Historically, most forklift makers have chosen to design, engineer, and manufacture their lift trucks themselves. While they may incorporate parts and components from outside suppliers, for the most part, they’ve kept the bulk of the work in-house.
But that’s starting to change. A growing number of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are finding that the best way to meet current and expected demand for technically complex industrial trucks is to collaborate with providers of the specialized technology they need. Often, that involves partnering with companies that can help them convert manual forklifts and pallet trucks to autonomous or robotic vehicles, although there are other areas, such as fleet management software, telematics, and safety systems, where these partnerships are flourishing as well. The experts we consulted say this approach is a true win-win-win, with benefits for forklift makers, technology providers, and end-users alike.
A TEAM EFFORT
So who’s engaged in these partnerships and how do they work? To find out, we asked several major forklift players about their technology collaborations—who they were working with and what they were working on. (We should note that the list of automation partnerships is so long that we can’t include them all here. But the examples provided by the companies we talked to offer a good overview of what’s happening in the market.) Here’s what the manufacturers told us:
- Crown Equipment Corp.’s primary relationship is with JBT Corp., a provider of automated guided vehicle (AGV) equipment, engineering services, and software. JBT integrates its fleet management software, including some navigation technologies and traffic management controls, into Crown’s suite of DualMode trucks, which are designed to switch between automated and manual applications. This collaboration has produced a scalable solution that accommodates dynamic changes in customers’ operations, says Jim Gaskell, Crown’s director of global technology business development.
- Hyster Co. has multiple partners, some of which also collaborate with its sister company, Yale Materials Handling (see below). For the automation of Hyster’s robotic lift trucks, the company has turned to both JBT Corp. and Balyo Inc.; the latter specializes in self-driving forklifts based on standard trucks. Both provide a navigation system, sensors, and software to control the trucks’ movements, but they support different niches in terms of capabilities, says Steven LaFevers, vice president of emerging technologies. Hyster works with JBT on robotic reach trucks, while Balyo automates horizontal transport in pallet trucks, counterbalanced stackers, and tow tractors.
- Mitsubishi Logisnext Americas Group encompasses UniCarriers Americas, Jungheinrich, Mitsubishi Forklifts, Cat Lift Trucks, and Rocla. “The company currently supplies various forklift platforms to five partners, which add their autonomy technology to the vehicles,” says Brian Markison, senior director, AGV sales. “Some relationships, such as one with Siera.AI, are in the initial stage,” he notes. Others, such as that with Vecna Robotics, which integrates its navigation technology, learning algorithms, and workflow-orchestration software onto UniCarriers trucks, are in the next stage: modifying trucks to facilitate automation. Robotics isn’t the only collaboration area, though. PowerFleet (formerly I.D. Systems) provides Jungheinrich with a telematics and fleet management system.
- The Raymond Corp. has collaborations for robotics, technology-assist sensors, and real-time location systems (RTLS), among others, says John Rosenberger, director of iWarehouse Gateway and global telematics. For example, Raymond’s Courier line of automated lift trucks was developed with Seegrid, which provides vision-based navigation technology and supervisory software. Raymond also collaborates with Sick AG, whose sensors are integral to the technology-assist features in the iWarehouse telematics system. And it partners with systems integrator Bastian Solutions, a fellow Toyota Industries Corp. company, to integrate lift trucks with other automated equipment and software.
- In addition to JBT and Balyo, Yale Materials Handling has relationships with several other technology providers, says Kevin Paramore, emerging technology commercialization manager. Honeywell Vocollect integrates its voice-directed picking system with Yale’s semi-autonomous pallet trucks, allowing operators to use voice commands to direct trucks to a specific location or to follow along as they pick orders. Speedshield Technologies provides the technology underpinning the Yale Vision telematics solution. And Litum provides RTLS technology for a collision-avoidance system as well as a wearable tag that alerts workers when they get within six feet of one another. (Speedshield and Litum also work with Hyster.)
REASONS FOR THE RELATIONSHIPS
Ask OEMs why they want to add more technology to their forklifts and pallet trucks, and their answers are strikingly consistent: They all see a future where lift trucks will be integral players in highly automated, “connected” DCs. They also view technology as the most effective tool for helping customers address ongoing challenges like labor shortages and the need for greater speed, productivity, and accuracy.
But ask them why they chose to work with an outside partner instead of developing those technologies themselves, and their answers are more diverse. They include:
The tech partner has a proven, successful technology. While specific functionality may be at the top of an OEM’s wish list, the previous success of a potential partner’s offering is also important. For example, because Honeywell Vocollect had a proven, long-established product specifically designed for warehouse applications, Yale could quickly bring the voice-directed semi-autonomous truck to market and gain a “first mover advantage,” Paramore says.
The OEM can offer an innovative product while continuing to focus on its core strengths. Seegrid CEO Jim Rock believes customers are best served when collaborators play to their strengths. “Seegrid is fundamentally a robotics and software company with expertise in how to automate warehouse and manufacturing environments. The OEMs are experts in designing and manufacturing industrial vehicles,” he says. Combining their core capabilities allows them to offer innovative solutions that benefit from each partner’s deep expertise.
The tech partner’s expertise complements the OEM’s. Gaskell uses “synergy” when describing his company’s relationship with JBT. The latter’s experience and portfolio of navigation and traffic management technologies coupled with Crown’s robotics technologies make possible “a full suite of capabilities,” he says. Further, JBT has shared expertise and insight that has helped to “amplify and complement” Crown’s own automation research and development, he adds.
Similarly, Hyster’s LaFevers emphasizes the importance of “symbiotic” partnerships. “You have to make each other better,” he says. “If not, then you won’t make customers happier” or make their experience better.
Innovations can be brought to market faster. It often takes years for an internally developed product to pass through all the design, engineering, and testing steps required before it’s ready for launch. By working with a technology partner with an existing knowledge base, OEMs can streamline the development phase, Paramore says. “These partnerships help with speed to market, but at a pace that’s acceptable … for both the manufacturer and the end-user. A lot of integration work takes place to [ensure conformance with] the applicable regulations and maintain the integrity of the solution.”
The OEM can deliver solutions for a wider range of use cases. Partnerships can help forklift makers expand the type of customers and industries they serve, as Hyster did by partnering with JBT and Balyo for use cases and industries where they had significant experience, LaFevers says. With automated forklifts and associated technology costing some four times as much as a manual truck, he adds, customers want to be certain the solution will pay off in their specific application.
Markison agrees—“No one’s got a ‘Swiss army knife’ yet that can handle every type of application,” he says—but his company also considers whether potential partners are capable of handling large accounts. A handful of implementations of a great technology is one thing, he explains, “but what happens if I want 500 or 1,000? For that kind of opportunity, it’s worthwhile to invest time, money, and engineering resources with a partner.”
The partner helps the OEM keep pace with technology developments. Because the partner is staying up to date, viable, and relevant in its own space, Rosenberger says, the OEM is able to incorporate the latest advancements into its products—something that might not happen if the OEM were to go it alone on the technology front.
WHO ELSE BENEFITS?
By definition, partnerships are mutually beneficial, and joining forces with a large forklift vendor offers numerous advantages for the technology providers. First and foremost is the ability to increase sales. “Most tech startups only have a few business outlets and sales resources, but we have a huge national network and can quickly commercialize the solution,” LaFevers says. An added benefit is that the tech partner gains access to the OEM’s extensive network of authorized dealers, who will be responsible for servicing the product.
Partnering with forklift OEMs lets tech companies expand into the market without having to invest in manufacturing industrial trucks themselves (although some choose to do so). Collaborations can even lead to funding or acquisitions by an OEM. Examples include the acquisition by Hyster-Yale Group (Hyster and Yale’s parent company) of Speedshield Technologies’ telematics business in the U.S. and U.K., as well as its acquisition of Nuvera, a provider of hydrogen fuel cells and associated technology. Another is Germany-based forklift giant Kion’s plan to take a minority stake in its forklift automation partner Quicktron, a Chinese manufacturer of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
Ultimately, though, all roads lead to the customer. In addition to achieving productivity, labor, and performance improvements, the experts say, their customers also benefit from the superior performance of a proven vehicle platform paired with fully vetted robotics solutions; the advantages provided by automation and other technologies in helping new and temporary employees work more safely and efficiently; access to a wider service network than tech companies alone could offer; and the continuing development of cutting-edge solutions that address not just current but also future challenges. “We strive to be predictive; you have to be ahead of where the customers are going and what they are going to need,” Rosenberger says.
The OEMs believe that relationships with technology providers will continue to evolve, and they foresee many more applications, products, and collaborations ahead. One goal that Hyster, Mitsubishi Logisnext, and others say they’re working toward is integrating more automation and other technology into their trucks on the production line, rather than through add-on kits. And in fact, they expect more lift trucks with built-in automation and other technology will come off the line ready to ship to their own or partners’ customers in the very near future.
It’s hard to know where the forklift technology market will be in five years, but Markison thinks we could see a shift from individual automation solutions to a more versatile type of product, perhaps with software controls that can easily be applied to multiple brands and types of equipment. It’s likely, too, that at some point, some of the tech providers will consolidate. His company’s strategy—one that others undoubtedly subscribe to as well—is to leverage partnerships that “will allow us to be on the cutting edge while continuing to succeed with our standard business lines.”
The opportunities for automation in material handling are vast, and the technologies involved advance very quickly, so collaborative relationships between forklift OEMs and technology innovators are here to stay, says Gaskell. “It takes a broad level of expertise to develop, commission, and deploy a complete system, leaving room for many collaborative relationships. We see these types of relationships enduring long into the future.”