Lift truck operators: Drivers of change

For all the advances in lift truck technology and fleet management, operators will always be the heart and soul of a fleet. As manufacturers and equipment purchasers place more value on that piece, the role of the operator extends from design to daily use.

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There’s an area outside Indianapolis where every building has ‘now hiring’ signs,” says Trinton Castetter, internal combustion product planning specialist for Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. “When we talk to customers in that area, everything is about the operator. It’s not enough to pay another 50 cents an hour, because you can always be beaten. That operator needs to be so happy where they are that they don’t even look elsewhere.”

Operator safety has always been central to forklift design, even if driver comfort only became a focus relatively recently. Operator feedback is also a standard part of equipment development and design, although cost and practicality are also part of the equation. However, in the pursuit of every sliver of productivity, it is essential to keep operators comfortable and efficient throughout an eight-hour shift. As a result, their perspectives have lately gained tremendous weight.

“Operator input on equipment selection has never been greater,” says Mick McCormick, vice president of warehouse solutions for Yale Materials Handling Corp. “There are two drivers leading to operators’ ever-increasing involvement in purchasing decisions in the distribution environment. One is the industry’s obsession with every ounce of productivity, and the second is to make equipment as ergonomic as possible to limit turnover, which averages something like 35% for warehouse workers.”

For this annual Lift Truck issue, Modern spoke with industry experts to find out how forklifts continue to evolve and how honoring the operator—the true heart of any fleet—is the key to success.

Development in the details

Mark Koffarnus, director of national accounts for Hyster Co., recalls a forklift model launched in 2005 with a strong focus on ergonomics. Back then, this consisted of cup holders, places to put pens and paper, and other elements that made forklifts like a mobile office. More recently, productivity studies indicated that operators tended to perform best over the first 75% of their shift, and their performance in the last quarter depended heavily on their comfort levels in the first three. The benefits of cup holders were not mentioned.

“If operators are not being vibrated, extending necks and arms awkwardly or otherwise unduly tasked physically, they are more productive at the end of a shift,” Koffarnus says. “As ergonomics becomes more refined, you can identify the impact of those stresses and quantify improvements, which make a real measurable change and have resonated with customers very well. Everybody has seen the light that the equipment needs to be as operator-focused as possible.”

Some of the forward-thinking designs of yesteryear are now standard, Koffarnus says. Seat suspension and padding, rear grips for reverse travel and lower step height can all reduce fatigue. A smaller cowl, thinner mast and louvered overhead guard improve fork visibility and minimize operator strain. That’s all well and good, but as the forklift continues to transform into a mobile office, the job of operating one is about more than bending and reaching.

“That’s where telematics gets into it,” Castetter says. “We’ve been preaching that a happy operator is a productive operator, but it’s only a theory until you can put numbers to it. With telematics, customers can see they did something for operators and now they move more pallets or have fewer incidents. Whatever they are watching, they have a way to track it now and find the root cause. If utilization tapers at the end of a shift, maybe it’s operator fatigue, but maybe it’s how shipments are scheduled.”

From a management standpoint, the ability to identify and diagnose all kinds of issues is great. But one of the lessons learned was that the operator doesn’t always need quite so much information.

“When telematics started to take off, operators had a lot of data coming at them, and often too much,” says John Rosenberger, manager of iWarehouse and global telematics for The Raymond Corp. “The information, whether on the onboard display or a telematics display, was not necessarily actionable or took a lot of time to interpret. Based on operator feedback, we started going back from that and tried to present only what was valuable.”

Some changes were simple, like replacing numeric battery and gas gauges with icon- or color-based ones. For telematics displays, operators can now customize based on preference. Some might like a prominent clock, others want to keep an eye on fork height. Rosenberger says it gets really interesting when the system feeds contextual information to the operator. For instance, fork height is not relevant when loading a trailer, but the onboard scale is. Based on a mix of location, task and operator preference, the display adjusts accordingly.

“The other lesson we learned is screen consolidation,” Rosenberger adds. “In a car you used to have a GPS on a suction cup, another mount for XM radio and then everything on the dash, but it’s now in one central display. We took the same approach.”

Even with a single display for most information, a lot of peripheral devices compete for space in an environment where every inch of visibility, mobility and accessibility is precious. Rosenberger describes the operator-centric, ergonomic discussions that take place when prototyping new forklift cabins and accessory areas in which the team determines how to accommodate all add-ons that have been or could be fastened to a forklift. “It’s amazing the things they use,” he says. “It truly is a mobile office, and just as an actual office is personalized, the same is true with a lift truck.”

How often is the RF scanner used? Does a device need to be repeatedly mounted and dismounted? Does the same piece of equipment need to be set up for paper-based, bar code and RFID tasks? What is the balance between preserving sight lines and forcing an operator to reach too frequently?

“Those devices take up visibility real estate, but they also impinge on the envelope of space for the operator,” says Brian Markison, director of North American sales for UniCarriers. “We actually extended the canopy forward so that devices can be far enough from an operator’s face to read easily and avoid hitting their heads on it. These small changes can make a big difference. If you do something 50 times an hour, removing a step each time—or even half a step—is important for us to understand.”

The big picture

Markison notes that changes within the operator cabin have evolved against the backdrop of reduced operating space for the forklift itself. Warehouse space is at a premium, so aisles get narrower and congestion becomes an issue. Because throughput demands are increasing, it can seem counterintuitive to operators when equipment’s top speeds are lowered.

“The operator has to understand that in these newly defined areas, there is a need to reduce speed. Shortening stopping distance by a couple feet is the difference between an accident and near miss,” Markison says. “It’s becoming very common to meter the speed on the vehicle to produce safer operations.”

After one manager cut top speed by half, operators complained they needed new equipment because they were so slow. Markison emphasizes the importance of an ongoing dialogue with operators about the reasons for change, since nobody likes to be surprised.

“The day they find out about it should not be the day it’s deployed,” Markison says. “People generally equate driving fast to productivity, but that’s not always true. If you’re only going 30 feet between each pick, there isn’t even the opportunity to get to max speed. On long runs you might want speed, but then the question becomes, why the inefficient long run in the first place?”

Telematics can help those operations that are driven by velocity and demand visibility. But again, the tool is not just for management to coordinate the big picture or minimize unnecessary long runs. Getting the most out of an operator requires engaging with that operator, not merely assigning tasks.

“They want the ability to interact with the operator, to instruct them but also get information back from the operator and the lift truck,” McCormick says. “This can be as simple as utilization, identifying the most efficient routes, or reassigning an operator to a different client if in a multi-client 3PL situation.”

Consider the benefits of digital versus paper pre-shift checklists, where issues with a forklift can be immediately identified and acted upon. This prevents maintenance personnel from chasing down an operator and enables them to prep a replacement unit when the operator pulls into the bay. But that idea of immediate two-way information exchange has other uses.

Two-way communication is becoming more prevalent, since everyone wants more real-time information, Rosenberger says. “For example, if a manager knows he’s running behind, in the past he had to wait for each person to come back to the office and ask if they want overtime. Now, you can broadcast a message in order of seniority and as soon as he gets three yeses, it’s done.”

A more abstract method of two-way communication is a sensor indicating the severity of an impact—which doesn’t always mean running into something, according to McCormick. Such feedback can be useful to show operators how gently they engage a load or how smoothly they drive.

“When operators see that, then managers start seeing behavioral changes,” McCormick says. “Sometimes operators figure it out by themselves, sometimes during coaching, but we’ve seen several customers where the speed of adoption of better driving habits was surprising. We all knew it was possible, but we didn’t know how quickly it could happen. It’s a simple, non-intrusive guide to make an operator more efficient.”

Virtual training, real results

Experienced operators might struggle to change old habits, but with the labor market the way it is, new operators should struggle as little as possible. And if they must flounder, better to do it in a virtual environment. In addition to several third parties, many of the major lift truck brands have begun offering virtual reality (VR) components to their training programs, including some solutions that integrate a VR headset with the controls on an actual forklift. Although it might prove useful to woo tech-savvy Millennials, there is widespread agreement that VR forklift training is more than a gimmick.

“From a training standpoint, I do think there is a very serious future in getting an operator very familiar with the operation of the equipment and environment well before they ever interact with real product, people and materials,” says Hyster’s Koffarnus. “That technology is coming hard and fast, and there is a tremendous amount of customer interest.”

McCormick agrees, suggesting VR training could make a significant impact simply by enabling temp agencies to screen potential candidates, establish the basics and allow for much quicker onboarding around peak seasons. VR is being folded into the idea of self-directed education, which empowers the operator to learn at his or her own pace.

“New generations don’t just want to learn about new technology, they want to experience it,” McCormick says. “With workshops, webinars and simulations, it’s no longer just book-based rote learning or death by PowerPoint.”

Rosenberger says self-directed training components allow operators and managers the flexibility to remediate those who are struggling or advance those who excel. An individual can access a simulator much more readily than a periodic group session and doesn’t need a trainer or forklift to bone up.

“Say an operator was trained two years ago but hasn’t used a certain skill that’s now needed,” Rosenberger says. “Some companies are more progressive and have purchased a suite of training aids for ‘lunch and learns.’ If an operator is eyeing a new position, they can go to a computer during lunch and self-educate for that next level.”

Companies mentioned in this article
Hyster Company
The Raymond Corporation
Toyota Material Handling U.S.A.
UniCarriers Americas
Yale Materials Handling Corporation


About the Author

Josh Bond, Senior Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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From the August 2017 Modern Materials Handling Issue
For all the advances in lift truck technology and fleet management, operators will always be the heart and soul of a fleet. As manufacturers and equipment purchasers place more value on that piece, the role of the operator extends from design to daily use.
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