Documenting history

Documenting history

By Paul Wagener

Product Documentation and Application Engineer

I’ve spent over thirty years at Big Joe, and as I prepare for life away from my long time in home in the Engineering Department, I’ve been asked to relay a few bits of wisdom and perspective, so here it goes.

I have a degree in Industrial Design from the University of Wisconsin Stout.  The program differed from a pure engineering emphasis in that while there were traditional engineering courses, I also took graphic design and art courses.  Many skills from that curriculum were put to regular use during my time at Big Joe. In addition to technical drafting I worked a great deal with the visual elements such as product labelling, overall product appearance and product support literature. I carved prototype parts in clay and in wood and fabricated a working scale forklift model from wood, foam, aluminum and plastic. These were the days when Engineering departments were just beginning to use 2D CAD programs, AutoCAD was in its infancy and 3D programs like SolidWorks did not exist yet! 

I was hired on by Lee Wittaker, who had been involved with NASA’s Apollo Project while at GE and later was in the Engineering Department at Raymond forklifts before joining Big Joe.  Lee was Big Joe’s Engineering Manager when I joined and supervised all product development as well as providing product support. He saw my Industrial Design skillset as something that could be valuable to Big Joe, and brought me aboard. My life with forklifts and the world of material handling began in earnest.  Under his guidance, what is now called the Classic truck series was either refined or redesigned, with some of that product now bearing the IBH and PDX nameplates.  I learned a lot working under Lee.  He had an interesting perspective on product development that has stayed with me to this day: “If engineers are allowed to make all the decisions, the product would never be finished or cost too much.  If the salesmen make all the decisions, the finished product will never make any money.”

The point is successful product development requires multiple disciplines working together, respecting and learning from each other’s areas of expertise.  

Looking back, I see Lee’s influence still pulsing through the building today and I have had the pleasure of serving under several other excellent Engineering Managers after Lee’s retirement. There has always been a direct interface between Big Joe engineers, our sales team and the end users.  Salesmen are good at finding out what the customers need while protecting the Engineer from unmanageable interruptions.  Engineering has the knowledge base to provide a truck that will successfully meet the customers unique needs.  Our trucks are born out of open communication and an exchange of ideas.  They reflect the things that the users actually need, not the options we want to sell them and that makes us different.  We have the unique ability to match truck specs and duty cycles with special attachments or adaptations to provide a custom yet cost effective solution.  That skillset and communication is getting harder and harder to find in today’s volume driven lift truck market.

As the Product Documentation and Application Engineer, I’ve built an extensive database of custom designed forklifts that we’re constantly referring to for new RFQs.  One area Big Joe has a long and continuous history with is building custom trucks for loading and unloading industrial furnaces used in heat treating and other similar process.  Almost every furnace has a level of customization for the end user’s process, and the manufacturers involve us extensively in designing and building highly customized trucks for the loading and unloading operations.  We’re able to go back to the vaults to find similar design parameters, so that we’re not starting from scratch each time.

A close up of special independently adjustable lift and lower speed restricting valves plus a custom lift height limit switch with an override button to bypass the lift limit and raise the forks to full lift height.

I’ve probably been involved in more than 100 custom built forklifts for furnace applications.  It doesn’t sound like much, unless you know how much time and effort goes into such a specialized unit.  The furnaces themselves are extremely expensive and surprisingly delicate.  They’re lined with refractory materials that can be easily damaged, making repairs from loading and unloading extremely costly.  It is imperative that the loader enters and exits the heating chamber precisely, that the load is placed precisely and that the lifting and lowering of the load is precisely controlled.  Special adjustable valves for fine tuning lifting and lowering speeds and adjustable travel speed limiters are frequently employed to protect the furnace and load.  These have all been designed and refined at Big Joe by a diverse team of Engineers I have been fortunate to work with over the years. We have built furnace trucks with load ranges from 500 lb. to over 3,500 lb. The custom lifting tines have been made in a myriad of sizes and shapes with some tines approaching 8 feet in length.  Nearly every truck has a custom straddle OD and carriage OD to fit the furnace.  Many different guide roller configurations are often employed to further assist in entering the furnace. 


A custom 3,500lb capacity furnace loading truck featuring 2” x 5” by 87” fixed fork tines and 8 low height guide rollers for positioning the truck.


A custom 3,000lb capacity furnace loader with 1” x 4” x 55” tines for a shorter load center with fewer guide rollers set higher off the ground.

I must admit to enjoying the amazed looks I get from the other engineers when I mine the database for information on a “historical” build that has come up for replacement, or when a new spec is very similar to a truck I worked on years ago.  The trucks can become one’s “child” all with frustrations and rewards of bringing the design to a finished, shippable product.  We’re always proud when positive feedback comes in after they’re delivered, even more so when we get a request for another one.

Over the years I also worked on some high-volume customized orders for several major retailers.  In one case, we created an order picker based on our manually pushed IBH stacker platform.  It was a unique application for us at the time because it involved lifting both personnel and additional merchandise in a fairly small, lightweight and lower cost product.  We really stretched the envelope, using a tilt table to work on stability and determine limitations.  Because the platform had to have openings to access large bulky products, we came up with an adjustable boom for mounting a self-retracting lanyard and body harness system. Many special tests had to be run, and adjustments made.  We had to adapt the controls so that the operator could raise and lower the platform while standing on it, but still disconnect battery power to the truck in an emergency.  Eventually, the customer upgraded the truck to powered travel, so we had to develop a travel disabling system when the platform was raised over 12”.  We also developed a valve system to meet standards for lowering personnel in case of an emergency and a hang-up valve to meet other design requirements. In the end, I think we built almost 1,000 of what became our OP1 model.  Quite a bit of the engineering that went into that truck was the predecessor to the technology that is being used on our Joey family of task support vehicles today, which gives me a bit of a legacy to be proud of.

A lot of our classic truck series developed over time; I like to call it our Industrial Evolution.   Ideas progressed from truck to truck until you hardly recognize the originator of the series.  As technology improved, so did the trucks, and we did too, as engineers.  I had the unique opportunity to always be learning something new at my job, and when new kids fresh out of school joined the team, I was able to share my knowledge with them.  I also got to pick their brains and keep up on the latest trends in the field.

I’ve worked on a lot of custom trucks in my three plus decades here at Big Joe, some were national accounts with hundreds of deliveries, while many were one-off specialty units.  You don’t really think about it when you’re immersed in the projects, but when I take a step back and survey my career, I have to say I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish, not just of myself, but all the people I’ve worked with over time.  I’ve come to realize that good employees come in all disciplines.   We’ve always had good people here and I’ve enjoyed working with them.  I can’t say enough how much I have benefited from open communication with our welders, machinists and assemblers plus our service and parts people and our sales team.  I still leverage their skills on a daily basis.  People join the team and stay here; we really do have pride in our work and good communication across the board.  It’s that camaraderie I’ll miss the most, I think.