The birth of the Fork-Lift Division at OM.

An experienced engineering company such as OM could not be unaware of technological advances made in the field of mechanization of internal factory or warehouse movements of materials. One of the most flexible and useful of these innovations was the fork-lift truck, first seen in the United States during the 1920s, but seldom in Europe. Italy made the discovery during and after WWII. American troops often used these vehicles and they soon caught on in the “Old Continent”. They were first used alongside but rapidly replaced the old hand-carts, as their strength and flexibility made them suitable for a myriad of tasks. In a short while, firms that handled goods were unable to operate without them. In 1937, OM had already built “manual carts” for military use and by 1951, the Milan company division had already produced fork-lift trucks powered by both electric and internal combustion motors. The production began in response to demands expressed by OM management and by the Fiat factories. The first fork-lifts trucks, identified by model code numbers K41 and K51, were electric-powered three-wheelers with a steering tiller operated by a person on foot. The K41 used a mechanical lifting gear while the K51 boasted hydraulic pistons for raising and lowering operations. These vehicles were built under a French license from Fenwick, who had in turn bought production licenses from Yale in the United States. A few years later, as a result of large orders from Fiat and Pirelli, OM decided to create a specific division for the construction and sales of vehicles for internal factory and warehouse movements; a range of products was presented for the Italian market in 1954.

The Electric vehicles were give an “E” suffix while internal combustion engine models were give a “D” for diesel or a “B” for Benzina, (petrol). These letters were followed by an “M”, “IM” or “I”, depending on the choice of transmission, (purely mechanical, automatic with a fluid clutch or automatic with a torque converter). These code letters were followed by a number which indicated the payload in quintals, (units of 100 kg). the payloads began with a 6, (for a small electric three-wheeler with a chassis in two sections, made of graphite cast iron). In the early 1970s, the highest payload reached 120 quintals, which later became 150 on the big diesel engine trucks. All models carried a wide choice of lifting gear and tyre sizes which offered customers a vast range of working capabilities. The early electric- model payloads soon jumped from 6 to 30 quintals and the range was the DE 30, a huge diesel-electric machine that was withdrawn in 1960 following poor sales. It was worthy of note that the transmission option of this model was also discontinued despite the long experience of OM in building diesel- electric railway locomotives. The technology has now re-appeared in the latest STILL catalogues. Internal combustion engine models with similar payloads to the electric versions were generally the more popular choice and OM invested heavily in the development of this specification, particularly in view of the wide range of engines, transmissions and technical experience available from other members of the FIAT Group. Early models had used a simple mechanical gearbox, two speeds in forward and two in reverse, but automatic gearboxes with a fluid clutch soon become the norm on the heavier machines. Petrol engines could be selected with a conversion to GPL gas for use within closed spaces; the gas bottles were fitted behind the driver’s seat for ease of replacement when empty. Early lightweight forklift trucks of the DM and BM ranges used either the small Fiat 614 engine or the petrol unit of the Fiat 615 small lorry and the petrol powered 1900cc engine from the car of that name, (the Fiat 1900).

Technical and production developments in the 1960s.

The building of forklift trucks had been inserted into the production structures of the OM factory at Milan, which also built railway rolling stock, locomotives, trams and motorised rail-cars as well as earth- moving machines, small bulldozers and tracked farm tractors plus mechanical components for various Fiat Group commercial vehicles. This last mentioned contract sometimes comprised the in-house design and testing of complete vehicles before series manufacture began. The vehicle production process itself often involved a complete manufacturing circle within the factory, from the treatment of raw materials to finished article. The cast iron components were produced in a foundry within the factory walls and this one was considered in its day to be the largest foundry of graphite cast iron in Italy. Rolling Stock manufactured in the factory was placed on a private railway line with direct access to the “Porta Romana” railway station, (which no longer exists). Locomotives and wagons for the FS were placed on a turntable in the station to send them in the required direction, whereas trains loaded in the factory with OM finished products proceeded directly to destinations all over Italy, The OM industrial complex at Milan included a school, principally for apprentices but also for all the qualified workforce who needed to be kept up to date on the latest technical innovations. The school furnished a supply of new energy and ideas for all the company divisions, people who were ready and competent to respond to all the technical and organizational needs of a major commercial group. By the mid-1960s OM Forklift Trucks Ltd was the sector leader in Italy, ready to engage in both European and world markets. The product range continued to grow in response to a steady increase in demand from customers and the market. The lifting frame is one of the most important components of a forklift truck and the OM Research and Development office spent long hours of work in efforts to improve its ability and performance. To this end use was made of specially profiled girders, stamped or cast, conical rollers that facilitate the regular movement of one frame inside another, (both in the vertical and horizontal planes), the elimination of a large central hydraulic lifting piston in favour of two smaller ones at the sides, (in order to improve visibility for the driver, especially when lifting loads to great heights). The Simplex lifting frame offers a certain lifting height but the Duplex and Triplex models offer ever greater lifting heights while retaining the basic structure of the frames and the dimensions within which they are required to operate. During the 1960s customers demanded and received a multitude of different load holding solutions. In 1960 the annual production of OM forklift trucks had reached 2000units. The 1961 catalogue offered many models that had already been in production since the mid-1950s but these had undergone countless modifications since then. These high production figures were obtained as a result if high customer satisfaction with the products, a good performance, both in horizontal and in vertical movement, rationally laid out driver controls and later on, power assisted steering. All this made for a highly successful forklift truck, a simple to use, reliable and efficient work tool which will remain in production for many years to come. In early 1960s, some electric forklift trucks were fitted with a moor for each driven wheel and in 1965 an optional three-way movement of the lifting forks was proposed. In 1967, OM was made a full and integral member of the Fiat Commercial Vehicle Group.

In 1967, OM was made a full and integral member of the Fiat Commercial Vehicle Group. The complete electric forklift range remained unchanged until 1969,but with an important technical innovation, a new electronic gear control system that affected all traction and lifting movements. This was initially an option but it then became standard fitment, replacing the previous rheostat control system. The advantages of this technique are multiple, firstly the delivery of a continual rather than a dissipated current regulation system, no-power loss during start-up, a longer battery life, an electronically controlled delivery and diminution of power, (i.e. gradual, not sudden) to give smoother manoeuvers and a device that recovered electrical energy from the braking effort. All of these factors gave longer life to the engine and to most of the other mechanical components. At that time, the DI series had been in production for a year in versions with payloads from 20 to 60 quintals, the transmission of which was known as “hydro-dynamic”, (a torque converter and “Powershift” automatic speed changes); tis model was also fitted with “hydrostatic” power steering gear. Both of these new features at that time represented considerable technological advances over previous models and with the earlier move to electronic control on the electric powered vehicles the basic requisites were already in place for the forklift trucks of the future, confirming OM as the market leader in this sector. On all models, either pneumatic or solid rubber tyres were available.

The OM factory at Bari in the 1970s.

The company’s annual production of forklift trucks for 1970 amounted to 7000units. Growth now encountered difficulties with labour disputes and a recession of the economy towards the end of the 1960s, whose repercussions were felt most acutely in 1971. The Brescia, Suzzara and Milan factories all suffered a fall in production figures and the agreement of terms with the trade unions to meet this crisis was only signed in 1971 and implemented with difficulty the following year. One positive result of this negative situation was a new government investment incentive that encouraged OM to build a new factory at Bari, to which the production of electric forklift trucks was to be transferred. The Bari-Modugno factory was the second of its kind to have been opened by the Fiat Group in the South of Italy, the first having been built at Cassino. This new construction confirmed the Fiat commitment to a policy of industrial development in the southern half of the Italian peninsular. The new complex, which cost circa 3.5millards of Italian lire, took shape at Modugno, the industrial zone of Bari, on 100,000 square metres of land, a quarter of which were to be covered immediately by closed warehouses and offices, with an option for another eventual total of 45,000 square metres of building constructions. The first forklift truck to be built here was the latest E 30 electric model with a new transistorised control panel as a standard fitment, a feature that had first been presented at the Levante Fair of Bari in October of 1971. At this stage in its history OM had become one of the major manufacturers of forklift trucks in Europe, and not just in its home market. The 1971 product range listed 320 different versions of several forklift truck ranges with the electric motors, diesel or petrol engines, (plus optional gas conversions, all very versatile and offered with a host of optional accessories. Payloads varied from 6 to 120 quintals, the highest lifting frame reached up to 6 metres and the most powerful engine produced 120hp. An unexpected “technical” consequence of the agreements signed between the management and trade unions after the social disturbances of the late 1960s was that the production of electric forklift trucks was now considered to be more healthy for the workers than that of the internal combustion engines. This idea, once installed, was to alter future production choices in favour of the electric powered vehicles. At the autumn “Tramag” Trade Fair of Padova two interesting innovations were presented: a heavy duty forklift truck for the handling of containers and another that was built to handle large reels of paper, usually intended for the newspaper industries. Another previously unseen product concerned a forklift truck for the specific need of horticulture, for which new series of the electric E12 was presented. OM continued to pay attention to this sector and another specifically designed product was later announced, particularly for the giant agricultural co-operatives. This model, the E 18N, was called the “Market Garden” truck and fitted with a 5.5 metre Triplex lifting frame which featured lateral movements for the forks, a very useful item for stacking mountains of pallets. OM at that time organized specialized courses for its customers and employees on the subject of internal factory movements and on warehousing techniques. The world of logistics had woken up to its new needs and disciplines which enabled them to take important steps towards improvements in production. Over this period management had been forced to reconcile production needs with those of diversification, all the while retaining unaltered a high quality product. Strong demand now required considerable organizational effort, as of 1970, to specialize and to rationalize the production of each factory in as far as this was possible. The object was to establish a technical and commercial group policy which would enable company production levels to meet growing customer demand, inspite of the energy crisis of the 1973/1974 winter and the resulting difficulty in obtaining credit for investment. In 1973, annual production of OM forklift trucks reached 9000 units. Sixty per cent of Italian domestic sales were furnished by OM. One half of the company’s total production was exported. Still in an effort to respond to ever increasing market demand, OM came to sign several strategic collaboration agreements with other companies. Some of these were forklift truck manufacturers whose products were not generally in direct rivalry with those of OM. One such company was Pimespo of Suzzara, (concerning which a chapter is to be included here later) who built specialist forklift trucks for high volume vertical stack warehousing, some of them with retractable lifting frames. An OM model with this facility, the “Reach Truck” was presented at a Milan Trade Fair in 1973 and went on sale in May of the following year; the company clearly looked to this model to maintain its market share. In 1975, Italian companies in the warehousing equipment sector made up a fragmented group. These amounted to about 150 firms but of these only 15 to 20 built forklift trucks in what was usually a very limited range of models. By contrast, the catalogue of OM, the sector leader, contained circa 450 different model versions that were competent to fulfil the needs of customers with a seemingly endless range of possible work applications. The annual OM production target for 1975 was fixed in excess of 10,000units. In the event, this estimate was convincingly surpassed. The legal passage of OM from “Fiat Commercial Vehicles” group member to becoming part of “Fiat Forklift Trucks, a Division of the IVECO Group,” took place in 1975. Despite these impressive title changes, OM was able to display 17 different models under its own name at the “Tramag” Trade Fair of Padova over the winter of 1975 to 1976. Amongst them was a new generation of electric powered trucks with a “Fluxvar” control system and “Polyfield” motors, a technology closed to that of transistorised control systems. The “C” system model of 1981 wore a new Pininfarina-inspired colour scheme that abandoned the traditional orange and red side strips. The new design was characterised by a more compact shape of truck and this was also applied to the light “fossil fuel” 12, 15 and 20 quintal payload trucks, who also wore an IVECO badge for the first time, a logical step for the legal group owner, but not a long lasting situation.

From Milan to Bari via France, Technology and design in the 1980s and 1990s.

At the beginning of the 1980s and for a brief period the production of internal combustion engine forklift trucks was transferred from Milan to the Iveco-Unic factory of Bourban-Lancy in France, before being re-united with the electric models at Bari. The transfer to Bari for 20, 25 and 30 quintal payloads and their exterior design now took on the angular looks that were then fashionable on cars. Mechanical gearboxes were withdrawn as an option and huge container handling trucks appeared in the sales catalogue with a lateral platform for carrying payloads upto 500 quintals,(50 tonnes). These products were made in conjunction with the Fantuzzi Company. Production of the retractable forklifts continued now for ten years without major changes but some “off-road” models for 25 and 30 quintal payloads and relatively large 50 to 80 quintal payload forklift trucks with electric motors were built in limited numbers. These all had a new shape of body to a design from Pininfarina. In the early 1990s difficulties were experienced in the supply of Fiat internal combustion engines but Group management refused engines from outside companies. The three cylinder Fiat Sofim diesel engine was tried out on the smaller trucks but for most of the diesel vehicles an 8000 series farm tractor engine was fitted on the 20 to 30 quintal payload models, while a single exception was made in the case of a Lombardini engine for the little 15 to 18 quintal payload trucks Suitable Fiat petrol engines were not available so OM was obliged to buy Continental engines with a GPL gas conversion. These vehicles were inserted in the sales list with a “G” suffix for the gas powered option. In the mid-1990s OM presented its own new system of electric power for forklift trucks, the asynchronous motor, fed by tri-phase current from a specific type of inverter. This was first intended for the 20 to 30 quintal payload trucks and these were identified by the letters FASE. The advantage of this system lies in the absolute reliability of electric motors. In this case, the two motors (for traction and for the hydraulic lifting pump), use alternating current switch, with the energy recovered, both from the braking system effort and from the lowering of the lifting frame, combine to achieve low levels of energy consumption and infrequent battery charging. The technical advances of the electronic control system (CAN-BUS) and the absence of old components such as contact fuses and brushes reduce costs by minimizing maintenance time, as well as creating a vehicle that is pleasant to drive and comfortably reliable. At the International Trade Fair of Hannover in 1995, the underwater working demonstration of the electronic system made a very good impression. At the end of the 1990s Linde, (who already owned a majority share in OM and who continued to buy up ordinary shares), began OM commercial policy by withdrawing niche market and low sales models that it had produced steadily throughout the decade, with the intention of replacing these by its own production programme. The strong synergy of the OM and Pimespo collaboration had led to a series of design innovations created first by Giugiaro in the 1990s and later by Zagato in the early years of the new millennium. The Zagato design was best seen in the 12 to 30 quintal payload range.

The “XE” code was for electric models while diesel engines were “XD” and “XG” referred to the GPL gas trucks. The engines of these last two were furnished by Yanmar for the diesel and Nissan, for the GPL. The Zagato design offered modern but functional lines with an ergonomic driving position, a carefully thought out dashboard layout and efficient electronic instrumentation. These characteristics plus a multitude of optional functions confirmed the company’s ability to build strong and up to date products. Among optional extras offered to the electric model trucks featured a lateral battery extraction system that could be used with a trans-pallet to perform rapid battery changes. Linde continued to augment gradually its participation in the administration of the company. In 2003, it bought from Fiat the last remaining 25% of OM shares and the company title was changed to “OM Forklift Trucks Ltd”. In the meantime, the OM Head office was relocated from Milan to Lainate. From 2010 onwards, the OM and STILL forklift trucks ranges were amalgamated and in Italy, these products have been sold for several years under the OM STILL name.