Outstanding engineering achievements

The talking truck

Industrial trucks are highly sophisticated technical devices, even if they don’t always immediately look like it. The challenges faced by the KION Group design engineers include sensors and microprocessors.



In the 1980s, forklift trucks were still fully analog; all their movements – raising, lowering, tilting, and steering – were electrically, mechanically, and hydraulically controlled. A rather fiddly and complicated series of procedures. If the driver pressed the accelerator and steered sharply with the forks raised, it was possible for the truck to tip over. The first electronic systems at the beginning of the 1990s brought in a number of changes. Suddenly it was possible for a control unit to gather data from the steering and to transmit it, for example to the engine, with the instruction: “Please do not accelerate.”

The truck was beginning to talk

Today, sensors measure many things. Microprocessors that gather data are fitted at numerous places on the truck. “The data is relevant both to the manufacturer and to the customer,” says Maik Manthey, STILL’s Senior Director of Product Development. The only problem was how to get the data out of the truck.

Manthey asked himself this question in 2012 when he was responsible for New Business and Products at Linde Material Handling. The design engineers barely knew how their trucks were employed in practice. “So, within two years, we developed the ‘Linde connect:suite’,” explains Manthey. It’s thanks to this system that the sensors and microprocessors in the truck are able to communicate with their surroundings. This was the birth of the networked truck. Suddenly, many things were possible, such as utilizing the truck’s capacity to the maximum, employing intelligent access controls, and recording vibrations. Defect codes could be transmitted through the ether. “If the service technician has to come out anyway, why doesn’t he just bring the relevant spare part with him?” is how Manthey puts it.

Maik Manthey, STILL’s Senior Director of Product Development. When he was responsible for New Business and Products at Linde Material Handling, he developed the Linde connect: product line.

A harsh environment for electronics

Starting with a small team of just a few employees, Manthey worked his way through the development processes, tested tools, and sought out suitable suppliers. He mulled over the question of what radio system ought to be used: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or cellphone. “Then we developed everything at the same time,” he says. It quickly became clear that customers liked the idea of using a networked truck. Once it was obvious that there was keen interest, eleven new specialists joined the team.

A forklift truck’s typical working environment really does pose some challenges for sensors and electronics. There are, for example, no shock absorbers on a truck, which means that the electronics must either be firmly attached or sealed into position in order to withstand vibrations. Added to this is the environment: salt spray, dust, or dirt. “The atmosphere in many warehouses or factories is harsh,” says Manthey. “The sensors have to be electromagnetically compatible. If the truck drives past a welding robot, the arc must not interfere with its electronics.” The network for the ‘Linde connect:suite’ was built onto the existing CAN bus system, a communication system that is also used in the automotive industry. Several electronic control units and sensors are distributed over the truck, supplying data that then become the truck’s mouthpiece.

The connect: system offers numerous functions – like the access control used by the customer Villeroy & Boch.

A market success born of frustration

But as is so often the case, the market launch brought its own surprises. “Our customers said it was a really great idea,” recalls Manthey, “but they also said that they wouldn’t buy a new truck if they still had 200 old ones in the factory.” In short, customers wanted to have the new feature but not necessarily a new truck that was equipped with it. Suddenly, the innovative skills of our engineers were once more in demand. Over the previous two years, they had been working on how to lay out and connect up the system in a new vehicle design. But how to fit it to an older vehicle? Initially, an apparently insurmountable problem. “We were rather depressed,” admits Manthey. Ultimately, the inspiration that saved them was a retrofit solution that was full focused on the customer benefits and was rather less design-oriented. The electronic control unit was first placed on the battery cover, the cables were ‘surface-run’, and a red box, the ‘retrofit kit’, contained everything needed to turn an existing truck into an industrial truck fit for the future. “This was a huge market success, born of great frustration,” states Manthey. The retrofit solution immediately sold better than anticipated and, at the same time, paved the way for the ‘Linde connect:suite’. Now, one in four trucks sold by Linde is fitted with ‘connect:’.

Today, the ‘connect:’ system offers numerous functions, ranging from access control and analysis of usage data to localization and the ‘Pre-shift app’ for carrying out a vehicle check-up before starting work. The data represent tomorrow’s new raw material. However, the prerequisite for all these options was the concept of communicating the truck’s data – and the dexterity of the design engineers in setting up a system composed of sensors, electronics, and a communications network so that it would do exactly that. “We gave free rein to hugely creative forces,” muses Manthey. “At the beginning, it felt like a start-up company.” One of those whose invention goes on to revolutionize the market.