• Strategy 2020

How the KION Group develops globally

Jerry Weidmann is a tree of a man. Broad shoulders, a firm handshake and a winning smile. He’s someone who’s visibly at home with what he’s selling – because he knows the product inside and out and has done for 25 years. “Linde products are first-class pieces of equipment. They last longer than any other brand that we supply. The costs, calculated over the entire lifecycle, are simply unbeatable,” he says, in amongst the high warehouse racking filled with spare parts and tyres of all sizes.

In the hall next door, a crew of mechanics are deep in concentration as they carry out their maintenance work, including on a Linde truck that bears the battle scars of many years of hard labour. “Some forklift drivers are real rodeo cowboys,” grins Weidmann. He has been president of the forklift truck dealer Wisconsin Lift Truck in Brookfield, Wisconsin, since 2007. There are lots of industrial companies in the area. His customers include the cult motorbike brand Harley-Davidson as well as steel companies and foundries. “Linde trucks are able to work for longer than their competitors and they are more efficient too. Once you’ve bought one Linde, you’ll never buy anything else.” And he should know what he’s talking about: Wisconsin Lift Truck, a German-American family business, has around 10,000 customers. Jerry Weidmann’s father-in-law Otto Wolter, the grandson of German immigrants, founded the company in 1962. Weidmann also has German roots on both sides of the family.

However, the boss of the company readily admits that he could sell even more. Which is why he is so excited about the KION Group Strategy 2020. “If the Linde product range is expanded, say with a vertical order picker, then that’s good news for our business too.” It has not been lost on Weidmann that warehouses and high racking are a fast-growing market in Wisconsin. What’s more: “Customers often want their equipment fleet to be of a single brand.”

Weidmann says, however, that the vertical order picker shouldn’t be seen in isolation. It’s part of a complete warehousing system, which also includes the reach trucks and forklift trucks – all of which work seamlessly together as an integrated whole. “If you want to be a player in the warehousing game, you simply have to supply an order picker. If you haven’t got one, then you can’t offer a complete solution for your customers.”

Around 7,000 kilometres further east, on the other side of the Atlantic, KION is working on exactly that. “KION Warehouse Systems here in Reutlingen is the only site within the KION Group that has the expertise to develop and manufacture very narrow aisle trucks, which also include vertical order pickers,” says Jürgen Greiner, head of development at KWS. At the Reutlingen test centre, very narrow aisle trucks from Linde and STILL glide alongside racking units that are as tall as houses and unerringly pluck objects from their compartments. The roots of the company, which was initially called Ernst Wagner Apparatebau, date back to the 19th century. This is good old-fashioned German engineering with a long tradition. Today, the systems engineering trucks that are developed and manufactured in Reutlingen are recognised for their high standard of technology.

The most important resource for the globe-spanning vertical order picker (VOP) project is product knowledge, and this is where the experts in Reutlingen come in. After all, the new VOP for the US market is being developed on the basis of a European production model. “We will retain the basic structure of the product; the main changes will be to the chassis and driver’s workstation modules, and in the measures necessary to comply with current US regulations,” says Greiner.

For example, the operating unit has to be transplanted to the other side of the cabin, there will be a safety hook for the driver to secure him or herself, and a front panel needs to be removed because these don’t feature on American VOP models. “Our colleagues in Xiamen are incorporating these requirements module for module on the basis of our design documents. And a new truck is being created,” says Jürgen Greiner, whose pride in this globe-spanning collaboration is clear for all to see.

A further 9,000 kilometres east, at Linde in Xiamen in southern China, they are picking up the baton from faraway Reutlingen and honing the VOP project for the US market. “We’re working on the concept here, making all the mock-ups and prototypes, doing the final designs and putting the manufacturing framework in place – from drawings for production to setting up an assembly line,” says Udo Supp, KION Warehouse Trucks Platform Manager at Linde (China).

“Communications flow in all directions”

Supp works in a basic office in the development centre on the factory premises. He can see purple flowers from his window and he has a map of China on his wall. Supp’s team has to work with Germany, where the expertise is, with the USA, where the future sales market is, and with Brazil, where a KION stylist is designing the shape of the truck. “Communications flow in all directions,” says Supp. For teleconferences involving all parties there is only one time window: the Chinese evening.

In the hall below is the first VOP mock-up for the USA, complete with mast. It can’t be driven yet, however. “The aim is to test the feasibility of the concept – and to see iron and steel for the first time,” says Supp. “At this stage we usually notice a lot of things that were not picked up on the computer, such as how accessible the components are.” Until spring 2016 the mock-up will be undergoing performance tests and ergonomic trials.

The working relationship with Germany is a close one. “The same truck is being made at the same time in Germany to ensure that we are drawing the right conclusions from the tests here,” says Supp. In addition, his team is using the global KION modules, a result of the Product Lifecycle Management project.

“We are using existing drive components and the mast. This has been built in accordance with EU standards and needs only slight modification,” adds Supp to the explanations of his colleague in Reutlingen. “The modules give us the peace of mind of knowing that something is going to work. And we save on the time, tests or staffing that would be required to develop something from scratch.”

On average, seven or eight employees work full time on the project in Xiamen. “They are part of Linde (China)’s highly motivated team of 300 engineers,” says Supp. “This is one of the big advantages of developing in China. And we also have test labs and a workshop in which we can weld. This infrastructure is only just being set up in the USA – on the other side of the world.”