Forklift designer sees importance of his product

Bill De Vries ’88


Fall 2013

Perhaps that workhorse of a vehicle—the forklift—deserves more respect.

After all, as Bill De Vries ’88 noted, “Anything you buy in a store was probably touched and moved by a forklift truck.”

He also observes that while the forklift is treated as the “tool of the common man” in the States, internationally the vehicle is treated as a “professional tool for the professional operator.” Thus, forklifts last longer—because they are treated better—abroad.

De Vries knows forklifts. He is a senior manager of product engineering at UniCarriers Americas Corp., a company formed by the merger of Nissan Forklift and TCM. After a number of other positions in different aspects of engineering, he is glad to be back in mechanical engineering, the emphasis of his major at Calvin.

“Forklift trucks have lots of structural design,” he explained. “They can lift from 3,000 to 15,000 pounds and have all of the same elements as automobiles, but with hydraulics and heavy structural aspects.”

De Vries’ work is based in Marengo, a far northwest suburb of Chicago, near Rockford. He has now managed three major product launches; for forklifts there’s a seven-year design cycle, which is different than the annual design changes on cars.

“I manage a group of engineers who move through each design cycle from concept to prototype to production trials to the start of production,” he said. With four distinct forklift types—from sit-down internal combustion models to low-lift pallet trucks—the new design on each is staggered so they are at different places in the production calendar.

“There is always something new to apply,” De Vries said. Lately, designs involving hybrids, fuel cells, auto-guided technology and electric-powered engines are being tested.

It all started at Calvin, where De Vries worked on a student engineering design team that built a human-powered vehicle—basically a reclining tricycle with a shell covering.

“I’m sure today it is rusting in someone’s barn,” De Vries laughed. “But it was an excellent experience to design and build it. We put a lot of time into that senior project; it was good team training.”

To young Calvin engineering grads, he gives this counsel: “Find a job that holds your interest. Variety in the work is always good to have. Never stop learning. Make ethical decisions, being honest about who you are. How you treat people, especially cross-functionally, shows others that you are different.”

From Calvin, De Vries worked with two consulting companies in Chicago, developing structural and civil engineering projects—one emphasizing hydropower plants and the other centering on highway and railroad bridges and underwater structures. Those positions were interesting, but De Vries remained on the lookout for mechanical engineering openings; the Nissan forklift opportunity caught his attention.

Another involvement that brings De Vries both challenge and joy is his work and witness through Rockford Sharefest. He uses his hands-on skills as a team leader in general construction, carpentry and project management in this endeavor.

“If you’ve ever seen ‘Extreme Home Makeover’ on television, that’s what we do, but on a larger scale, renovating public schools in need of updating and repairs,” he explained.

This year’s project was Jefferson High School, updating several special education classrooms, replacing all of the ceiling tile, updating the teacher’s lounge, modernizing the library, removing carpeting, painting classrooms and lockers, renovating the computer lab and the list goes on. Over the nine-day project 3,606 volunteers participated.

“Every shift started with an introduction of what we planned to accomplish during that shift and then an opening prayer,” said De Vries. “Each shift ended with report from team leaders of what their crew accomplished and a closing prayer. It is truly amazing to see what can be accomplished when a community as large as Rockford comes together through Christ to complete a project as large as Sharefest.”