Drive Your Lift Truck's Design

May 1, 2002
Users are in the driver’s seat when it comes to industrial truck R&D. With dealers and OEMs on your team, you can specify features that are especially useful in your environment.

by Tom Andel, chief editor

Lights that turn off automatically. A low-profile seat. Non-flammable hydraulic oil. Non-marking tires. Mast-mounted headlights for narrow-aisle applications. Air-conditioned cabs. Catalytic mufflers. Yellow seat belts to help managers and supervisors see from a distance that the operators are using their seat belts.

These are special requests — a wish list, if you will, of non-standard features that customers have asked to see on their new lift trucks. Brett Wood, national product planning manager for Toyota Material Handling USA, says OEMs have a new class of customers these days, and what they’re asking for as custom features will eventually change the lift truck industry.

“Our customers get on the Internet every night to see what’s out there,” Wood says. “They’re college educated and more analytical. They’re also part of a buying committee that includes mechanics. Because of this trend, the operator’s request for more comfortable and safe products is taking hold in the market.”

These trends were apparent at the recent Hannover Fair, where Linde introduced a lift truck powered by a VW engine, promising lower fuel consumption and noise levels, and sporting a modular design and tilt cylinders mounted high above the overhead guard. Another much discussed trend was the addition of side restraints. Imagine a counterbalanced sit-down rider with bars mounted on the side of the compartment that the operator swings open like a door to get aboard. With this feature, if the lift truck tips over, it acts as a cage to keep the operator in the vehicle. Although these are not standard features on any U.S. lift truck, Wood says he’s seeing more and more special requests that could eventually become standardized.

“Two stand out,” he told MHM. “Special mast cylinders to keep the forks from touching the ground, and radiator protection bars. There are some customers who handle pallets 100 percent of the time and do not need to ‘chisel’ under a load. For them we designed a mast cylinder that will stop the forks two inches off the ground. Benefits for them include reduced fork heel wear and less floor damage.

“Radiator protection bars in the counterweight allow airflow across the engine and radiator while protecting these components from the intruding forks of another lift truck or from other objects.”

Swivel seats and higher masts are also gaining popularity. Swivel seats are requested by customers who have to drive in reverse quite often.

“With the standard seat, that operator is looking over his shoulder and pivoting at his hips,” Brett continues. “If you do that for a whole shift, that can be tiresome. We’re offering a seat that swivels 15 degrees. You can still drive safely forward, but the swivel allows you to look over your shoulder comfortably. You don’t want to swivel too much because legs and feet could go outside the operator compartment and your feet have to operate the brake pedal.”

New heights

Wood is also seeing the development of more four- and five-stage masts. These are most often used in the carpet industry.

“Imagine a carpet roll, up 300 inches, supported by a rug ram that’s four inches in diameter,” he says. These and other applications, because of space utilization requirements, are going higher. But once they go that high, they want to be able to bring it down and put it directly into a trailer. That’s where a counterbalanced truck excels. You can’t do that with a VNA truck.”

Extra height is a trend in the stand-up counter-balanced market as well, according to Melanie Bohle, sales and marketing director at Schaeff.

“There are only a couple companies that make 5,000-pound stand-up counterbalanced,” she maintains. “Most of our customers ask for special options, whether it’s side entry or a fourth post for the overhead guard, offering better operator protection. Food processors tend to ask for extra steel, extra weight so they can get capacity at higher heights. That’s why we sell quite a few tall masts, including triflexes and quads.”

Still, when you’re talking about sit-down counterbalanced trucks, there are trade-offs when you ask for height and multi-purpose utilization. While some models allow you to go higher and yet be able to load a trailer, the operator still doesn’t have the maneuverability that comes standard with a narrow-aisle vehicle.

That’s why Landoll Corporation, which offers the articulated Bendi lift truck in the U.S., is putting its VNA vehicle through some design changes.

“Customers are asking us to bring the aisle capabilities of the rotating mast products into the Bendi lineup, with all the Bendi features we’ve been marketing for eight years now,” says Alan Laney, Landoll group manager, material handling products. “The 90-degree rotating mast products have limitations, in that they can stack on only one side, and you need larger connecting aisles. We’re working on the ability to stack on both sides of the aisle, a truck-to-rack, single-truck solution that allows smaller connecting aisles. We’re developing these for our European customers first, for operations with aisles less than six feet.”

This is Bendi’s answer to the standard reach truck market. Laney acknowledges some trade-offs of their own. With articulated trucks, tradeoff No. 1 is capacity.

“My largest capacity now is 4,500 pounds, but that truck weighs, with battery, more than 13,000 pounds,” he continues. “We still maintain wheel loadings similar to the sit down electric counterbalanced in order to allow us to go in and out of trailers and railcars. We’re getting interest in the Bendi concept in the IC-powered format, both narrow-frame and large-frame versions, 3,000- and 4,000-pound capacities. That’s under development and will be introduced here in the U.S. in 2002.”


Some OEMs are starting to install attachments at the factory, alleviating the dealer of that function and possibly saving the customer some time and money. Attachments like sideshifters are becoming so popular that this service made sense to Toyota.

“More than 80 percent of our counterbalanced lift trucks are sold with sideshifters,” Wood concludes. “Sideshifters that are part of the carriage are also being looked at.”

Rick Whiting, product manager at Kalmar AC, agrees.

“The next big advancement in the next two or three years is going to be sideshifting with fork positioning as standard for ergonomic reasons,” he says. “Operators won’t have to get off the truck to reposition the forks. The attachment people are looking at integral sideshifts for reduced lost load, increased capacity and reduced maintenance. At the same time, several people are looking at adding a fork positioning function that does not need additional hydraulics. The hydraulic supply that powers the sideshift function will also power fork positioning. This will be an economical way to add fork positioning, without adding a $1,500 hydraulic package.”

Cost justification

Economy is key to any of these special requests. As lift truck buyers get more educated, they also understand the concept of total operating cost.

“They’re not just focusing on the acquisition cost of the truck,” Whiting adds. “Acquisition cost is very minor in the overall lifecycle cost of a truck. Reducing maintenance over the life of the truck also has an impact.”

Sometimes, owing to the demanding nature of an application, high cost is unavoidable. That’s the case with explosion-proof models.

By definition, an EX-rated truck must have features that reduce the risk of fire or explosion in areas where there might be flammable gases, vapors or liquid (Class I), combustible dust (Class II), or ignitable fibers and flyings (Class III).

According to Rico Equipment, material handling innovation specialists based in Medina, Ohio, typical EX truck features include rigid metal conduit or mineral insulated cable for all wiring; intrinsically safe electrical circuits; static-conductive tires; brass or aluminum around the chassis and forks to protect against mechanical sparks; and explosion-proof boxes for all electrical components.

Robert Zuiderveld, North American sales manager for Sichelschmidt, another specialist in EX-rated lift trucks, says his company serves niche markets and, therefore, is able to provide custom-engineered solutions that pay off in safety.

“With quick-disconnect drum handler attachments, there aren’t many lift trucks out there that do EX-rated drum dumping,” he says. “We will custom build units, too. We supplied a truck that needed an extreme clearance, plus in the application they had spill restrictions. We supplied them with a truck that was 53 inches off the ground so they could clear a bump.”

Another Sichelschmidt client is Degussa Corporation, a Mobile, Alabama, polyester resin plant. It uses an explosion-proof lift truck to move 2,000-pound bulk containers between a vertical lift station and a chemical discharge valve. For them, explosion-proof not only applied to the lift truck, but to its tires, as well. Mike Maxim, senior plant engineer, suggests when you specify a lift truck for harsh conditions like those in his plant, even floor conditions must be figured in.

“The back tires are conductive rubber to dissipate static electricity,” he explains. “That means it’s soft rubber and will wear out faster. So look at your floor surfaces. If they’re rough and you have these soft tires, fast starts can destroy them. Tire replacement on these trucks can be complex and expensive.”


Wire guidance is another option for lift trucks used in such sensitive environments. Sandia National Laboratories has a wire-guided lift truck that handles weapons-grade plutonium. After Hyster and AGV Products teamed up on this solution, both companies started seeing similar applications in the private sector.

“Eliminating the cost of an operator over three shifts and eliminating the need to light the warehouse can result in significant pay-backs,” says Moataz Eldib, consultant and accounts manager for Hyster. “You’re also going to see more automation on these trucks, with better interfaces to a WMS. We and the WMS vendors have a better understanding of each other’s technologies and provide a more seamless integration of the scanners and devices at the computer end of the truck.”

John Hayes, system sales manager with AGV Products, adds that this can be a cost-effective alternative to an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) for someone who doesn’t want to build a rack-supported building.

“The best return on investment is for two- or three-shift, medium-throughput operations,” he continues. “That’s typically 30 moves per hour with a man on a truck. Our system moves 25, so we’re slower. We’re seeing two-year paybacks. But in the eight years after that two years you’re saving up to a million dollars — 10 in some cases. The feature that will make ROI shorter is improving the speed of the system. We can do that with SICK laser bumpers, which allow us to speed the trucks up to 30 moves per hour. The best payback from this kind of system is if you have an existing building with narrow-aisle racking — 12-foot aisles. Now you can use the real estate you have by putting everything into a much more compact storage area, plus use automation to justify fewer employees for moving loads around.”

Fantuzzi USA combined the narrow-aisle concept into its line of specialized yard trucks. Timothy Flood, this OEM’s managing director, says with the sideloaders his firm sells, 70 percent are customized, but the user gains flexibility.

“One of the trucks used by Manitowoc cranes, for example, can stay narrow in certain parts of the facility but when it has to carry wider boom sections, its width can be hydraulically extended,” he explains. “This gives them two-in-one capability — a wide and narrow truck.”


Whatever it is you want your new lift truck to do that’s above and beyond the call of its original design, make sure OSHA would approve — especially if you’re planning a do-it-yourself makeover. Don’t assume that the feature you’re adding is of little consequence. Here’s what OSHA has to say on the matter:

1910.178(a)(4): “Modifications and additions which affect capacity and safe operation shall not be performed by the customer or user without manufacturers’ prior written approval. Capacity, operation, and maintenance instruction plates, tags, or decals shall be changed accordingly.”

1910.178(a)(5): “If the truck is equipped with front-end attachments other than factory installed attachments, the user shall request that the truck be marked to identify the attachments and show the approximate weight of the truck and attachment combination at maximum elevation with load laterally centered.”

1910.178(a)(6): “The user shall see that all nameplates and markings are in place and are maintained in a legible condition.”

Ken Van Hook, manager of product safety standards engineering, Mitsubishi Forklift, says that as he investigates accidents, modifications that were put on by the customers are one of the leading culprits.

“Even adding a fire extinguisher to a lift truck raises important issues,” he concludes. “First there’s visibility. Where will you mount it? Another is how will you mount it? You don’t want to drill holes in an overhead guard or you can lose rigidity. Look at the kinds of computerized tools being put on lift trucks now. How they’re wired could affect the UL rating of the lift truck. It might even decrease visibility or cover up warning labels that we may mount on a lift truck.”

Lift trucks are amazingly versatile vehicles. They can be equipped to do many specialized tasks in your plant or warehouse. But lift truck design and modification are team efforts. If you have a bright idea, talk to some dealers and manufacturers first. They might have already implemented a similar design change for someone else. Many OEMs pre-wire their trucks and dedicate space on them for various options. Make some calls. Something special might develop. MHM

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