figures out what he's going to do.

MHM: The best thing that can come out of it is driving more innovation from the industry. AC power seems to be spreading throughout the industrial truck market. Do you see this as having a major impact on the IC vs. electric situation?

Wuench: I don't know that AC will have as much of an effect on the IC vs. electric situation as the EPA situation in California and OSHA in general is having on IC engines, at least in the near future. In California there's a proposition they're considering to prohibit the sale of all IC lift trucks below 8,000-pound capacity after 2007. If I were the guys from Crown or Raymond, I'd think that was fantastic. I have mixed emotions about it because we produce both IC and electric trucks. I think the pendulum will swing toward electric trucks as they get more to the performance level of IC trucks. That's where the AC drive controls will help electric truck performance.

The big problem lift truck companies have that people don't think much about is that on the engine side, we are at the mercy of the automotive industry. If you look at the engine suppliers -- Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Volkswagen, Perkins, Deutch -- we don't have enough volume to make it worthwhile for any of them to build us an engine and dress it for the lift truck business, in terms of the attachments on it, the torque configurations, etc. Another reason we're looking more at electric trucks and the latest technology in electronics, particularly AC, is that those are the only places we can gain more control of our own vehicle power destiny. We at Mitsubishi heavy industries and Mitsubishi Electronics are working on the AC controls. The Europeans are already there, between Jungheinrich and Linde and others.

MHM: So you're convinced AC controls really have a place at all levels in the U.S. industrial truck market?

Wuench: I'm sure they do because AC drive improves the efficiency of a truck so it moves like an IC truck. There's still a question about whether there's a reason to invest in developing AC lift controls. You need separate lift and drive controls anyway, and to some engineers it's not really necessary to develop AC lift controls, although we are looking at it.

MHM: Is there a future for fuel cells?

Wuench: I felt bad when Caterpillar sold its fuel cell business about 20 years ago. I thought it was a big mistake. Twenty years later I have no idea whether that technology will be a player in this business. I'd be more interested now in hybrid technology than fuel cells.

MHM: What about the potential for fast charging?

Wuench: I know automotive is interested in it, and if they have anything to do with it, then its time has come. Our engineering people have identified some risks they're still evaluating. We'll do it if a customer tells us they have to have it.

MHM: The other hot issue these days is operator safety and the use of seat belts. What's your take on the OSHA proposal that citations for not wearing seat belts be at the inspector's discretion?

Wuench: I own a Ford Explorer and to not wear a seatbelt in that vehicle would be almost suicidal. That's equally true of a lift truck. Just because I never rolled my Explorer before and I don't drive it like some of the idiots I see on the Sam Houston Tollway, doesn't mean that it will never roll. I understand the issue of operator restraint systems causing problems for robust operators when they have to drive a high percentage of their time in reverse. We've tried to address that with a belt that's flexible enough to allow three or four inches of give so there's some mobility in the seat until the vehicle tips, but to not wear a seat belt and to subject the operator to the chance that the overhead guard will act as a mousetrap and cause severe injury is ridiculous.

MHM: Is there any merit at all on the pro side of this issue?

Wuench: The lift truck industry has an obligation to address the issue that in many applications lift trucks are driven more in reverse than forward. That poses issues of hanging over the back, watching in reverse, putting stress on the operator's upper torso and neck. We've tried to address that by engineering a lip into the back of the seat and that provides some relief, but the real issue is what the Europeans are doing and that's going more to a swivel operator's compartment that provides mobility for all the controls so the operator can at least get to a modified 20- to 25-degree position when driving in reverse.

MHM: Will OSHA go further with this?

Wuench: My guess is OSHA will respond favorably to the large users of lift trucks who have issues with workmen’s compensation claims related to upper torso stress. None of that is any excuse to not wear a seat belt.

MHM: The experienced operators seem to understand that; it's the new kids on the job market who seem to pose the most danger.

Wuench: That's why I think all lift truck operators ought to be licensed, but I don't see that happening soon.

MHM: Has there ever been a time where more factors have the opportunity to drive change in this industry?

Wuench: All I can tell you is that sitting in the front of our corporate offices is a 1947 towmotor, and except for the fact it doesn't have an overhead guard on it, it looks like the kind of vehicle we're building today. I think there's a need for some technology change. One of the things that's a problem in this industry is there's not enough sales volume to drive widespread, really high-level technological developments. The end user isn't really demanding it and the OEMs can't really afford it. Issues like the California clean air statute, or like tipovers killing people, or operators driving in reverse, those kinds of things are the drivers of change in our industry. With the exception of AC technology, we're not real innovators compared to the automotive or aircraft industries. That being said, I think there will be some big changes in the next five years in the operator station.

MHM: There have always been sticking points in the drive toward international standards. Are we getting closer to that goal?

Wuench: I think there's more of a consensus today on the new ISO standards than there was a year ago. You don't have to look further than the Iraq problem to see there are major differences of opinion regarding U.S. interests vs. European and Asian interests. The ISO standard is one where the Europeans have to have a new standard within the next three years. They and we in North America are hoping we can agree on the major pieces of a new standard but what the Europeans have to understand is that their society isn't quite as litigious as ours. In our business climate, we can't live with some of the things they're suggesting in the ISO standard because it would cause OSHA issues or other issues we can't live with. There are other things they're proposing for themselves that we don't need because we don't use a vehicle the way they do. There are some things we'll never agree on. The power requirements are different. Europe is 70 percent diesel in their IC needs and we're 70 percent gas and LP in ours. The big players in the Class 2 and Class 3 areas have been leaders in questioning the ISO issues that have come up. We'll reach some level of consensus, however.