Ron Jensen, vice-president and general manager of Mobile Equipment Systems in Seattle, demonstrates a two-lever air-shift console for controlling dump and pup trailers.
HYDRAULIC systems are one of those niches that enable a company to offer a lot of products from a limited number of parts.
Whether it's power take-offs, valves, or custom control cables, a distributor who stakes out that territory can offer customers exactly what they need without having to special order or keep a huge range of parts on the shelves. The key is to be able to mix and match individual parts in order to produce a component that does the job that the customer requires.
Companies such as Mobile Equipment Systems in Seattle, Washington, do just that. But to make it work, they need greater expertise in hydraulic systems in exchange for those lower inventory levels.
“The parts business is highly competitive,” says Ron Jensen, vice-president and general manager. “Especially now when so many people think they can get what they need off the Internet. It may be possible, but you really have to know what you're doing. Generally it doesn't work otherwise. People call us all the time after they bought something online and installed it themselves. We wind up fixing what went wrong. You can't just buy a bunch of parts and put them together. You need to keep the entire system in mind. That's why ‘systems’ is part of our company name.”
Mobile Equipment Systems stocks the parts required to put those systems together, including control consoles, custom control cables, hydraulic tanks, as well as power take-offs, pumps, and valves.
A Mobile Equipment Systems technician assembles a bank of hydraulic control valves to meet a specific customer requirement.
“We call our company Mobile Equipment Systems for a reason,” Jensen says. “When we take on the responsibility of designing the hydraulic system, it makes it a lot easier on the customer, and it results in a bigger sale for us. And down the road if the customer needs service, he has single-source accountability. He doesn't have to worry about multiple suppliers pointing fingers at one another if something goes wrong. If the issue is related to the hydraulic system, the customer can look to us to make it right.”
Foundation for sales
Mobile Equipment Systems relies on power take-offs as the foundation of its business.
“I can build a single power take-off 30 different ways,” Jensen says. “Chelsea PTOs are what gets us in the door. That's our bread and butter, and we stock a lot of them. We have to make sure that we have plenty of them in stock. From there, it's Commercial pumps. We build them to the customer's application. That allows us to do a lot with a limited inventory.”
The company does the same thing with its line of Gresen & Commercial valves, building up banks of control valves to match the needs of the customer's specific system.
“The key is flexibility. We stock left covers, right covers, and multiple sections,” Jensen says. “We have a specialist in the back who assembles them, then I inspect them. If a customer calls us, we generally can ship them to him the same day.”
Jensen says Mobile Equipment Systems does not distribute a wide range of products. Instead, the company prefers to be experts in the lines that they do represent.
Rounding out the parts that make up a hydraulic system, the company represents American Mobile hydraulic tanks, Wescon cables that Mobile Equipment Systems technicians machine to customer specifications, and Air Power Systems (APSCO) air controls.
“That's it basically,” Jensen says.
Avoiding retail sales
Nor does Mobile Equipment Systems have a large number of customers. Rather than selling at retail, the company sells primarily to truck equipment distributors, the small truck body manufacturers who sell direct, truck dealers, and a few fleet accounts.
“We don't turn away from retail, but our preference is to deal with truck equipment distributors,” Jensen says. “Retail takes a lot of sales and engineering time. I would rather train a truck equipment distributor one time on the fine points of hydraulic systems so that he in turn can work with his retail customer. We really don't want to go sell to the end user. That's my distributor's customer. We are here to support our distributors with engineering services.”
This approach to the market enables the company to serve parts of Canada and the United States. Mobile Equipment Systems sells in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, along with the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.
“We are a little company that covers a big territory,” Jensen says.
Trends in hydraulics
One of the trends Jensen sees developing in mobile hydraulics is a move toward higher operating pressures.
“We see a lot of equipment coming in from Europe that operates at 5,000 psi,” Jensen says. “There was a time that our 3,000-psi operating pressure was considered high. I would not be surprised if 5,000 psi eventually becomes the standard here in the United States.”
The need for weight savings is helping to drive the switch to higher operating pressures.
“In Europe, gasoline sells for nine dollars per gallon,” Jensen says. “People are trying to save fuel every way they can, and one way to save fuel is to save weight. Do you really want to carry a lot of extra weight when gas costs that much?”
Mobile Equipment Systems is equipped to make custom control cables.
Higher pressure systems can use smaller cylinders that weigh substantially less. Jensen illustrates the weight savings by pointing out that a hydraulic cylinder weighing 600 pounds operating at 5,000 psi generates the same amount of force as a 1,100-pound cylinder operating at 3,000 psi. Furthermore, systems operating at higher pressures do not require is much oil. And with less oil to be carried around, higher pressure systems have an additional weight advantage.
Higher pressures and less oil in the system sound like a recipe for elevated oil temperatures. However, heat generated by the higher pressures is not a problem, Jensen says.
“If a system is designed properly, heat will not be a problem. And the presence of a special cooler to me is just a band-aid for an improperly designed system.”
With Europe setting the pace for high-pressure hydraulic systems, Jensen says it's important to know your metric system — and to make sure that a systems approach is utilized. Every piece of the system must be designed to operate at higher pressures.
Keeping them going
Jensen believes that maintenance of hydraulic systems is becoming more of a challenge.
The challenge is especially stiff when computer controls are involved. While solid-state controls are reliable, they require a different skill set from the traditional low-pressure hydraulic systems mechanically controlled by air or cables.
“As things get more sophisticated, we have to ask who is going to troubleshoot these systems,” Jensen says. “But just as important — who is going to maintain them? Sometimes you're lucky if the customer even changes the filter.”
Filling the niches
For a company such as Mobile Equipment Systems, with a narrow focus such as hydraulics, it's important to thoroughly fill that niche.
Such is the case with Mobile Equipment Systems. The company is involved with the major industries that use mobile hydraulic power. These include dumps, utility, snow and ice control, refuse, and construction.
“We don't pursue off-road or industrial hydraulics,” Jensen says. “We are capable of serving customers who need us, but those aren't markets that we go after.”
One major exception — off-road taken to the extreme — is the marine industry. Seattle is home to a large number of ships that use hydraulics, and the corrosive nature of the ocean means that hydraulic components generally have a much shorter life expectancy when operated around saltwater.
Commercial fishermen are one source for sales.
“Aluminum won't last a season, in that market,” Jensen says. “And the season is only three or four months.”
Serving that niche requires a lot of specialized product.
“The fishing industry, for example, has to use hydraulic valves with stainless steel spools,” he says.
With such a short season, fishermen can't afford downtime. Not surprisingly, there is a need for these special, corrosion-resistant components — and in places that the UPS truck can't quite get to.
Because of the ability to build hydraulic components to order, the inventory can be less than it otherwise would be. Even so, the company stocks about 4,000 part numbers in its 2,000-sq-ft warehouse area. The $600,000 inventory is primarily PTOs, pumps, and valves.
One of those places is in Dutch Harbor in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Mobile Equipment Systems supplies these components to a seasonal distributor's store carved out of rented retail space in Dutch Harbor.
“Stainless steel control valves are big sellers at stores like these,” Jensen says. “Of course, Dutch Harbor is out in the middle of the Aleutians, so we have to boat all the inventory up there. But for a certain time of the year, it's good business.”
Like all successful businesses, it's a matter of understanding the need of the market. Such as the live-floor trailer that also served as an end dump. The live-floor trailer operated at 40-45 gpm at 2,800 psi. The end dump required 35-40 gpm at 2,000 psi. Mobile Equipment Systems came up with a valve that made it possible to toggle between the two systems.
“It's a European design,” Jensen says. “One valve does both. You don't need separate valves or hoses. The valve makes it possible for one system to serve both applications.”
There are plenty of niches to serve, and a range of products that can be configured to meet those needs.
“We do a lot of research on the Internet,” Jensen says. “We can find what we are looking for and then design a system to do the job. We don't recommend trying this at home — you really can cause problems if you don't know what you are doing. But knowledge is power.”