We don’t make the product, we make the product better
You’ve probably seen the BASF commercials. We don’t make the products you buy, we make the products you buy better.
The other day I spoke to Doug LeRoy and Jim Toscano, two managers from Lord Corporation, a company that I’ve come to think of as one of the BASF’s of the lift truck industry. They don’t make lift trucks; they make the lift trucks you buy better.
Specifically, they make steer by wire systems. My initial thought when I got a call from them was that they were talking about wire-guided automatic guided vehicles – the kind where the AGV is guided by a wire in the floor. Turns out, steer by wire is a system for electronic steering rather than hydraulic steering.
Instead of a steering system that is powered by hydraulic pumps and motors, a steer by wire system relies on an electric current to guide the steering mechanism. Here’s how it works.
In a lift truck, the steering wheel is connected to a shaft that’s supported by bearings. Within the bearing housing, there’s sensing element that takes input from the steering wheel, for instance whether the operator is turning the wheel clockwise or counterclockwise. It could also include the speed at which the driver is turning the wheel or how fast the wheel is turning.
A rotor, or disk, is attached to the shaft. The rotor floats in self-contained magnetic material. That periphery unit is surrounded by a coil of electric wire. Finally, the system includes a computer that talks to an actuator, or electric motor that positions the steering wheel. When you put it all together, the computer runs all those inputs through an algorithm. The result is a command that’s sent to the magnetic field to determine the torque that’s applied to steering wheel shaft. “The signal from the actuator changes the magnetic field by changing the electric current going to the device,” LeRoy said. “That changes the amount of resistance your hand feels in the steering system.” It’s a fancy way of saying that the system determines the precision of steering, depending on the situation.
While that all sounds pretty sophisticated for a lift truck, LeRoy explained that its critical in some of the applications lift trucks are working in today. “If your operator is putting away a pallet in a very narrow aisle rack, you want precise control,” he says. “If an operator is moving a heavy load across a long distance, the additional control allows them to travel faster on a machine. That allows them to get more productivity out of a shift.”
A steer by wire vehicle is also easier to turn, which makes it more ergonomically friendly, which may be a plus as the demographics of the workforce change. “We have more women operators and we have aging operators,” LeRoy said.
At the end of the conversation, I asked LeRoy and Toscano if steer by wire was an option that I add to a lift truck or choose over another type of steering system. They said no: It’s either on a truck and part of the purchase price, or it’s not on at all. Sort of like BASF – if it’s there, it makes the product better.