RER recently spoke with Skyjack president Brad Boehler about the incoming ANSI standards, the manufacturer’s new products, the international growth of MEWPs, the use of virtual reality in training operators, the benefits of telematics and more.
RER: How is Skyjack doing in updating your equipment for the ANSI standards?
Boehler: Most of the development process is done now. In fact, we went a bit further in being able to offer better ROI. We felt that it was important because the rental company does not get a better rate because of the standard … so we went beyond the standard and improved features to rebalance the investment occasion. However, we still have a few things to do.
It’s a fairly arduous process I would say because when we knew the new standards were coming, we knew what most of the content was going to look like. We knew it was going to be more akin to what happens in Europe with the ISO standards, and we started a project three years ago to prepare for that. There still are some things that have to happen, but it’s more about manufacturing and market education.
There are new fixtures for everything, and there’s some automation, it’s a big effort to transition. The products look like they used to but there’s a big manufacturing change in there and that’s a big effort. As the world’s largest manufacturer of scissors for example, you do not just change manufacturing lines overnight. That’s what takes the time and effort. We were waiting two years for the “now go” date. But now it is really about the logistics of phasing in supply and bringing suppliers on and changing jigs and fixtures and tooling and processes down the line.
It’s a lot of work. Somebody asked me yesterday about engine emissions changes and how difficult that was and how that compared to this. They said, “engine emissions is harder than this, right?” and I said “No, not at all”, because this touches every aerial product that we make.
That’s a lot of products. And it’s not that you have to change the whole machine, but you have to change vast parts of the machine as opposed to just the engine. The engine upgrade for Tier 4 or Stage V or other things, that may be a more expensive upgrade in the unit cost price, but again from a manufacturing perspective, we’re touching everything on the machinery.
Is the load-sensing technology a major part of it?
That’s one of the major components. That’s new here in North America, but Skyjack and other manufacturers have been doing that in Europe for quite some time, so it’s not foreign or new to us, and we know how to do it. We know how to make machines that effectively understand what the loading of that machine is and interlocking and doing a variety of different things at that point. What’s different and what’s going to be the problem is that people in North America are not used to operating that way. They are used to having a label that says, “The safe load of the machine is X” so they look at it and say “some smart engineer has got a factor of safety of like three on this so X really means Y” and they use the machine that way or attempt to use the machine that way.
And so really this is now policing their ability to overload the machine or do things with the machinery that they should not have been doing in the first place. It’s going to be a problem for the rental companies and it’s going to be a problem on the job because people aren’t going to understand it or like it, but it is for their own safety.
How aware are your rental customers about the standards?
I would say there is probably a variety in the level of knowledge or ignorance as you might want to put it. It varies from some who have never heard of the new standards and don’t really know that ANSI exists and that it’s being changed in a way that’s going to be more impactful on their business. To others, like United Rentals, Sunbelt, Sunstate and H&E that actively have seats on the ANSI committee, they’re obviously well aware of what’s going on.
What about the end users?
They probably don’t have a lot of knowledge about it and that’s where we as an industry, Skyjack as a manufacturer and other manufacturers, have been attempting to put things out into the media. We put white papers out and a variety of things trying to prepare people for it. We have a limited ability to touch those end users, and so that’s where for me it really is important to get the message to the rental companies and emphasize to the rental companies that you need to talk to your customers about this. You need to understand it first and then you need to pass the information to your customers because your customers are going to see physical changes to the machinery and if they see it for the first time or hear it for the first time when it shows up on the jobsite, it’s going to be a less pleasant conversation than if you tell them about it beforehand and explain it to them. They’re still not going to be happy about it, but at least they’ll be informed about it. So, it’s us, it’s the rental companies, it’s IPAF, it’s other organizations like the ARA, which is represented on the ANSI committee and I believe they’re putting that message out to their members as well.
What else has changed besides the composition of the machines? What about responsibilities on the jobsite?
What has really changed is the training portion. There is operator training that is a requirement and then manager training is a new requirement and that’s the one that really points to [construction companies] who are the directing their operators to do things around their jobsites. They need to understand their jobsites and more importantly they need to understand this aerial equipment, what it does, how it does it and what’s the interrelationship between what’s happening on the jobsite and what’s going on in that piece of equipment, so that they understand that they have the right equipment, and that they mitigated hazards around their jobsites. So that’s kind of where that ties in. The rental company needs to be able to help those managers to get that type of training so that they understand what the safe uses of that piece of equipment on their jobsite look like.
What are some of the highlights of your new products?
The ANSI changes are touching all of our machines, so we’ve got a new line of machines coming out. We’ve got a prototype of the rough terrain 53-foot scissor here at the show, and we had to make changes to the machines so we took the opportunity to take a machine design that was relatively old -- and there was a time not too long ago when we had rough terrain scissorlifts that were 71 inches wide, 88 inches wide and 92 inches wide at varying heights -- so we took the opportunity to kind of consolidate those designs as well and to get to one chassis that was 92 inches wide and a variety of different heights. A lot more common components and some opportunities to mitigate some costs by redesigning the costs of the machine as well. That’s one.
You’ll see a new line of DC electric scissors come out, it will be SKYCODED as we’ve spoken about, essentially replacing our relay bank in the panel with a box. That allows you to do trouble shooting, with color-coded wires to all of the solenoids and the variety of electrical inputs and outputs. Instead of going through a bank of relays it’s now going through one logical base that actually gives plain language feedback on what’s happening. It shows “Everything OK” most of the time but if there is an issue it will tell you “check something.” It’s not an error code, it’s an actual plain-language message.
We took the opportunity to deal with some other issues, continuous improvement on things like making our pothole protection more efficient. We moved our emergency lowering to a one-button activation, and a new control box in a non-metallic housing, which is actually more durable, tougher than the other one, and easier to service.
There will be a new line of boom products coming out with variable capacity, different capacities in different ranges and a lot of new features.
Do you see the market staying pretty strong?
I think so. There are a few clouds on the horizon, I would say. When you start talking about tariffs and trade wars and a variety of those things, I’m not sure what they necessarily achieve for the American public or the American infrastructure or economy, but I do know that for us and I believe our other manufacturing brethren, it doesn’t matter what country they are in, but everybody’s materials costs have gone up because of this. I think most of us are trying to pass the costs on to our customers, which is not a great thing for the industry.
It must be very difficult to do 100 percent.
It absolutely is and just like the ANSI standards, our increased material costs and things like load-sensing and other enhancements to the machines don’t actually drive any increase in rental rates. Whereas our customer says to us, “We don’t want to pay for that”, and I understand you don’t want to pay for it, but I don’t want to pay for it either, right? So it ends up becoming a compromise to a certain extent. We try to do the same thing with our vendors, we say, “I don’t want to pay for that,” and they say, “I don’t want to pay for it” and you see that same conversation happening all the way down the value chain. And it happens at the rental yard and the jobsite as well. But at the end of the day those costs are real and, unfortunately, they have to affect the consumer.
Back to the question on the economy, outside of that, our rental customers keep telling us that their customers still have visibility to a lot of work on the books for the next 12 to 18 months, -- so that’s a positive thing to hear. So I think we’re going to grow this year, the markets will grow slightly, but I don’t think they’re going to grow as well as recent years. We’re cautiously optimistic as a lot of our customers are still in a bit of a growth phase.
I remember you telling me about being at Bauma China a couple of years ago and walking through the streets of Shanghai and looking for the aerial machines and not seeing many. Do you find the awareness of aerial equipment growing around the world?
It’s definitely growing around the world. The Chinese market continues to grow, it’s not large by any stretch of the imagination yet, but it’s growing quickly, which is what you can do when you’re a smaller market. So things are changing there, still relatively slow, but when you look at the overall opportunity for a market there and how many people are working and how many people are working at height, and the general population, the ratio of how many aerial lifts there are in China per person and how many there are in the U.S. per person is a huge difference.
So, there’s work to be done there, but that market, especially if you have changes in regulations in China -- and, frankly, I would say that as labor rates continue to go up in China and you can begin to show the productivity gains around working at height – there is potential. So those two things, regulation and increased labor wages that now create other forms of work into play, those two things can reach a tipping point and that market can change very rapidly.
What do you think about the use of virtual reality in training? Are you a proponent of it?
Absolutely. Let me point out, to be transparent, I am on the board of Serious Labs. But we started our relationship with Serious Labs prior to that, and we don’t have any contractual relationship with Serious Labs. We were asked to help them with their scissorlift simulator, they had already built a boom lift simulator. We were asked to help from a mechanical functions perspective in understanding how a scissorlift works and the way a scissorlift reacts to certain scenarios so they could build as realistic a scenario as possible within their simulator.
I’m a big proponent of simulation, and I think there is a place for it in training. There is a place for it in refresher training, annual training, in IPAF when you renew your PAL card. So while the world isn’t quite ready to say that we can give you an operator’s license just from the simulator without being on the machine, but five years later when you’ve been using your license for five years, I don’t see any reason why you can’t renew someone’s license based on how they perform on the simulator. And frankly a simulator is a better evaluator of how you perform than a human being watching you perform.
Another thing with IPAF specifically, they have a course called PAL-plus, which is an enhancement of your operating license associated with more difficult scenarios you can put aerial lifts into. And that’s a hard thing to do. The training for that and the evaluation for that in a physical sense requires you to set up a course which is a bit difficult to physically put together and then to have people safely manipulate themselves through it. On a simulator you can do that without any risk to anyone. So again, it goes back to they’ve already proven themselves to be a competent operator on actual pieces of machinery, if we want to assess whether they can get into more difficult situations and they are a more expert operator, you can do that on the simulator more effectively and easily than you can in real life.
Your new telematics program Elevate – your marketing uses the phrase “more than telematics.” How so?
We like to think we’ve come to the market with a fresh approach to telematics, and I think there are two parts to that. One is, talking about telematics, in the past it was more in the earthmoving venue or even large pieces of agricultural equipment, and to a certain extent because it was relatively expensive, the biggest benefit that they sold to a lot of those machines was location. We wanted to bring telematics to the masses. So if you’re talking about large pieces of agricultural equipment or earthmoving equipment, you’re talking about an asset that has a pretty hefty price tag on it to start with. And when you add the telematics package as they were, the overall percentage cost to add to that machine was relatively small. But if you take that same technology and try to put it on a 3219 [scissorlift], all of a sudden it becomes a significant piece of the cost structure of the machine.
We wanted to provide telematics for everyone for a price that was reasonable, that would make sense on any asset that we have in our portfolio. So that was one, bringing the overall cost percentage of the machine to someplace where our customers could put it on any one of our machines.
The second part was focusing on the value benefits of what you get back from the telematics. Knowing the location of your assets is always going to be of value, but it’s not the most valuable. Knowing the machine is ready to operate, that it’s in the configuration from a variety of electrical or hydraulic or engineering functions that yes if you get on it right now and try to work on this machine, it should work for you, right? And if you get on it and it doesn’t work, and you can’t figure it out because sometimes operators are not as sophisticated as they should be, if you call ABC Rentals and say “hey this machine is not working,” well, the guy at ABC Rentals, looking at your asset in real time and saying “yeah it’s not going to work for you because you’ve got e-stop on the platform depressed and it’s not going to work in that state, so go pull the e-stop out and you should be good.” And it’s that ability to help, and that service tech now spends five minutes on the phone as opposed to driving two hours in traffic to pull the e-stop out. So that’s one benefit.
Other benefits, things like battery management, we’ve done a lot of analysis on a lot of data that we’ve gotten back through ELEVATE, and when you look at the state of charge in the battery system, you can actually see things that if you look at them in the right filter and look at the data the right way, you can see when the machine hasn’t been charged properly. You can see when over a period of time it hasn’t been charged properly and now the battery function is going to deteriorate. You can see when your batteries are at a state when you may be able to remediate them if you bring them back to the shop immediately and charge them and put them back on the right type of deep charge. Or you may see that they’ve been damaged beyond hope because this customer has not been charging them properly, or putting water in the batteries. We’re trying to get to the place where we can avoid the battery problem before we have the battery problem.
When you get a notification, and this goes back to instead of seeing a map on your screen when you look at telematics, you get a dashboard. Down the side you get all of these warnings or alerts that say, “Machine X is due for its ANSI-frequent inspection” or “Machine Y has a certain problem with the battery” or “Machine X was overloaded yesterday”, all those kinds of things that give you better feedback and better information to run your business.
This year we’re going to ship 50 percent of our machines with ELEVATE telematics on them. We’re going to get data back, with our customers permission, and we’re going to look very hard into that data and slice and dice it in a variety of ways to find value for ourselves and our customers.
Will Elevate be installed standard?
It’s an option right now but right now we have orders for 50 percent of the machinery that we’re going to build this year to go out with that option on it.
How involved are you in product safety? How much of your day now is focused on the product?
I’m still relatively involved. We have a variety of different systems by which we do things at Skyjack, we have a product development process that’s very structured and it starts off with a definition of the product by marketing usually that we would like to make this product and it needs to do this, this, this, this and that, and we set up the requirements for the engineering department and the rest of the cross-functional team goes and envisions how we’re going to build this machine. How do we make the machine that we were just asked to build and meets all of these requirements, let’s go figure out a way to build that. We have a gated process, we go through a variety of gates through that process that goes all the way to releasing that machine into production. At the very least all those gates have approval meetings, but we also have weekly meetings of that cross-functional team and I go to as many as I can. I obviously miss some, I’m probably missing one right now. But I do go to them when I can and if we have a technical issue that we don’t feel we can solve, myself and my staff will go through that and try to get some guidance back to the team on how we would like that solved. So, I’m certainly not designing products, but I’m still involved in the day-to-day requirements of “it must do this, or it must do that.”
I imagine your engineering background would be an advantage for a manufacturer.
Absolutely. It allows me to have these conversations and understand what we’re talking about and speak to it a little better. I couldn’t imagine being in my position if I were a finance type guy. I believe it is an advantage. I was fortunate enough to grow as Skyjack grew. I was in a position where I was globally responsible for product safety, but I was really a one-man crew. We were small enough that that’s the way it was. But it allowed me to travel around the globe and make relationships with our customers for years in that role and then be able to expand it into a different role in the future.