Germany's KION Group, one of the world's largest manufacturers of forklifts, is expanding production at its Summerville plant and adding a new line of vehicles that take advantage of advanced technology such as robotics.
"We are unveiling the most modern range of warehouse equipment available," said Vincent Halma, president and CEO of KION North America, which is based in Summerville.
The company, dominant overseas but still a niche player in the United States, has invested nearly $100 million in its Lowcountry campus over the last five years to add two production lines that will increase annual capacity from 5,000 to 20,000 forklifts by 2020.
KION is hoping to boost its U.S. market share with a line of new products — eight new vehicles under the Linde brand including electric forklifts and the first fully autonomous model.
The new vehicles take advantage of technology gained from KION's $2.1 billion acquisition of Michigan-based Dematic, which develops software and other products for integrated handling of materials in warehouses and distribution centers.
About 300 KION dealers got a sneak peek of the vehicles during a meeting in Summerville this month, and the new products will officially be unveiled in April at the ProMat Expo in Chicago.
KION's products also are among the most environmentally friendly in the industry. Volvo Cars, which builds the S60 sedan at its plant in nearby Ridgeville, in 2017 became the first U.S. automaker to use KION forklifts powered by lithium-ion batteries. More manufacturers have been added to the list since then.
"We see environmentally friendly as one of the major trends in our industry," Halma said. "Lithium-ion technology is a big driver of that. The other trends we're seeing are automation and software integration."
With Dematic's technology, KION is building forklifts that can communicate with a manufacturing plant's operating systems.
"A car is built out of 32,000 parts and they all need to be at the assembly line within a minute," Halma said. "We're trying to combine the hardware and software that's needed to make that execution as quick and coordinated as possible."
There have been some bumps along the way, including the U.S. trade war with China, where half of the KION forklifts sold in the U.S. are built. Anke Groth, the company's chief financial officer, told The Wall Street Journal that U.S. tariffs on Chinese-made parts cost the forklift maker a few million euros last year.
KION reported net income of $455 million on revenues of $9.8 billion in 2018, with the U.S. accounting for about 20 percent of sales.
Groth told the publication that KION is "exploring ways to expand our production in the U.S. to avoid tariffs."
Halma said the Summerville site has 60 acres for future expansion, but any decisions would be based on how well the new models sell.
Finding more U.S. suppliers also is a long-term strategy, although shifting an already well-established supply chain isn't easy.
"Our strategy with the new products we’re launching is to maximize the efficiencies of the global supply chain," Halma said.
KION has been around for more than 100 years, established toward the end of the 19th Century as electric car manufacturer Baker Motor Vehicle Co. In 1984, the company moved its main North American production facility — and, later, its headquarters — to Summerville.
The plant now employs about 250 workers — doubling the number from just a few years ago. In addition to its technology-based production, the South Carolina plant gets 90 percent of its electricity from solar panels.