Standard But Unique

Dec. 1, 2002
Material handling equipment OEMs are looking for ways to stand out from the crowd. Will you buy what they're selling?

Big fish have been eating small fish in the material handling equipment and systems industries in recent years. As a result of these “consolidations,” brand identities tend to blur. In fact, some products across OEM lines have similar features. If you're one of those people who sees a glass as half full rather than half empty, that could be good news from a safety standpoint. Where lift trucks are concerned, for example, more common features can also mean easier operator training. For the glass-is-half-empty people, from an OEM perspective, marketing gets tougher, as does product differentiation to establish brand loyalty.

Advances in material handling technology are making automation more affordable and user friendly for you, the end user. Automatic guided vehicles, for example, are getting easier to integrate into user environments. Conveyors are being designed with modular controls, making them easier to expand and maintain. Even hoists, which have never been categorized under “sexy technology,” are being sold today as ergonomic work assist devices.

These technologies are big competition for lift truck OEMs, and that will open up a wide array of options for you. Take fleet management services. Please. That’s what more and more lift truck manufacturers will be pitching as competition gets tighter. These services will include not only maintenance, but specification of product to your operations, as well. Trained operators could also be part of the package. This may relieve you of training, benefits administration and even payroll.

The question is: Are material handling equipment OEMs able to be effective consultants? Some will try, as they find ways to afford offering these services. They know it could give them a competitive spark in lethargic markets.

Leasing is another golden opportunity, both for you and the OEMs. All capital goods manufacturers have tremendous pressure on them to sustain their profit after taxes. They also have a lot of long-term debt. These two factors are driving a new leasing strategy: pay-upon-value. This is where you pay a fixed price per unit of value; i.e., hours of operation, tons moved, miles traveled, etc. This might help you get more for your money and give both you and the OEM a more accurate picture of usage patterns.

Of course, as more of these lease agreements reach maturity, that creates a bigger pool of used equipment from which to select. It may become easier for you to find bargains in the used equipment market in the next few years. Just be careful not to let low price lure you into selecting a technology that doesn’t fit your operations. The phrase caveat emptor will gain new resonance as used-equipment markets grow.

Standards help, not only in making the right matches for proper applications, but in establishing safety. Global standards is a hot issue with OEMs in several industries, but it’s also a hot potato. The Industrial Truck Association, made up of U.S. lift truck OEMs, has been trying to harmonize American National Standards Institute (ANSI) B56 standards with the International Standards Organization’s ISO 3691 for years now. Finally, the ITA Executive Committee recently endorsed a resolution that cites differences in local customs and practices as the reason that agreement on all aspects of ISO 3691 is not probable.

Material handling OEMs are working hard to find a balance between the safety benefits of standards and the competitive advantage of offering unique features and services. That’s good business for them, and just plain good for you.

Tom Andel, chief editor, [email protected]