Inventions that made history

Develop new methods. Launch better technologies. Find smarter and more efficient solutions for existing and new challenges. These objectives are what drive invention in the KION Group, resulting in an impressive portfolio of 2,863 protected patents to date. To mark Engineers Week, we are for once not looking forward with energy to the future, but instead joining the inventors behind the products to look back with pride on the past. This is a history of pioneering innovations, created by KION Group brand companies, that have left their mark on intralogistics.

National Engineers Week

The USA celebrates National Engineers Week every year around George Washington’s birthday on February 22. Its purpose is to draw attention to the contributions engineers make to society, and to emphasize the importance of acquiring technical skills and studying mathematics and the sciences. It is also a good reason to highlight and honor outstanding engineering achievements outside of the USA too.

Employees at Latscha Lebensmittel in 1925, packaging almonds for sale in shops

The definition of invention is to ‘solve a specific problem through the use of technology’. There are many of these ‘specific problems’ in logistics and intralogistics, and there have been ever since the first person asked themselves what the best way to transport a heavy object from A to B is. Admittedly, the invention of the wheel was a very long time ago. But with the rise of heavy industrialization at the beginning of the 20th century, lifting, conveying, and internal and external transport tasks became increasingly complex. Since then, the engineers at the KION subsidiaries Linde Material Handling, STILL and Dematic – and their predecessor companies – have carried out pioneering work, setting standards for the industry while finding the right solutions. In this first part, we will travel back to 1922 and look at the first 50 years of an exciting story that the inventors at KION are still writing today.

Paul Salzer, the inventor of the mobile conveyor belt

1922: The world’s first mobile conveyor belt

The story of Stöhr, a company acquired by Demag AG (now Dematic) in 1970, begins in 1900. Wilhelm Stöhr founded a machine factory in Offenbach and developed a radical idea for his business: the mass production of transport systems. He and his twelve employees manufactured elevators, transport screws, complete factory systems, and chains for power transmission. Following Stöhr’s untimely death, Paul Salzer joined the company in 1920. He was a visionary who had become acquainted with modern manufacturing methods in the USA, such as the assembly line production established by Henry Ford. He brought these ideas to Stöhr, converted the workshop into a modern industrial plant and in 1922 developed the world’s first mobile conveyor belt, one of the most important innovations for industrial production in Germany. Just a few years later, Stöhr developed the first suspended conveyor technology, a step forward that enabled a completely new and much more effective use of space in the factories.

Arthur Barrett, inventor of the Guide-O-Matic

1954: The world’s first driverless vehicle

During the industrial boom of the 1950s, production halls were dominated by manual operations, manned forklifts, and floor-mounted material handling equipment. Heavier parts, in particular, could only be stored at ground level. This prompted many businesses to consider completely replacing human labor with machines. It also sparked the ingenuity of Arthur Barrett. In 1954, he and his company, Barrett Electronics based in Northbrook, Illinois, developed the world’s first driverless vehicle, the Guide-O-Matic. It paved the way for flexibly maneuvering transport systems that are particularly suited for repetitive tasks and independently transporting heavy loads.

A Barrett Hybrid-AGV, designed for transporting racks of metal parts, in Ford’s stamping plant in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1989.

It wasn’t until around 1980 that the term Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) became established. In 1982 Barrett Electronics was acquired by Mannesmann Demag, which would later become Dematic. AGVs are still among the company’s key products, and Arthur Barrett’s pioneering spirit lives on at KION’s automation specialist: “My first job after college was with Barrett Electronics,” says Kenneth Ruehrdanz, a manager at Dematic. Although he didn’t report directly to Barrett at the time, Ruehrdanz says he witnessed Barrett’s passion for product development and innovation.

Güldner Hydrocar

1959: The world’s first truck with a hydrostatic drive and double-pedal control

Linde Material Handling can trace its roots back to the start of the 20th century. Hugo Güldner, Georg von Krauss, and Carl von Linde founded the Güldner-Motoren-Gesellschaft in 1904. In 1955, Güldner presented his hydrostatic drive for mobile machinery, an invention that would change the history of technology. The first vehicle equipped with this revolutionary technology was the Hydrocar, a kind of mini truck with hydrostatic power transmission. This technology enabled seamless acceleration at full power without the need for a gearbox, both forwards and in reverse. Toward the end of the decade, in 1959, Güldner launched the Hubtrac on the market, the first forklift truck to use a hydrostat. The new drive solution improved not only the driveaway characteristics, which made handling heavy loads safer, but also the efficiency.

Linde Hubtrac

The technology also enabled a completely new means of control, the double-pedal system, which is still in use in Linde forklifts today. It features one pedal to go forward and one to reverse; to break, you simply take both feet off the pedals. The Hubtrac set new standards in terms of ride quality and ease of operation. Even though the basic principle of the hydrostatic transmission and double-pedal control has not changed, the development engineers at Linde Material Handling have repeatedly made significant technical improvements over the past six decades. To this day, the hydrostat is the beating heart of every Linde IC-powered forklift truck in the payload range up to 18 tonnes. “The hydrostatic drive was the breakthrough for Linde as a forklift manufacturer,” says Frank Bergmann, product manager for counterbalanced trucks at Linde Material Handling. “Our expertise in manufacturing hydrostatic drives and vehicles has allowed us to revolutionize the IC truck market. To date, no competitor has been able to match the quality of our drive.”

Storage and retrieval system

1959: The world’s first storage and retrieval system (SRS)

In the 1950s, most of the internal flow of materials still took place close to the ground. Heavier parts, in particular, could only be stored at ground level, which meant that warehouses required a lot of space. Storage racks had been around for a while, but their full potential had not yet been unlocked. To solve this problem, Demag engineers Friedhelm Podswyna, Horst-Werner Ruttkamp, and Werner Kühn had an idea: They placed rotating and mobile masts in each rack aisle, on which heavy objects could be moved up and down using suitable load-handling equipment. To begin with, the masts were still connected to the ceiling and to rails at the top of the rack, but soon they stood, drove, and turned securely on the ground. This made them much more stable, and many more aisles could now be covered more quickly, more frequently, and in a more targeted manner.

DEMAG warehouse at Kaufhof in Cologne-Frechen

Through this innovation, the three inventors paved the way for the automation of SRS and set a course in warehouse technology development that is still followed today. When the first SRS was installed in a Bertelsmann book club warehouse in Gütersloh in 1962, it was mainly controlled manually from a cabin on the mast. But it could also be operated automatically using punch cards, marking the first step towards today’s highly automated software control. Since then, storage and retrieval machines have become an integral part of complex logistics systems which, combined with other product and software, form a rapidly evolving, holistic solution. Now that height had become an important dimension in warehousing thanks to the SRS, warehouse technology literally hit new heights in 1973. Mannesmann AG, another predecessor of Dematic, built the first automated high-bay storage facility, a milestone that was to change the design of distribution centers forever.

DEMAG warehouse at Kaufhof in Cologne-Frechen

1973: The world’s first automated high-bay storage facility

In the 1980s, the long-term impact of this development was there for all to see, as high-bay storage facilities shot up everywhere and soon reached the ‘sound barrier’ of 45 meters that still applies today. In the 1980s and 1990s, computers and IT technologies were added, and with them software-controlled warehouse logistics. Sensors and magnetic and laser technology enabled more precise positioning, continuously variable drive systems reduced energy requirements, new load handling devices could access deeper into racks, and various new containers and pallet systems were added. Today, Dematic builds specialized high-bay storage facilities (including in the frozen food sector) which, thanks to automated technology, combine outstanding storage density with extremely fast storage and retrieval processes.

Advertisement for the clearview mast

1977: The invention of the clearview mast

A fundamental problem when driving a forklift was solved at sister company STILL: In all forklifts built up to then, the lift mast (equipped with a large cylinder and several cross struts) was located in the middle of the lift unit and thus constantly blocked the view ahead. This not only posed a safety problem but also made work more difficult for the drivers, who constantly had to stick their heads out of the side of the cab to get a clear view to pick up and move loads. The STILL engineers designed a new assembly with two slimmer masts and cylinders and moved them far enough apart to create a generous view ahead for the driver. This clearview mast for forklift trucks created a more ergonomic workplace, revolutionized safety at work, and set an industry standard that still applies today.

And there is more to come: In the second part of our series, which will be published on February 24, you can find out more about the KION Group brand companies’ most influential innovations from the 1980s to today – and beyond.

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