Omni-Directional Vehicles Roll Back Into Production

Last fall , I received a phone call from an editor of the Russian edition of Popular Mechanics magazine who was trying to connect with the manufacturer of the Sidewinder lift truck. This machine incorporates a unique omni-directional drive system that allows it to rotate in its own footprint, make 90° or 45° turns, or move sideways without turning at all, making it ideal for applications in confined spaces. Previously owned by Airtrax, Hammonton, N.J., the omni-directional lift truck is widely recognized in the industry—and has also caught the eye of outsiders interested in technology. In 2007, a video of the Sidewinder in action received more than 2,300 Diggs (as in “I dig this link”) on Digg.com and 268,000 views on YouTube. Gadget blogs like Ubergizmo, Slippery Brick, Auto Motto, and India Tech News also have written news stories about this unique technology.

But even the most innovative ideas aren’t always recession-proof. Under financial pressures, the New Jersey-based technology company laid off its employees and shut down all operations in spring 2008 due to insufficient funds available, a former employee told me. Production of the Sidewinder forklift was halted, leaving the impression that the unique omni-directional lift truck would be just another casualty of this hard-hitting recession. With this in mind, I gave the Russian editor the company’s last known contact information and a few words of encouragement but didn’t expect her to get very far.

A recent email changed everything, though, when I learned that Airtrax’s entire technical staff has come together as Vehicle Technologies—or Vetex, for short—to ramp up research, development, and production of the Sidewinder and a family of customizable omni-directional mobility platforms. Referred to as robotic mobility platforms, remote-controlled mobility platforms, and walk-behind mobility platforms, these platforms are available in a variety of sizes, capacities, and types, including skid handling, lift tables, and tables that lift and tilt.

With the exclusive manufacturing and sales license for the Sidewinder, Vehicle Technologies’s initial sales have come from completing contracts abandoned by the former owner when operations ceased in 2008. Launched in 2005, Sidewinder omni-directional lift trucks in the field have been continuously supported by Excalibur Design Services, Trenton, N.J., since Airtrax closed, and new model vehicles being built by Vetex will be sold and serviced through a dealer network with full support from Vetex. A new and improved Sidewinder model also is under development.

Prior to Airtrax closing its doors in spring 2008, the company received positive inquiries for its Cobra scissor lift prototypes, which also use the omni-directional drive system. Nick Fenelli, president of Vetex, said the company hopes to eventually produce the Cobra Series as well.

In addition to manufacturing the mobility platforms, the company works with OEMs as a system integrator, helping to bring the efficiencies of omni-directional mobility to their products via engineering assistance, omni-directional wheels, and a broad spectrum of drive system components and compatible accessories. Vetex also performs conversions or drive system add-ons to vehicles, machines, or platforms in the field but can benefit from added maneuverability.

Whether the economy is booming or in a slump, the need for innovative technology to make lifting equipment more maneuverable, productive, or safer will always exist. Even if a company ceases production, time and again we see these products return—often under companies with better business models and a stronger desire to survive.