Moving with the times

posted on 18th March 2019

A number of manufacturers of loaders, high lifts and access platforms offer their plans amid various expectations of further change in this segment of the GSE industry

Many of the big manufacturers of lifts and loaders active in the aviation sector will be building this year on what was a strong 12 months for their business in 2018. One of those suppliers is Florida-based JBT AeroTech, part of JBT Corporation. Says Kevin Cecil, JBT’s engineering manager loaders: “2018 was another growth year for JBT’s cargo loaders. We saw a strong increase in orders for 7-ton loaders for both our Commander and Ranger product lines. Demand for 15-ton loaders remained high as well.”

At TLD, the globally active GSE manufacturer that forms part of the ALVEST group (which also incorporates enterprises such as Sage Parts), Rémi Langlois – chief operating officer at TLD Canada – recalls: “2018 was a very good year on all GSE product lines, especially loaders. The growth of air traffic, especially in China, the fleet renewal of major airlines with aging fleets and the tremendous growth of online commerce have really made the loader market explode over recent years.

“In fact, 2018 was our record year in term of loader sales and 2019 will be even better,” he predicts.

Langlois is based at TLD’s Sherbooke plant in Canada, where the manufacturer produces various loaders such as the 7.5-tonne TXL-838 series, the TXL-737, TXL-737-E, 929 series and 121 series products.

At , the Bridgend, South Wales-headquartered GSE supplier, engineering director Steve Williams informs that its business also performed well last year. In fact, he says: “TBD has significantly expanded our global footprint. We have fulfilled orders received for equipment in the UK and Europe, plus delivered units into the Middle East and as far as Australia.”

And Philipp Schnurr, who is responsible for product management at Oppenau, Germany-based GSE supplier DOLL Fahrzeugbau, also remembers, “a very good year for us, as we increased our total sales comparing to 2018. We also worked on many projects, which, by the middle or end of 2018 had put us in a great position for 2019.”

Schnurr looks back on a number of improvements and additions made to the DOLL portfolio, which includes catering trucks, medical vehicles, cleaning vehicles and maintenance vehicles serving a wide range of aircraft types, over 2018. “We had made some small adaptations on our trucks by the beginning of 2018 to be in line with the latest International Air Transport Association (IATA) standards,” he says.

“Our main goal during this development was to fulfil all required standards coming from IATA or elsewhere without adding costs for our customers. We achieved being ‘cost neutral’ for them with our standard high lift model while fulfilling all the required standards.

“Several safety systems are additionally available from DOLL that are helping our customers to make their work easier and safer – such as our new system called DOLL SAS (Safe Approach System), which is now able to stop the truck before it touches an aircraft.”

As evidence of this successful development, Schnurr points to a recent three-year exclusive partnership agreed with ground services provider dnata – part of the Emirates Group – in North America.

Meanwhile, at TBD, Williams confirms that the company has not introduced any completely new models of late, but has introduced new options to improve aircraft protection and offer enhanced features to the top platform of its loaders, allowing the platforms to be used in a wider range of operations. These features include extra power generators and aircraft protection sensors.

TBD has welcomed Jet2 and Swiss International Airlines as two new customers in recent times, while FedEx and flynas returned to the fold with strong repeat orders – “serving as confirmation of the reliability and performance of our equipment”, Williams says.

Langlois notes that the electrification of loaders is definitely the future and TLD has, as a result, been working to enlarge its electric portfolio. Its electric TXL-737-E (3.5-tonne) loader and TXL-838-reGen (7-tonne) loader have been around for 10 years but – while the market has been slow to switch to electric – it is really happening now,” he opines. To meet that demand, TLD is releasing to the market a new electric 15-tonne loader, the 929-reGen.

There were some significant changes at JBT last year. “During 2018, several new variants of JBT loaders debuted,” informs Cecil. “On the Ranger side of the business, we introduced the Universal (Main Deck) variant which has the ability to service maindeck doors on the bridge.

“In addition, a host of continuous improvement projects came in via customer input and engineering to make both small and more significant changes to the product. On the Commander side of our portfolio, we brought back the High Long for customers who need a loader to service the B767 freighters now becoming more common on the market, new engines to meet customer and regulatory requirements, and the integration of the JBT iOPS telemetry platform on our equipment.” JBT’s Intelligent Operations Performance System, or iOPS, is designed for monitoring equipment status, operations, faults, and diagnostic issues in real time.

The addition and integration of Wales-based AMSS, purchased in 2017, also meant major change for JBT. Cecil regards it as having been good news for both the company and for its loader customers. “New and existing customers can now access the combined GSE product portfolio synergies of AMSS and JBT as a leading global supplier of customised solutions and services for high-value applications in air transportation,” he says.

AMSS was particularly strong in the military market for loaders such as its Atlas K giant.

As of now: “We are still in the process of earning new customers and increasing our business with existing customers, utilising the combined customised solutions and services capabilities of both companies,” Cecil confirms.

Looking ahead

JBT and other loader and platform suppliers are not resting on their laurels. They are all looking to build on last year’s success for another strong year in 2019. Cecil says of JBT’s future: “You will see a focus on continuous improvement, new engines to meet Stage V [emissions] requirements in Europe, additional electric offerings and the next step in autonomous vehicles.

“We previewed a video of our Auto-Docking system, which will become available in 2019 on our Commander and Ranger cargo loaders, at last year’s Las Vegas Expo [held in October],” Cecil continues. “This has been a hot topic in the industry for a few years now, as everyone strives to reduce the number of aircraft strikes from GSE.

“Using a variety of sensors, JBT has displayed a Ranger loader that can autonomously drive, steer, brake, raise the bridge and dock with an aircraft,” he notes.

Many of the changes that JBT is making to its loaders are based directly on customer feedback and their evolving requirements. Thus, says Cecil: “We have not seen a significant shift in the market for specific products, but would say that power trains have become the hot topic in many conversations, especially around electric power.

“The infrastructure seems to be catching up and the regulatory environment is going this way as well.” And, as he observes above, “Auto docking capability to help minimise aircraft strikes is a popular topic among equipment users.”

TLD has also begun looking at the automation of some loader functions to ease the burden on the operator, increase safety around aircraft on the ramp and eventually reduce the cost of operation.

TLD’s Aircraft Safe Docking (ASD) proximity system was integrated onto its loaders a few years ago to limit the speed of the equipment in the vicinity of an aircraft, and the manufacturer is now releasing its ASD+ system, which control’s the loader movements during docking at an aircraft.

Plus, as mentioned above, Langlois and his TLD colleagues are moving ahead with electrification of their loader technology. “We have been really successful lately with our TXL-838-reGen electric loader,” he says. “The fact that it captures back the energy from deceleration during driving and during the main platform descent brings an operational advantage to the user being able to service more aircraft with a single battery charge.”

DOLL, too, has plans for further development of its portfolio of lifts. Broadly speaking, says Schnurr, this involves remaining “in line and ahead of all required [regulatory] standards and to give our customers the best quality all over the world.”

More specifically, he points to increasing demand for electric high lifts, although he insists: “Unfortunately, there is no competitive serial chassis available in the market which can be used as a base for such a high lift [as those produced by DOLL].

TBD’s portfolio of access platforms is also to be further expanded and improved. The company is currently developing a unit with a larger platform but lower payload: one 4.5m long, with 8m lift height and 400kg capacity. “This unit has a traversing platform and is ideal for transferring large bulky items into and out of an aircraft cabin in addition to standard engineering access around both wide and narrowbody aircraft,” Williams says.

For Williams, “Safety is seen as key with most airlines – cheaper low-cost options of this style of equipment are available and we see other competitors mounting commercially available high lifts onto chassis. However, TBD will continue to manufacture bespoke scissor lifts that have been specifically designed to work in the aerospace environment.

“These come with specially selected chassis enabling us to compete on price, however. TBD also supports customers by providing suitable training and through-life product support,” he declares.

Evolving technology

The development of new technology is bringing change to the loader/lift/access platform segment of the on-airport aviation services industry. For JBT, “Technology will always be something that we have to take into account,” confirms Cecil. “Developing products that are easy to operate, maintain and provide information to JBT and the end user on productivity improvements is the best way to utilise this.

“Technology is constantly improving and pricing will come down as it is adopted by more users, allowing ideas that were once not achievable to become a reality,” he adds.

TLD’s Langlois informs: “Other than the previously discussed electrification and automation issues, we are introducing the TLD Link system in all our equipment. TLD Link is a telecommunication system placed on-board GSE that will be used to live-monitor the equipment, record usage logs and unit performance history, and alert customers or technicians to the changing status of their units. This will be able to interface with any fleet management system,” Williams says.

TBD, meanwhile, is already using the CANbus technologies that can offer wireless remote control of the lift to assist in the precise positioning of the platform. Coupling this with a contactless aircraft sensing system can further reduce the risk to aircraft when working is close proximity, he says.

And DOLL’s Schnurr agrees with Williams that safety remains a key concern for customers. “More and more safety is needed from year to year and that’s why we have to improve our models constantly,” he says. “We are in close contact with all the standardisation committees and are a member of the European EN committee. This gives us the opportunity to be involved and to have a chance to influence new standards directly from the beginning.”