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Proprietary Software

A manufacturer’s perspective

It’s no secret that lift trucks from all manufacturers have become more sophisticated over the last several years. As part of that sophistication, lift truck manufacturers have added computer software into their lift trucks. People within the material handling industry often struggle to understand this trend, so we will try to explain it here

The advent of requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding low emissions for forklifts is really what began the drive to computer-based systems. Internal combustion trucks with a traditional carburetor simply won’t meet the requirements, so manufacturers installed computers in the engines to track the emissions. Those computer-based systems are difficult to diagnose by the old tried-and-true method of swapping parts in and out, the method used by forklift mechanics for ages. The next step, then, was to aid the people servicing the equipment with diagnoses of the new types of engines which, in a nutshell, is how we’ve arrived at today’s IC marketplace.

On the electric side, efficiency drives the move to computer controls. In order to make the truck and its battery efficient, a microcontroller is needed to keep the controller and motor temperatures regulated and also control both the traction and hydraulic pump motors. Due to the microcontroller’s sophistication, special software is required in order to be able to monitor, program, and troubleshoot it.

What it Means for Technicians
It used to be pretty simple for a mechanic to diagnose the problem with a truck. Now the same symptoms could mean any number of things, be it lack of response, low fuel or a malfunctioning part. The new emission control systems require technicians to be computer-literate. It’s no longer likely that someone can go out with a pair of pliers and bailing wire and fix a truck. In other words, technicians can’t simply look at the engine and automatically know the problem.

Therefore, manufacturers have made software programs available to aid technicians in producing a more timely and efficient diagnosis of the problems. However, the software usage has required a whole new education process, the implementation of which is something manufacturers and dealers both are still struggling with.

A common refrain from distributor technicians, especially those working with internal combustion trucks, is, “Where’s my old lift truck? Why can’t you take this stuff off here?” Part of that is a function of age—the industry is having a hard time finding young mechanics—and not being as receptive to change and technology.

Why Must It Be Proprietary?
The software is unique to the vendor that supplies that particular component. Some folks early on in the process decided that they would make a profit off this software, which is where all the rockiness started around this topic in our industry. Manufacturers get all sorts of resistance about that. The best business model is still a work in progress.

A common distributor complaint about the issue revolves around the fact that it makes it more difficult to work on equipment from more than one manufacturer. Well, that’s true. But from a manufacturer’s standpoint, it has to be that way for liability reasons. A manufacturer must have restrictions on who is able to access the software. For example, suppose someone who’s not specifically trained on that specific piece of the equipment is able to go in and change some settings. Now suppose that piece of equipment is involved in an accident that could have been prevented without the change in settings. The manufacturer can still be held liable. As a manufacturer, you have to make it proprietary to lock out certain technicians and keep such situations from happening.

Of course, manufacturers aren’t all altruistic. Diagnostic software is typically only offered to dealers so that we can keep a captive customer base. However, it’s not that simple. There are other reasons. For example, if a dealer’s customer purchases a great number of trucks and wants their technicians trained, we want the dealer to build a rapport with that customer. We want the dealer to get the service business. Now, we will offer training to the end-user if that’s necessary, but we’d like the dealer to keep the business.

A lot of the challenges distributor technicians face can be alleviated with proper training. In order to be effective with the new style of trucks, technicians really need to be trained. This goes back to the point on why the software needs to be proprietary—so the manufacturer can ensure technicians are properly trained. It’s very, very difficult to just pick up a computer and be able to diagnose a problem, which puts independent dealers without the factory training support at a severe disadvantage.

As a manufacturer, we purposely do not train anyone but our own dealers. We are trying to instill that training must be continuous—it can’t be a one-shot deal anymore. The reason is, the manufacturer is constantly tinkering with and updating the software to make it the best it can be. Each update requires additional training. Despite what we hear from some distributors, we aren’t doing this to make money for ourselves. We’re doing it because it’s the most effective way to take care of the equipment and, ultimately, the customer. Most manufacturers don’t expect training to be a profit center; they are just trying to cover their training expenses.

As time goes on, training will become a bigger and bigger issue. Competitively, training will end up being a value-added feature because of the amount of training that needs to be done. Manufacturers that provide the best and most cost-effective training for dealers will have a huge competitive advantage in the years to come. A burden has also been placed on the dealer to train more in depth. There are no two ways about it.

Tips to the Dealer
In order for a distributor to keep his or her service department profitable, they first must realize the service department is a profit center. For a long time, service was just a headache needed to keep the lift trucks running in be-tween sales. In today’s environment, service must be a profit center.

To make service profitable, as mentioned for manufacturers, training is the key. When done correctly, training can cover a lot more than just the technical aspect; it can cover company philosophy, public relations, customer service and all kinds of related things.

A distributor can no longer afford to put a technician in the field who simply goes in to a customer site, fixes a truck and leaves. The technician must build a rapport with the customer, because it’s going to end up being the technician’s relationship that sells the next truck. In our opinion, once the initial sale is made to a customer, a salesperson ends up being an order taker because the technician is the one continuing to nurture the relationship. Dealerships that can teach this the best will be the most successful.

Another obvious thing that sometimes gets overlooked is the importance of proper diagnosis. Dealers who are poor diagnostically are the ones who will lose out in service. It used to be that a good mechanic was one who could build things really well. Today, if you spend a week trying to find out why your truck won’t go into gear, you’ve lost a customer. So, going forward, diagnostics is a big deal to get good at. That’s what these computers are really meant for—to speed up the diagnosis process to know what to fix. That’s the fundamental philosophical driver of it all in our marketplace today.

What the Future Holds
It will be interesting to see this trend play out over the next few years. It’s important for manufacturers to focus on “easy-to-use” with the next phase of design. It’s probably not smart to go roaring ahead with all sorts of frivolous features just because they’re possible. Manufacturers must stay focused on keeping it simple for everyone in both design and diagnosis.

From a purely technological standpoint, look for more use of laptops instead of handsets. As lift truck dealers become more diversified, offering different types of material handling, heavy machinery, skid steers, lift trucks and more, they’re going to need to keep track of a host of software requirements.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

Clark Simpson Dave Nicolette Meet the Author
Clark Simpson (left) is product marketing engineer and Dave Nicolette is technical trainer at Clark Material Handling Company, located in Lexington, Kentucky, and on the Web at www.clarkmhc.com.

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