In a recent interview with FMC, General Manager Chuck Durst, Product Development Manager Nick Heemskerk and Business Development and Marketing Manager Gene Johnson shared with Ground Support Magazine some of the company's history as well as FMC's vision for the future including some new products due to launch in the coming year.
FMC History & Business Structure
So many times, equipment from one industry gets modified to fit into another. Such is the case with FMC's citrus sprayer technology that ultimately morphed into deicing equipment applications.
"In the 1880's, there was an invention called the "Continuous Spray Pump" that was developed by John Bean," explains Gene Johnson. "That became the basis for FMC Corporation, which was formed in 1920 in San Jose, CA. That citrus pump and subsequent improvements to it became the technology basis for the first FMC deicer. Next year, we will be celebrating our 40th year in the GSE business."
Chuck Durst interjects, "Actually, there are still a number of those in service today. They're in Japan, the US, -- they're everywhere."
Johnson adds, "Similarly, some of the other GSE businesses were outgrowths of experience we've had and acquisitions. Our defense business became the basis for our wide-body loader, the predecessor to the Commander, which was also in the 1960's. Our conventional tractor line and our towbarless tractor line were the result of acquisitions of Krauss Mafei and Jetway."
Durst outlines the three areas that are the focus for FMC's business:
1. To provide delivered quality - the way we define that is not just products, but the experience of buying and the service that we provide as well.
2. After sales support - In this business, it's not just providing a product but that product needs to perform and be reliable and it has to have high utilization on the ramp. So how well we support it and how well we keep our product in good condition and provide the knowledge for maintenance and so forth to our customer is a function of how well of a supplier we are to those customers.
3. Value added technology - We don't just want to provide technology for the sake of technology, we want to make sure that we are innovating from the perspective of what the customer values and try to understand their business and their application and develop products and features that actually provide solutions.
"There's a variety of customers out there," says Durst, "and one of the key things that we've done to our designs and that we're focusing on is to make sure that we provide a modularity to our product so that without a lot of engineering, we can cover a spectrum of technical requirements."
"We see a growth in narrow-body aircraft because of the low cost airlines and the products to service that industry is obviously an area of growth and one that we're focusing on," offers Durst. "We also have projects for all of our products to satisfy the A380. One other trend that we think will happen is that the towbarless tractor will grow and expand into the U.S. It's pretty much widely accepted in Europe, but it's just starting to be accepted in the U.S. and we think that that trend will continue because of the economics of the towbarless tractor. It depends on your operating procedures, but basically, you can reduce personnel and they are also more time-efficient. You can operate more gates with one tractor because of its efficiencies."
Durst continues, "Another trend we see is the need for development of products that utilize alternative fuels. We're doing a lot of work with electrics right now. Down the road, we expect that GSE may convert to fuel cell technology once it's developed and the infrastructure is in place at the airports. The electrics are the first step to that ultimate fuel. Beyond that, it's what the engine manufacturers are doing to improve emissions."
Keeping on the subject of alternate fuels, Nick Heemskerk explains, "We're very comfortable with our electric powered equipment development. We have a conventional tractor that is electric-powered. We have a range of technology levels - the conventional tractor is the simplest, we have an electric-powered loader - Commander 15e that we've had in ramp trials for close to a year now. We can do 11 aircraft load / unloads, which basically is like a shift in a normal operation, maybe a bit more than a shift so we're comfortable that we can offer that as a kit to convert existing or build new loaders with electric power. Basically, the philosophy for all of our electric products is that we design the product in a 'fuel-neutral' way, which means that we can offer them either with one or two different types of diesel engines or with an electric version to meet the customer preferences. The controls, the operation and to some extent, the maintenance, stays the same."
Heemskerk adds that FMC is working on an electric towbarless tractor that should be launching in 2004.
Quick overview of major products:
Aircraft Container and Pallet Loaders - FMC's flagship product - the Commander loader line. The group says that over 5,000 units of the Commander line have been sold to the commercial segment and that most of them are still in service.
As Heemskerk mentioned previously, in 2004, FMC is planning to introduce a significant product improvement of the 15,000-lb. Commander loader called the 15i. "What we've done is we've taken a good design and improved it with regard to reliability and maintainability," says Heemskerk. "To the layperson, they probably won't be able to tell the difference, if it's a maintenance person or engineer, they will be very excited because of the detailed improvements to the electrical and hydraulic systems. Those improvements are focused on maintainability and reliability and maybe the most significant one is to be used for PLC, which gives us diagnostic and monitoring functions." He continues, "We've done some extensive testing to make sure that these new solutions are more robust than the proven technology that they're replacing. For an example, we made some changes to the hydraulic manifolds and we are taking our new manifolds through one million cycles to test them. Our PLC can be operated completely submerged under water. Electrical systems on the ramp tend to attract water and sooner or later, somebody is going to leave the door of the electrical compartment open and with conditions such as rain or 100 percent humidity as we have here in Florida, water will get in there. Right now, we're testing it in-house, but it is about to go to an airport. There are actually two prototypes - one in Europe and one in the U.S."
Aircraft Tow Tractors - " We have a full line of conventional tractors," says Heemskerk. "Our Towbarless tractors, a product line we acquired from German-based Krauss Maffei in 1998. What we're doing right now is revamping the product line and we're marketing them under the name, Expediter. We are rounding out the product line and revamping it and we're getting some common features in there such as simple operation, very rugged design -- designed for ramp use not for a theoretical nice life in the showroom. One of the important features is the inherent anti-jackknifing design for safety."
"Think of a hot rod driving down the speedway and it starts to skid sideways and they throw out a parachute and it forces it to straighten out in the rear," says Durst. "The rear is pulled back in a very simple description, the design causes that to happen rather than having the front wheels grab and the rear wheels will go forward. We've not had any jackknifing incidents with our equipment."
Heemskerk explains FMC's conventional tractor, the smallest is the 40000-lb. tractor but it can be ballasted as light as 28,000-lb. "You can do an RJ with that," he says. "With our towbarless tractor, the smallest aircraft we can handle is the BAE 146. We're working on a modification to our largest tractor, the Expediter 600, to handle the A380. Actually, our largest towbarless tractor could handle a passenger version A380 today, but it's kind of a squeeze."
Finally, Heemskerk shares that they are doing development work on the Tempest Deicer. "It differs that it's not built on the over-the road chassis that has been modified to accommodate fluid tanks, and a boom, etc.," he explains. "We developed a deicer from the ground up. We took very heavy axles and purpose-designed a chassis on top of that. It makes a much more stable platform for the deicing. We are able to include many operational cost savings such as single-engine design and very good maintenance access to all the components. Market reception has been positive and we've sold units in US, Europe and Asia. To meet demands from Europe we have incorporated a proportional mix system into the Tempest."
But, isn't building from the ground up more expensive?
"Our designed chassis that is the platform for the Tempest is actually cost-effective versus trying to buy a chassis from the industry," offers Durst. "If you think about it, in the trucking industry, they're making these chassis for a lot of different applications -- the last of which is for a deicer. Second, we have to modify their chassis in order to make it work properly for a deicer. Also, truck manufacturers are continually changing their chassis models and we're trying to keep up with the engineering to interface our equipment with those changes. We can control our chassis design and because we make it ourselves and because it is designed for its purpose, we can react and be more responsive to the customer."
What about airport infrastructure?
"There's a whole variety of airports out there," says Durst. "If you go into the Houston terminal that was just expanded, they've designed it for electric. The other example on the polar extreme is at LAX in Los Angeles and Heathrow in London where it would be very difficult to get electrics in there. Each customer and airport has a different profile and electrics will most likely not be a solution for all; however, there are electrics in every airport if they have a boarding bridge. Jetway has the capability of providing the battery chargers right off of the boarding bridge to the GSE equipment because the power is already there. Not every airline thinks that way but the boarding bridge and the GSE are typically not working at the same time. And so, that power feed could be used to electrify even an airport like LAX. In reality though, it's the customers who are deciding what direction they want to go and in working with them, we're responding to that. We aren't going to put product out there and drag the customers along. The infrastructure really is the driver for anything that we do on a power system."
From the design point of view of electrics, Heemskerk feels that FMC is positioned well. "We're comfortable that we're there. There are going to be those customers that will have a big fleet of equipment of which maybe 10, 15, or 20 percent will be electric-powered depending on the particular requirements at a station. We'll have equipment that in many ways is identical. It will be transparent to the operator, except that it won't make noise and it won't produce pollution.
Durst adds, "The work that we're doing on electric power actually prepares us for fuel cell technology when it emerges. We think that it's a number of years away, but as we develop and improve the capabilities of our products to function on electric power, then we're also improving them to function on fuel cell. On our loader, we found a number of things that we were able to modify and improve to make it perform better under electric power than diesel power. It performed better under electrics than under the design that was built for diesel, so we made some modifications that tailored it better for electric power and allowed it to perform better. That's the kind of learning that we're going through."