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STILL and elobau develop innovative steering wheel for order pickers

As one of the world's leading manufacturers of industrial trucks, STILL GmbH says it attaches particular importance to developing trucks that make work easier for users.

For the order pickers of the OPX product line and other vehicles, an operating concept was to be developed that set new standards in terms of ergonomics and robustness. The result is a steering wheel similar to that found in a car which, at first glance, might appear better suited for a Formula 1 car than an order picker. It allows both left-​handed and right-​handed operators to easily steer the vehicle, move forwards and backwards, operate hydraulic functions as well as actuate the horn and brake – all with one hand and without repositioning.

Proven partnership and new challenges

Having placed the basic design of the steering wheel in the hands of long-​standing design partner Teams Design from Hamburg, the premium manufacturer turned to elobau for the realization and production. STILL and elobau are also joined by a longer shared history. Already in 2005, the specialist for sensor technology and operating elements from Leutkirch im Allgäu produced the first multi-​function lever for the reach truck produced at that time. From 2010 until 2014, both companies worked closely together on a multi-​functional joystick for reach trucks and counterbalanced trucks.

In designing the steering wheel for the OPX models, the developers from elobau worked together not only with the STILL company headquarters in Hamburg, but largely with the firm’s Italian location in Luzzara, where the vehicles are produced. This lent the cooperation an international character.

Efficiency meets comfort

Efficient warehousing processes are especially important for logistics providers. Particularly in times of increasing range of variety and variants, order picking plays a crucial role. In areas where there is high stock turnover under time pressure and long distances need to be covered, the operators of industrial trucks have their hands full. This applies, for example, in the distribution centers of the food trade or in the automobile industry.

During the development of its new order picker, STILL GmbH therefore focused on operating comfort to facilitate efficient work. A central part of the concept is the STILL EASY Drive steering wheel. For the development and production of the innovative operating element, the company relied on the partnership with elobau.

STILL EASY Drive Lenkrad OPX

A hard core for maximum loads

Tipping the scales for the cross-​border cooperation were, above all, the competence and experience of the elobau developers. “After we demonstrated that we can meet the high strength requirements that STILL had in mind for the steering wheel, the decision was made to work together with us, even on an international basis,” recalls Mario Halwachs, Key Account Manager Material Handling at elobau. Because the strength of the components is unique on the market: the steering wheel can withstand a load of more than 2,400 newtons without deforming.

“The high robustness was a central requirement for guaranteeing our customers low maintenance costs,” explains Jürgen Wrusch, trade press officer at STILL GmbH. During the design process of the STILL EASY Drive, it was important to ensure this strength and, at the same time, integrate both elements for vehicle control – including electronics – in the steering wheel with zero backlash. elobau implemented these requirements by using a welded component consisting of three parts. The developers used FEM analyses (Finite Element Methods) to prove that the self-​supporting construction would withstand the desired load.

Everything under control

All controls on the EASY Drive steering wheel are dual, in a mirrored arrangement. This means that both left-handed and right-handed drivers can control the vehicle with one hand at all times and operate all function keys without having to reach around. The driving controls are integrated into the steering wheel. This allows drivers to determine the direction of movement without having to let go in between.

STILL EASY Drive Lenkrad frontansicht

From concept to series production

Challenges arose during the project, primarily due to the high complexity of the components. “A steering wheel that consists of a single part on which all functions can be operated with one hand without repositioning has not been available on the market in this form up to now,” explains Halwachs.

Two developers for the mechanics and two for the electronics, together with the team from STILL, brought the project from concept to series production in a development time of nearly three years. In an iterative process, there was going development, testing, redefinition of requirements and the development subsequently adapted. To test whether the steering wheel would actually meet the ergonomic requirements, STILL conducted usage tests with fully functional prototypes constructed by elobau.

Brand-​specific look and feel of the STILL EASY Drive

An important basis for the flexible process was, according to Halwachs, elobau’s high level of vertical integration: “From the development services and tool manufacturing to the plastic injection moulding plant and even cable assembly, we can do a great deal ourselves, thereby keeping the number of suppliers to a minimum – even with this project,” he explains. For example, the company’s own tool manufacturing facilities developed and manufactured more than 50 tools for the subsequent series production so that the punched plastic parts seamlessly interlock on the steering wheel.

A requirement for the high quality look and feel that the customer knows from other STILL vehicles. A coating of foamed polyurethane on the steering wheel offers drivers grip and comfort even after longer periods of use. The degree of hardness of this so-called soft-​touch coating, as is found on other STILL vehicles, is also among the parameters that were incrementally optimized during the development phase.

STILL EASY Drive Lenkrad OPX
Depending on the vehicle model, optional additional controls are positioned in the direct fall line behind the driving controls and are therefore easy to reach without the driver having to let go of the steering wheel.

A well-​protected electronic heart

In addition to the strength and operating comfort, another requirement from STILL was that the electronics of the steering wheel be protected in accordance with protection class IP67. This means that absolutely no dust can penetrate the electronics from the outside and that the components could theoretically be submerged up to one meter under water. In practice, the high standards are also due to the fact that the industrial trucks are used in, e.g., refrigerated warehouses. Even larger temperature difference must not, therefore, result in condensing water affecting the electronic components.

A name with meaning: STILL EASY DRIVE

Because of the one-​handed operation, the center console could not be overly large. The creativity and experience of the developers was called upon due to the limited installation space, for example, to seal the main board under the display from both above as well as from below. To this end, a test was first performed to determine what was even possible, given the small installation space.

STILL EASY DRIVE: innovation for the benefit of consumers

STILL presented the OPX models as the “sports car among horizontal pickers” in Luzzara. STILL emphasised the driving pleasure and ease of use of the trucks as a special feature in its communication. The new series was also well received by the trade audience. The series was a finalist in the ‘Special of the year’ category for the IFOY AWARD of the VDMA Materials Handling and Intralogistics Association. This year, the STILL EXH-S 25 low-lift truck is among the nominees – and the STILL EASY Drive steering wheel is of course included.

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