Jonny Williamson travels to the Netherlands to discover how the combination of cutting-edge innovation, the Industrial Internet of Things and AC drive motors is helping a forklift manufacturer to reach new heights.
Almost 1.5 million forklift trucks are sold globally every year, according to statistics published from the Industrial Truck Association. By all accounts, that number is expected to grow year-on-year by at least 100,000 – 150,000 for the next five years.
This is clearly a robust, stable market, but like almost every other industrial product, disruption is transforming the landscape – and at pace. This disruption can be largely grouped into two key areas: platform and service.
On the platform side, modern forklift trucks are increasingly becoming battery-powered. In that regard, the market is broadly mirroring what’s happening in the automotive world. Yet, forklift buyers hold the same concerns as road vehicle users, namely the reliability and durability of batteries and the state of the current charging infrastructure, or lack thereof.
At the same time, forklifts have become more intelligent, intuitive and innovative. With the exception of counterbalance trucks, the use of iron has been almost completely phased out and replaced with steel and plastic, both of which offer far greater opportunities for personalisation, design refinement and lightweighting.
Regarding service, operators have become more aware of the value hidden in their usage data and the business benefits unlocking that value can create, such as through predictive maintenance, asset optimisation, and greater productivity.
This shift has seen forklift producers look to expand their repertoires to encompass more service-based propositions, built upon the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and sophisticated data analysis – areas which, for many manufacturers, aren’t exactly core competencies.
During any period of disruption there will always be those who adapt and embrace change, and those who shy away from it. Yet, despite the risks associated with taking risks and being innovative, the growth opportunities on offer can be substantial – should a business get it right.
One such business is Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift Europe (MCFE), an organisation which is applying its global engineering and technology know-how to produce practical, intelligent, modern material handling solutions [see breakout box at the bottom of this article].
MCFE is headquartered in the Dutch city of Almere, a 40-min drive from Amsterdam. From here, MCFE provides a full-suite of administrative, marketing and sales support for its entire material handling portfolio.
Before letting me loose(!) on one of MCFE’s latest forklifts [see breakout box], Hans Seijger, vice-president for marketing and sales across EAME & CIS, outlines some of the key market trends MCFE had not only identified, but were capitalising on.
“There has been a definite increase in warehouse equipment demand overall, but particularly towards electric, batteries and automated guided vehicles (AGVs),” Seijger explains. “Operators and regulators are demanding ever-greater levels of energy efficiency, and there is now more emphasis placed on leveraging technology to offer holistic customer experiences.
“Rather than stand-alone products, customers are seeking one-stop solutions which are cost-effective and offer enhanced availability, flexibility, safety and reliability. This demand has seen more and more of our 100-strong global network of dealers and distributors pivot towards lease and rental agreements, opposed to outright sales.”
This multi-faceted, international conglomerate of subsidiaries, brands, facilities and portfolios may sound complicated, but the common aim unifying everyone’s efforts is the desire to design and manufacture ‘smart solutions’ for and with operators. Central to achieving that goal is continuous innovation based on cutting-edge research and development.
The phrase ‘state-of-the-art’ is used all too often, especially in the current climate of Industry 4.0 and Fourth Industrial Revolution; but the work being done at MCFE’s global R&D centre in Järvenpää (Finland) truly deserves the accolade.
Take the Mitsubishi Sensitive Drive System (SDS), designed by electric engineer, Janne Laaksonen. Through intuitive driver-assist – achieved via graduated performance management (according to steer angle, foot and finger actuator velocity), SDS automatically smooths out start and stop movements, helping to increase agility and safety.
New algorithms have been designed and developed to support low-speed manoeuvres and high work, and the intelligent system is also capable of adapting to the speed of operators’ foot movements.
Then there is ‘Maxius’, a radically redesigned steering wheel that works in tandem with SDS. Maxius offers one-handed, ambidextrous operation for ease of operator use – particularly when driving backwards or sideways, the fully adjustable wheel can suit any operators’ ideal position and its ergonomic design brings all controls within easy reach – benefits I can attest to.
“Order picking is the most challenging aspect of a warehouse operative’s role, it can be very physically demanding,” notes Seijger. “Therefore, we have designed our latest generation of low level order pickers to be a resting place, achieved through ergonomics, smart design, and intelligent technology.
“The greatest challenge in material handling is that no two environments are the same, a characteristic which requires a high level of flexibility, something we have put at the core of everything we do.”
Connected value chain
Like many manufacturers, MCFE is aware of the advantages greater connectivity and data-gathering can bring to a business. Unlike most manufacturers, MCFE has taken significant steps towards creating its own connected value chain.
In February 2018, the business launched a smart device app which leveraged the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and data analysis to offer operators remote monitoring of a wide variety of fleet management metrics. These range from relatively low-level information such as usage, asset location and shock detection (measured via accelerometers), to more high-level functions such as presenting drivers with a checklist which must be completed prior to operating the truck and assigning trucks to specific drivers based on whether they hold the required licence and qualifications.
The move towards lease and rental agreements means that data regarding usage is an important aspect of determining whether a forklift is being deployed in the way the contract was sold, says Seijger.
“The remote monitoring app is cloud-based, securely stores information, offers transparency and assists record keeping,” he adds. “On our side, MCFE is particularly interested in parts reliability and global parts demand, knowledge which will help us move closer towards being able to offer predictive maintenance, as well as benchmark breakdowns across our global population.
“The app has been tailor-made for the material handling industry and furthermore, it even works with competitor products, so long as they complement our product portfolio. No one company can satisfy every need, and that understanding has allowed MCFE to achieve greater market share, rather than restrict it. Our growth, for example, is currently exceeding the market average.”
A modern forklift for modern environments
Taking the helm of one of Mitsubishi’s new Velia ES series of low-level order picker tow trucks, there are four things that immediately spring to mind:
- The easy-access walk-through cabin means operators are free to enter from either side, and reportedly offers 18% more operating area than standard, alongside greater visibility and spatial awareness.
- The entire walk-through cabin floor is an operator sensor, allowing the truck to be activated wherever operators stands on the platform. This can help reduce leg fatigue and maximise operator comfort resulting in greater safety and throughput.
- The Maxius steering wheel and Sensitive Drive System.
- The truck is whisper quiet thanks to its powerful high-speed AC drive motor, capable of achieving 12km/h.
The truck’s AC drive motor delivers 14% better efficiency than its best value competitor, a considerable improvement which hasn’t been easy to achieve. I questioned Kero Uusitalo, design manager at MCFE’s Group global R&D centre in Järvenpää, about how the feat was accomplished.
“When it comes to energy efficiency, there is a sweet spot in terms of RPMs, the point at which energy consumption is at its most optimum. We developed a motor from the ground-up that was designed specifically to operate in this sweet spot.
“It may sound slightly odd, but an electric motor running at 30% more RPM is actually more energy efficient than a motor running at 30% less. A motor running at such a high RPM creates additional pressure in terms of heat and torque, which required the development of a brand new, more robust, durable gearbox.”
Who are MCFE?
Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift Europe (MCFE) is a group company of Mitsubishi Logisnext Europe B.V. (MLE) and since 2016 has been part of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Forklift, Engine and Turbocharger Holdings Ltd. (MFET).
With 16 factories in seven countries, and employing more than 10,500 people, Mitsubishi Logisnext is the world’s third largest manufacturer of counterbalance and warehouse equipment (behind Kion in second, and Toyota in the top spot).
MCFE designs, manufactures, markets and supports three brands of forklift trucks, warehouse equipment and AGV – Mitsubishi, Cat® and Rocla, all of which are globally recognised, well-established and have complementary product portfolios.
The trio of brands each satisfies different market requirements and appeal to different customer categories.
Its reputation for almost indestructible reliability means Cat® lift trucks, for example, can often be spotted throughout Africa and the Middle East. Whereas Rocla has spent the past 35 years pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with automated guided vehicles (AGVs), alongside counterbalanced electric trucks and warehouse equipment.
For more than 25 years, Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks has been at the cutting-edge of materials handling solutions. Its new low-level order picker – the Velia series, for example, is 14% more energy efficient than the best value competitor.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries: From ships to satellites
As 2017 drew to a close, Jonny Williamson had the enviable opportunity to travel to Japan and tour several of the facilities within the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group.