David L. Wood, Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Service for the Americas Region of Kalmar Ottawa Terminal Tractors, is pleased with the company’s introduced T2 model. (Photo by Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT)
David L. Wood, Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Service for the Americas Region of Kalmar Ottawa Terminal Tractors, is pleased with the company’s introduced T2 model. (Photo by Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT)

As a gearhead at heart and accomplished sawdust maker, David L. Wood, vice president of sales, marketing and service for the Americas Region of Kalmar Ottawa Terminal Tractors, firmly believes it pays to like machines. Bringing enhanced productivity to terminal technology and equipment, just tinkering in his shop or giving grandchildren tractor rides around the family farm, Wood finds joy in the smooth humming of gears and the associated benefits.

In an interview with the American Journal of Transportation, Wood shares his thoughts on terminal automation and the newest-generation terminal tractors, as well as the pleasures of being a granddad six times over.

What efficiencies in equipment and technology do you see being facilitated by increasing automation, including integrated software systems?

That’s a very timely question.

Our trucking and distribution customers have been using yard management software and hardware systems on yard tractors for many years. Those systems are focused on moving the maximum numbers of semi-trailers through a distribution facility with efficiency and accuracy. That equipment mounted in the truck is fairly simple and more telematics than automation.

At this point, trucking/distribution companies are not trying to automate in the same sense that port operators are. Port customers, by comparison, are pursuing automation of the operation and the equipment.

The requests we see from customers affecting the terminal tractor specifications are all focused on better communication and ultimately reducing the cost to move each container. To date, we have not seen requests for an autonomous – or driverless – tractor, but that technology is within our reach.

More specifically, how is your company engaged in such endeavors?

Navis, the terminal operating system provider, was bought a little over five years ago by our parent company, Cargotec. Gradually, we’ve been integrating their products into the hardware on a more proprietary basis, because we know the machines intimately – the terminal tractors, the straddle carriers and all the different machines they’re using to move containers around the port and intermodal yards.

It’s easier to integrate the software now from our own company into those machines. We think that creates an advantage for our customer.

Further regarding gains, can you fill us in on the recently begun expansion of Kalmar’s terminal tractor manufacturing plant in Ottawa, Kansas?

We’ve had good results especially over the past five years with Ottawa. We had invested in the factory in terms of increasing productivity. We set a goal in 2012 to get our production on one shift from a maximum of 10 trucks per day up to 15 trucks per day, and we timed that with the introduction of the new product – the T2.

We tried to design the T2 as not only a much better truck for our customers but easier to build and service. We were successful in getting the build rates up to 15 nominally per day on one shift and were actually close to 20 for a while in the peak year of 2015.

Because we’ve had good results, the Cargotec management board had its board meeting in Ottawa and had the turning of the first shovel of dirt ceremony for the expansion project in May.

It’s a $12 million to $15 million investment in the factory, starting with adding our own test track, a little less than a mile long, with hill-climb grade, broken blocks and the usual things needed for durability testing, plus our noise level testing.

The next phases include expanding the parts distribution center by almost 50 percent. The parts business has grown and is now pushing the limits of the current building. With our strong new truck sales of the last several years, we’ve got a lot more machines out in service. Through that parts warehouse, we cover all the Kalmar machinery – the reachstackers, the forklifts and cranes and so on – not just the Ottawa trucks.

We’ll also be adding a new lobby to the building, hopefully with enough space for display of two trucks, including our restored 1967 Ottawa terminal tractor. We’re very active in our community, with the Salvation Army, Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics and so on, and now we will have a place to display all these nice plaques and awards.

And we’ll be modernizing our office space to improve productivity.

How have the terminal tractors produced in Ottawa evolved over the years to better serve customers at distribution centers, intermodal yards and ports and in other applications?

They have evolved steadily over say the past 30 years, but, to be honest, they didn’t really change that much prior to 2014, when we introduced the new Kalmar Ottawa T2 model.

The T2 is an all-new chassis platform. When we talked to customers and brought in the drivers, the maintenance technicians, the purchasing people, the business owners, there were three basic categories identified to drive our designs.

One was productivity and efficiency. Everybody wants a truck that gets more work done in the same amount of time. Of course, they wanted to pay less, but that’s generally not possible, especially when engine emissions systems are going up in cost.

They wanted drivers to be less fatigued, so we built a cab that’s quieter inside. They wanted a better heater and air conditioning system so he’s more comfortable. That means better insulation, higher airflow for cab temperature control and window defrosting. And then we changed our hydraulic and lift cylinder system so it’s faster to lift a load with the T2, meaning more productivity.

The second category was serviceability, so we made it easier to do routine service and repairs.

Lastly, loud and clear the drivers wanted improvements in comfort, function and safety, including a larger cab with a wider door. They thought we were the best in terms of arrangement of controls and instruments on the dash and the ability to reach them, but there was still room for improvement, so we cleared a spot on the dash for the yard management system screen.

We defined the T2 product based primarily on driver and maintenance man input to be easier to work on, easier to drive, quieter, more comfortable and safer. We beefed up the cab structure and made it ROPS [rollover protection structure] certified, which, although not required in the United States, is required in other parts of the world.

Honestly, there’d been a lot of minor evolution, but we at Ottawa, the market leader, hadn’t done much in terms of significant changes in probably 25 years. By now, we’ve built almost 5,000 T2s, or will have by the end of this year , and I think our customers have confirmed we have achieved our three primary objectives.

It was a pretty radical change with the T2. Terminal tractors hadn’t really changed much, not near as much as the Class 8 tractors in the over-the-road trucking business. Somebody has to make the first move and, as the big gorilla of the terminal tractor business, nobody can do it like we can do it. We wanted to push the pace of evolution up a notch or two to incorporate appropriate technologies and at the same time not get beyond what people really can use and take advantage of.

As your work requires extensive travel, do you ever tire of spending so much time on airplanes?

Yes, I do, but I love the work, and I love working with the people in this business. Their feet are on the ground. They’re salt-of-the-earth folks. I’ve been doing it now for 45 years, and they’ve been great years.

I truly feel blessed I ended up in a career that I could really enjoy so much, and all of that makes the travel easier to tolerate. And it doesn’t hurt that I travel enough that I don’t spend a lot of time in the coach section.

When someone asks what I do for a vacation, I generally tell them it won’t involve airplanes.

While your work has for decades involved machines, specifically trucks, going back to Kenworth in the early ‘70s, do you find it interesting that you spend quite a few of your nonwork hours restoring old machines and otherwise tinkering?

What else would a gearhead like me do?

I do like to buy old machines and restore them, maybe modify them a little bit. I built my air compressor out of old pieces, and I built an off-road motorbike just because it’s fun to do.

But I’m also an avid woodworker and accomplished sawdust maker at the other end of the shop. Sawdust does come in handy for cleaning up oily messes on the mechanical end of the shop, by the way.

I’m also an avid reader. Of course, airplane time gives me lots of time to read. I’m fascinated by presidential biographies, and the history of the presidency itself is a little hobby of mine. I like adventures, spy novels.

I probably never read a book cover to cover when I was in college [getting a bachelor’s degree in 1971 from Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, before post-graduate work in the ’90s at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Stanford University Graduate School of Business] because I was a science and math kind of guy.

Soon after, I discovered reading just for pleasure and have always enjoyed that. I don’t know how many books I’ve read, but there are over 600 on my Kindle.

But I’m still a gearhead at heart. Most of the things I do involve nuts and bolts. That’s my relaxation, my R&R.

What joys are associated with being a grandparent several times over?

Joys is the perfect word when you’re talking about grandchildren. My wife of 45 years and I are blessed with six grandchildren.

I like to tell people that grandkids are the frosting on the cake of life. They bring so many grins and say so many cute things, creating vocabulary words that you hang onto forever.

While I love being a parent to our own three kids – most of the time that is – it’s even better being a grandfather and a part of their lives.

Recently at a restaurant, we met one of our kids and his little 2-year-old boy came running across the entire length of the restaurant with his arms yelling, “Papa, Papa,” and jumped up into my arms. I mean, how does it get better than that?

My wife’s also very special to the kids in her grandmother way, but she doesn’t have a tractor for unlimited rides around the farm. So, y’know, it pays to like machines.