The Right Time for Electric

Written by Paul Hutchings

Those working indoors at factories or processing facilities are very familiar with forklifts zipping around during a busy day. They may not often think about the fact that thanks to the electric motor, they are not developing medical conditions from harmful exhaust fumes.

That is thanks in part to companies like Inmotion, based out of Blacksburg, Virginia. The company has been building and supplying electric motors, controllers, and auxiliary equipment to the industrial vehicle industry since the 1960s. Its experience can be traced back to the 1940s when it started as an electromechanical solutions supplier.

In 1967, the company was known as GME Systems and made customized electronics for various purposes. In 1989, GME was acquired by Atlas Copco, a Swedish industrial manufacturing company, and the company’s name was changed to Atlas Copco Controls. Then, ten years later, Atlas Copco Controls was acquired by Danaher Corporation, and the company name became Inmotion Technologies. The name was officially changed to Inmotion in 2014, after an acquisition by Zapi S.p.A, an Italian manufacturing company founded in the mid-70s by Giannino Zanichelli, an engineer and entrepreneur highly motivated to invest in electronic motion control at a time when its enormous potential was visible only to a few.

Other than material handling vehicles, Inmotion supplies motion control components internationally for buses, trucks, and various types of construction equipment. Somewhere, a farmer is using a tractor with an Inmotion component to plow a field. A golfer shooting for a birdie is driving in a golf cart containing an Inmotion motor. Aerial platforms, cranes, turf equipment like lawnmowers: Inmotion has supplied them all.

And Engineering Manager David Coulson said the company is just getting warmed up.

Inmotion launched its first AC inverters for electric forklifts twenty-three years ago, which turned out to be the starting point for the conversion from DC to AC technology for the entire material-handling market. From there, it naturally followed to start supplying to all those other industries. There are even some robots out there that are working on lines or in the field due to the company.

Coulson said the company has a fairly extensive client list. With sales and application centers in Blacksburg, Stockholm, Shanghai and Tokyo, it truly enjoys the benefits of doing business on an open international market. Some companies, he said, do only one thing, but Inmotion can do it all.

“We develop controllers and motors. Some companies do one or the other, but this is something that sets us apart,” he said. “We do controller development in Stockholm and the motor development here in Blacksburg. By providing both controllers and motors, we’re all in lockstep.”

As a result, he said, the company has been able to solve more problems than companies that handle fewer aspects of the electric motor system. Inmotion’s staff can extract as much performance out of a system as possible. “The benefit of providing both controller and motor allow for a completely optimized system,” he added.

The company uses a strategy that Coulson calls “in-region-for-region.” That is where the production of Inmotion components is replicated in multiple regions to serve customers better. It enables clients to minimize lead times and logistics and inventory costs.

The use of electric vehicles has become an important aspect in solving the ongoing climate change issue. Coulson said the interest in electrifying is worldwide and called it the right thing to do. He said it is also about energy responsibility.

“I’d say the electrification of vehicles has exploded in the last twenty years, and a large part of that is the material handling market,” he said. “We’re seeing vehicle manufacturers pushing for higher efficiencies, and that’s driving changes in motor and controller technologies. These higher efficiencies are achieved through motor topologies, control technologies, manufacturing processes, and material selection.

Of course, the bonus in all this is getting more vehicles off fossil fuels. In looking forward, Coulson said Inmotion could very well supply the car companies in the future.

“We’re in periphery markets en route to supplying auto companies eventually, but we’re not in that lane yet,” he said. “We’re more into construction vehicles, material handling, AGV, and on road buses, but there certainly is an increasing demand for more electric (in cars and trucks) – if you look back just five years, you’ll see the growth and trends.”

He called his industry an interesting one. Changes are commonplace. There are many players and competition, and Coulson said developing new technologies to get a customer on a new, more efficient vehicle is a very good thing for everyone.

The company has many new projects set to roll out, according to Coulson. It is currently working on an expansion at its Blacksburg facility. The company will be releasing a new product called GSM, which is a 50-kilowatt generator line that will be launching in Blacksburg mid-2020.

Another product making its debut this year is the RSM line which is a rugged spoke motor for vehicle pump applications. Coulson explained that this product is designed to give optimum performance and high efficiency. Inmotion will also be releasing what Coulson called a traction motor. This new product will be suited for vehicle traction applications where higher speeds are required.

Design and application in real life, of course, can be a tricky thing. But Inmotion has become used to meeting challenges.

“For all of these, it’s a balance of designing for efficiency and trying to dial in material selection for cause,” he said. “Obviously efficiency leads to battery life, which is a big driver. For each one of these applications, it’s like we’re trying to design the motor to fit the application of the vehicle; that’s how we do it.”

With a background in electromagnetics, Coulson has been with Inmotion for four years but has been a motor head for twenty-five years. Is he the guy to call when someone wants to electrify their gasoline vehicle? He chuckled at that and said that he is the guy to call when you want to figure out what kind of electric motor to use in your vehicle.

He loves being an engineer, and he hopes that the love of solving problems he and the company have comes through in every project.

“I’d say, in engineering, there are always problems to solve, but real tough ones come along every couple of years or so,” he said. “You don’t solve those quickly; you have to dive very deep and understand all details and requirements of the system. That’s the challenging thing, and when the customer ends up with a solution and we know we really had to pull out all the stops to get there, that’s pretty cool, and we get to experience that here.”

Coulson recalled a recent project where there were some challenges with a generator application, and it was not something that could be solved with a computer model. He and his coworkers had to get the entire system into the company facilities. “This was a situation where we needed to understand every detail of the customer application and provide a fully optimized solution.” It was not easy, he said, but it was satisfying to solve.

“At Inmotion we use our quality management system and product development processes to provide fit for function products. At the end of the day our top priority is to satisfy the customer. This is a culture that is reinforced by Zapi S.p.A – the customer comes first always. That’s the attitude, the culture, the bottom line here.”

Asked which direction Inmotion needs to go next, Coulson hesitates. That hesitation is present because there is just so much to consider.

“I think actually determining what to work on next might be the most challenging,” he said. “There is so much in this industry that we could work on and develop, but the hardest part is on that very front end, determining what the most important part of the big picture is. But I believe we’re on the right track; I really do.”

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