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Linde MH and Porsche Engineering—More Than 40 Years of Iconic Forklift Design

Functionality, timeless elegance and a design language: all of these are features shared by design classics from across the decades. And because these are also key attributes in the design of forklift trucks from KION brand Linde Material Handling, the company has long relied upon expertise from the automotive sector. For more than 40 years, the KION subsidiary has been working with designers from Porsche Engineering to develop its iconic forklift trucks. We spoke to Stefan Stark, one of the designers for Porsche Engineering, about the forklift design process and what makes Linde trucks so special.


Stefan, as a designer for Porsche Customer Development and Porsche Engineering, you have been designing trucks for Linde MH since 1995. How did you get into forklift design?

I was heavily influenced by my father, who also worked as a designer, and since I was a child I could never see myself doing anything other than following in his footsteps. After studying product and automotive design in Berlin and the USA, and then taking my first few positions in the automotive industry, I came to Porsche in 1992 and soon found my way into what’s known as customer and third-party development. This is an area that interests me greatly on a personal level—I really enjoy it and you might say I have a certain talent for it, too. I have always challenged myself to get involved in as many different projects as possible and to adapt to many new things. When I began working for Porsche, one of the major customers in external development was Linde Material Handling. Interestingly, this was not my first brush with forklift trucks. When I was studying in Berlin, I was part of a project in which we worked on different concepts for industrial trucks. So, the role at Porsche was a natural progression.

Stefan Stark has been a designer for Linde MH since 1995. He says: “I’m passionate about products that move and are shaped by interaction between man and machine.”

You have been working with forklifts for many years. How do you approach the design process?

You start with a blank canvas. But of course there are specifications from Linde, which are usually very particular. This is called the “technical package.” As well as the technical components, this package also includes the position of the driver, the height and width of the truck, the wheelbase and wheel size, plus the overall dimensions and turning radius. This is absolutely crucial for forklifts because maneuverability and the space required in the warehouse play a major role. The truck needs to be as compact as possible, while also being spacious and comfortable for the driver to work in.

After analyzing the technical package, we then start to sketch things out and think about how to get a grip on the overall dimensions and proportions. Now and then, we also put the package to one side and work more freely to explore different design ideas. Our goal is to develop a unique design with an unmistakable Linde identity which showcases the outstanding qualities of Linde trucks and brings them to life. Like the technology behind the trucks, the design also needs to be continuously developed and improved upon. We describe this process as “progressive evolution.”

The design process for a forklift like the Linde X20 lasts around three years. Stefan Stark and his team is there from start to finish to ensure that all the specifications are covered and that the overall product is as perfect as possible for Linde.

Good design is often about recognizability. Do Linde trucks have that ONE design element that makes them stand out from the others?

I remember exactly when the Linde 351 came onto the market in 1985. That was the first truck that Porsche Customer Development designed for Linde. It took pride of place in the departure hall at Frankfurt Airport, where Jaguars and Porsches are now on display. I was yet to start working for Porsche at the time, but for me this truck, with its decoupled cab, made an impressive statement. The 351 became the iconic forklift truck and altered the course of the entire industrial truck industry. Like the 351, we still have a very emotional and dynamic design today. Of course, we are trying to evolve the style of the truck and have gradually added additional design elements to achieve the iconic look that Linde’s trucks are known for today. One of these is the “shark fin,” i.e. the gray fin-shaped section on the side of the truck, which features the Linde logo and the model of the truck. The original idea for this “shark fin” was to visually break up the side of the forklift, which is very high and bulky on some trucks. So, instead of just having one huge expanse of red, you can vary the proportions more effectively and emphasize the brand name at the same time. Another example is the three-dimensionality in the side panels and the counterbalance, which allows us to use our expertise in automotive design to give the trucks greater visual value and agility. The slanted rear double columns, which are essential for the construction of Linde’s signature overhead tilt cylinders, also convey a sense of dynamism and safety.

Porsche Engineering has been working with Linde MH for decades. How have the tasks and processes changed over the years?

Essentially, the projects and expectations are becoming more and more demanding. This is because we are having to integrate more and more components into the forklifts and make room for more overlaps between the model series, but without increasing the size of the trucks. Due to modern processes, the work is nowadays simultaneous and we constantly exchange CAD data with the design department, where previously a physical model was first built and then the constructive implementation took place. The materials and manufacturing processes for forklifts have not fundamentally changed, but they are being constantly re-aligned and optimized. The electronics and digitalization primarily affect the driver’s workspace and enable us to integrate different operating concepts, assistance systems and information content. In the past, Porsche Engineering has carried out ergonomic studies for various projects, which gave rise to the so-called ‘ergonomic triangle’. This is Linde’s vision of what defines the ideal seat and driving position. Little by little, new innovations have been added that require a lot of detailed work, such as the “Linde Load Control” joystick operation. This is integrated into the armrest on the right-hand side and has been copied many times. As the latest alternative to the conventional operating unit, we have designed the multifunction lever, which was developed as a collaboration between Linde, the Fraunhofer Institute and Porsche Engineering. Despite its name, this feature acts less like a lever and more like a computer mouse.

Stefan Stark and Manuel Aydt during development of the multifunction lever. 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.

Are there external influences that will pose brand-new challenges to your design process in the future?

Yes, especially in the digital realm. Changes in technology and digitalization are increasing the expectations of the drivers’ user experience in the truck. There are so many different options that can be built into a display. The topic of autonomous trucks and the future role of the driver is also becoming increasingly important. There are many changes ahead of us here, too.

The interview with Stefan Stark is part of the “LAGER-Feuer” podcast from the KION Group. In the second season, we will cover the topic of transformation which is taking place in different parts of intralogistics. From the design of forklifts and alternative power units to digitalization, we will be talking to experts from the most important fields. Interested?