Forklift manufacturer UniCarriers Americas is leveraging a rare blend of invention, customer-centric vision, and global connections to power the materials handling renaissance.
In an Illinois warehouse in 1953, Mac Barrett rigged up an overhead wiring system and, using radio signals and a tow cart, revolutionized the world. Barrett’s invention, the Guide-O-Matic driverless vehicle, didn’t just vault the material handling industry into modernity: it became the cornerstone of countless technical innovations that continue to power the flow of global commerce today.
While Mac and the company he founded—Barrett Industrial Trucks—are now a part of history, his invention—the automated guided vehicle (AGV)—continues to evolve, driving the materials handling industry through its current blistering-hot renaissance.
Today, UniCarriers Americas Corporation (UCA) is at the center of the industry’s acceleration, bringing together three legendary pioneers in the warehousing and materials handling industries: Barrett Industrial Trucks, Toyo Carriers Manufacturing Co., Ltd. (TCM), and Nissan Forklift Co., Ltd.
Global Vision Meets American Craftsmanship
As OEMs search for ways to extend their reach by becoming solutions providers, consolidation of name brand warehousing equipment manufacturers is a current trend.
The push is evidenced by the October, 2017 integration of UniCarriers and Mitsubishi Nichiyu Forklift Co. Ltd. to create Mitsubishi Logisnext. But there’s a twist: while becoming part of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Forklift & Engine Turbocharger (M-FET), UCA will retain its own distinct brand and business with its own core leadership.
“We maintain separate businesses because we have such unique vertical markets that we serve,” Radous explained.
Of the 20 executive officers on the MHI board, only two are not Japanese. Radous is one of them.
“That’s a huge commitment and reinforces the fact that we will remain two separate businesses in the Americas,” he confirmed.
As you might expect, the union with a powerhouse $40 billion business is resulting in meaningful synergies, including combined purchasing power and supply chain management. It’s also a dream platform for new ideas.
“Mitsubishi makes rockets,” Radous chuckled. “We need to find ways to integrate this kind of technology into our business. So, we have an opportunity to look internally as we build advancements in our product line.”
Finding the right technology for success is nothing new for UniCarriers, and bringing out the best in the UCA workforce isn’t either.
“We’ve added automation and robotics to our facility, and we continue to increase our headcount by vertically integrating and bringing more work in-house,” Radous reported. “Our workforce has significant experience, a number of our employees have been here for a long, long time and they’re interested in continuously learning new things. As we’ve brought in automation and robotics, we’ve enabled these individuals to be trained and to oversee this automation and robotics work.”
According to company HR Director, Christy Willis, cultivating a new generation of materials handling professionals is a high priority. Working with students is sparking a renewed interest in the field.
“When we talk about the impact that the materials handling industry has on our state and our country, people are often surprised. When they hear about the impact of our business on the economy and how they can contribute, they become much more interested.”
Lifting Above Their Weight
As smart factories begin to gain popularity, UniCarriers’ customers are helping to drive change by requesting specific features, such as on-board computers, scanners, and scales that communicate directly to their warehouse management or ERP system. Many of these requests come from the company’s freight customers, who make up one of the company’s hottest market segments.
Thanks to building flexibility into UCA’s standard manufacturing and assembly process, customization is a breeze.
Dale Mark, VP of Manufacturing noted, “In years past, to put a customized system on a truck we would have built the truck, then moved it offline to another department and added custom equipment. Today, it’s performed on the line.”
When customers asked for a forklift with optimized visibility, UniCarriers developed the OptiView® mast to provide clear sightlines for confident travel.
“As we develop new models, we collect the voice of the customer and establish a set of design criteria to meet the needs and continuously improve the product,” affirmed Mark. “At the same time we are always looking to be proactive, and understand the needs of the customer by getting feedback.”
A few of the innovations that set UniCarriers apart from the competition include state-of-the-art emission control systems that keep CO² levels three times lower than those of a major competitor (based on certification results from the California Air Resources Board), engines that deliver power, performance, and reliability as well as fuel economy and low emissions and stability systems.
Doing the Right Things at the Right Time
With Industry 4.0 knocking at the global factory door, forklift manufacturers are rushing to embrace hot trends, except, perhaps, for customer-centric UniCarriers, which Radous stressed is taking a more considered approach to the world economy’s next big thing.
“Many of our competitors have rushed into [the Internet of Things and other developments] whereas we’re really studying them,” he said.
Ultimately, UniCarriers plans to do what’s best for their customers.
“We want to choose innovations that justify and complement the total cost of ownership for the end user,” Radous added. “That might be by application; what works for one might not work for another, even in a similar warehouse operation, for example.”
The kind of thoughtful vision that keeps UCA ahead of the curve is easily seen in the environmental practices. Registered to ISO 14001:2004 certification for a decade, the UCA team discovered that a move designed to become a good corporate citizen would yield much bigger benefits than initially expected.
“Early on we envisioned that it was going to add cost or reduce operational efficiency. What we found was the opposite,” Mark recalled. “We found by adopting reuse and recycle practices, it not only provides the environmental benefit but tremendous operational efficiency benefits.
“We buy components from a global supply chain. If those components are coming to us in wooden crates, or in cardboard boxes with Styrofoam and plastic wrap, a tremendous amount of waste is involved. By adopting returnable, reusable packaging, we eliminate a lot of that waste. Not only are we not putting it in a landfill, we are driving supply chain efficiencies and effectiveness.”
Recently, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin paid a visit to UniCarriers’ headquarters.
“He said UCA really knows how to get things done in Illinois. UniCarriers is the real deal,” said Radous. “That was a huge statement for this organization because we’re 50 miles or so outside of Chicago, but we’re making a much bigger name for ourselves in this arena of forklifts.
“The research we've gotten indicates our products are the most reliable in the industry,” he mused. “The fact that we do that, the fact that we continue to vertically integrate our factory so that we control the process from counterweight to the carriage, and we use automation and robotics while continuing to keep our people employed and growing, makes a good statement for this business.”
It’s a statement that Mac Barrett would have wholeheartedly approved.
UniCarriers Americas Corporation (UCA) is an American company that designs, manufactures, and supports a complete line of material handling equipment. They are part of a global industrial powerhouse, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Forklift & Engine Turbocharger Holdings, Ltd. (M-FET), which is now the third ranked forklift manufacturer in the world.
UCA has an extremely rich heritage. While the UniCarriers name has only been around a short while, the company’s lineage spans more than 100 years. Barrett Industrial Trucks was founded in 1914, and was a pioneer in bringing a new generation of electric powered equipment to the material handling market. Included in UCA’s heritage is TCM, which founded the forklift manufacturing industry in Japan, producing the first ever Japan-made forklift in 1949. Nissan Forklift began operations in 1957 and, with its acquisition of Barrett in 1988, it became the first Japanese manufacturer of all five classes of material handling equipment in the U.S.