2021-10-13

Forklift design: futuristic vision inspires perfect interaction

When we hear the word “design”, for most people our immediate thoughts are of icons from the world of furniture, fashion, architecture, and cars, like for instance the famous bistro chair from 1859, Coco Chanel’s legendary tweed twin-set from 1954, the distinctive style of the Bauhaus movement from the 1920s, or the unmistakable flyline of the Porsche 911 from 1963. However, the forklift trucks and warehouse technology from KION brands STILL and Linde Material Handling are also subject to intensive design work—more so than we might assume at first glance. As part of the design process, the KION brands rely on visionary concept studies, as well as input from experts in the car industry.

A guiding principle in design is that “form follows function”. This is also the principle by which the distinctive streamlined silhouette of the first Porsche 911 model was conceived, which came on the market in 1964 and has been the cornerstone of many generations of vehicles ever since. Despite its many technological advances, this initial design feature continues to provide the model with its unmistakable identity to this day. And it’s not just sports cars that are influenced by Porsche’s signature style, but forklifts, too. In fact, the professionals from Porsche Engineering, a wholly owned Porsche subsidiary and technology partner for a range of developments in the automotive field and beyond, play a key role in the development and design process of the forklifts from the KION subsidiary, Linde Material Handling. “As a strong brand, this is the perfect way to intelligently develop your own products while not losing sight of future viability,” emphasizes Stefan Stark, who has been working as a designer for Porsche customer development since 1995, including for Linde Material Handling. He was also responsible for the creative design of the 12XX series, which gave rise to the new E20 – E35 and X20 – X35 electric forklift trucks.

Creativity and functionality flourish within the scope of technical feasibility

The challenges involved in designing a forklift truck are similar to those involved in designing a sports car, in that the scope for creative freedom is limited because there is such a long list of technical specifications to fulfill. Product managers and developers specify, for example, the length of the vehicle, the height of the driver’s cab or the amount of headroom. The aim is then to constantly develop the design in order to optimize the driving and operating experience for the user. However, the significance of the design goes well beyond that, because every design element must be closely linked to Linde Material Handling’s brand values—such as reliability, efficiency and trust—and thus reflect the high quality standards of the KION brand. “Exploiting the available scope with maximum creativity and getting the best possible result out of it—that’s what makes this process so exciting, and almost more demanding than when you have completely free rein,” adds Stefan Stark.

Ideas for the perfect interaction between man and machine

Findings from sports car development were not only used in the visual design of the forklifts, but also in the interior, such as the control elements, which help to improve the interaction between the machinery and its human operators. In the design of the multifunction lever from Linde Material Handling, for example, Studio F. A. Porsche played a key role. The design studio has been developing patents for industrial products from well-known manufacturers since the 1970s, including for Linde Material Handling. In order to create the multifunction lever, the logistics company started by designing an ergonomic model with the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) which is modeled precisely on the structure of the human hand, and on which all the finger joints and areas of the palm can be moved. On the back of this study, the form of the “Human Machine Interface” was then developed in collaboration with the Porsche Design Studio. The shape of the Linde multifunction lever is perfectly adapted to the human anatomy. The operator’s hand sits in its natural, relaxed position on the control lever, which creates an almost organic connection between operator and truck. Thanks to the collaboration between Linde Material Handling, the Fraunhofer Institute, and the Porsche Design experts, optimum ergonomics and simple, fast operation are guaranteed—and the guiding principle of “form follows function” is implemented to perfection.

Functional truck with futuristic vision

With its cubeXX design study in 2011, the KION subsidiary brand STILL proved that spectacular concept studies not only cause a sensation at the Geneva Motor Show, but also at intralogistics fairs all over the world. With the convertible, fully automated, and resource-saving concept, STILL has developed a truck with an intelligent human-machine interface, which can efficiently solve tasks in logistics and production with an ever-increasing degree of networking. In line with the motto “form follows function”, the prototype of the cubeXX can be transformed into different shapes and types of equipment, and thus combines several functions in one truck. Although the cubeXX was produced as a study and never entered into series production, it still paved the way for further innovations. “We start by developing visionary concepts, which we then use to incorporate important elements and partial solutions into ongoing developments,” says Henning Wagner, Brand Management & Planning at STILL. “Of course, a few ideas from the cubeXX have already been integrated into series trucks, although they’re not quite as futuristic as the initial designs.”

After all, the design aspect plays a rather less prominent role when buying a forklift truck. According to Henning Wagner, it is the image and quality of the brand that are of prime importance. However, these factors are supported in the course of the purchase process by the psychosocial benefit—the design of the truck. In comparison with other trucks available on the market, the design can turn out to be a decisive factor in the purchase decision. Nevertheless, it is always difficult to define a quantifiable value for design. “The main deciding factor behind the customer’s purchase decision is still their evaluation of the quality, the brand, and the promise that they buy along with it.” However, we are observing that the importance of design has changed in recent years and that it is playing an increasingly important role,” says Wagner. In addition to the external appearance of the truck, the primary role of the designer is and will continue to be to enable intuitive interaction between the truck and the operator. After all, this represents considerable added value for the customer, such as increased ergonomics and efficiency.

Friendly workmate or faceless machine?

The future of the forklift remains an exciting prospect for designers as well. With the rapid progress of automation, we are faced with the question of what will actually happen to forklifts and their appearance if the driver’s cab soon becomes obsolete? And, what’s more: Do you actually have to design autonomous trucks at all? “At the moment, this is not yet a primary issue for us, although we are already experimenting with it in certain designs and adapting existing trucks,” says Stefan Stark. For now, design still plays the most significant role in how machines interact with people. That said, the designer was keen to add that the external appearance of driverless transport systems (AGVs) of the coming generations is not something to be overlooked: “I think aesthetics will also play a certain role with autonomous trucks. Will robots look like faceless machines in the future or like friendly workmates there to help us with our day-to-day tasks?” We’ll have to wait and see!

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