Clark Equipment Company was so pleased with the product that its competitors were invited to look at it. And they came. Every US manufacturer of forklift trucks was represented at the motel meeting room near Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where a muted chartreuse truck dominated the viewing area.
The competitors gathered here last week expressed little interest in the truck itself - after all, they are competitors. Rather, their attention was focused on a new wingback-seat safety system which could save hundreds of lives and save manufacturers millions of dollars in court settlements.
The safety system, developed by Clark engineers with the help of a sophisticated computer modeling program, now is being offered to competitors on a royalty-free basis. Its components and installation time are being offered to Clark dealers and industrial customers free. That includes the installer's travel time to a warehouse site and the hour and a half the installation is expected to take.
''No one has sole possession of all the devices that make forklift-truck operations safer,'' explained Gene W. Krause, senior vice-president of Clark, which is headquartered in Buchanan, Mich. ''What we're trying to do is set a tone of cooperation so these kinds of safety innovations will be shared by everyone in our industry.''
Ironically, many of the serious and sometimes fatal accidents that occur when a forklift truck tips over are the result of an older safety innovation, a see-through overhead guard that prevents the operator from getting hit by falling objects. The computer model showed that the operator was liable to be pinned under a bar supporting the overhead structure.
''Our goal is to install this new equipment on as many Clark lift trucks in the field as possible,'' said David Brockway, vice-president and general manager of the company's industrial truck division. ''We hope to have the first retrofit kits to our dealers by the end of this month.''
Mr. Brockway estimates the entire program will end up costing Clark nearly $8 million. The program includes a direct-mail campaign to inform customers of the program, plus media advertising. He estimates retrofitting will occur on about 35,000 forklift trucks.
The wingback chair and lap seatbelt are designed to prevent the operator's body from falling beneath the overhead-guard structure. In a videotaped demonstration, Chicago stuntman and test driver Hank Baumert demonstrated that all the impact was absorbed by the wing of the seat on his shoulder. His head missed the floor altogether.