100 Years of Allowing Customers to Do What Could Not Be Done

By Chris Mc Loone

This year, Oshkosh Corporation celebrates its 100th year in business.

The company’s connection to the fire service is both as a manufacturer of aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) vehicles and as the parent company of Pierce Manufacturing, which it acquired in 1996.

History

William Besserdich and B.A. Mosling founded Oshkosh Corporation in 1917. Besserdich and Mosling designed two innovations to help improve mobility in a time when roads were primarily dirt and gravel. These innovations gave people the courage and confidence to drive places they didn’t even think possible before. The first patent was a transfer case that is responsible for transferring the power from the front axle to the rear. Elements of the second patent improved the steering and drive capacity of the front axle.

Since that time, Oshkosh Corporation has grown in size, capabilities, and footprint. Products in the Oshkosh Corporation family of brands respond to emergencies, save lives, help others reach new heights, and serve the world. Today, Oshkosh Corporation has more than 13,500 team members and is an integrated global industrial company.

1 One premise that Oshkosh Corporation was founded on was allowing people the courage and confidence to drive places and do things they didn’t think possible. In the case of its Ascendant aerial product, the company as told reaching 107 feet in the air on a single axle wasn’t possible - but Oshkosh proved it is. (Photos courtesy of Oshkosh Corporation
1 One premise that Oshkosh Corporation was founded on was allowing people the courage and confidence to drive places and do things they didn’t think possible. In the case of its Ascendant aerial product, the company as told reaching 107 feet in the air on a single axle wasn’t possible – but Oshkosh proved it is. (Photos courtesy of Oshkosh Corporation.)

The company brings together a set of integrated capabilities and diverse end markets and is a leader in designing, manufacturing, and servicing a broad range of access equipment, commercial vehicles, fire and emergency vehicles, military and specialty vehicles, and vehicle bodies under the Oshkosh®, JLG®, Pierce®, McNeilus®, Jerr-Dan®, Frontline™, CON-E-CO®, London®, and IMT® brands.

Today Oshkosh Corporation is a Fortune 500 company with manufacturing operations on four continents, and its products can be found in more than 150 countries around the globe. It has manufacturing operations in eight U.S. states and in Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, France, Mexico, and Romania and through investments in joint ventures in Mexico and Brazil.

“One reason that we’re a different kind of global industrial company is our culture,” says Rob Messina, chief technology officer at Oshkosh. “Since our beginnings in 1917, many people told us ‘no.’ Instead of giving up, our founders persevered – even after receiving 53 rejection letters for their first two patents. That can-do spirit is very much alive today. Our JLG 1850SJ carries operators 185 feet in the air, and we were told it couldn’t be done – but we did it. Our Ascendant reaches 107 feet in the air on a single rear axle. Again, we were told it wasn’t possible. Our people truly make a difference in the world around us and are committed to finding solutions even when others tell us it’s not possible.”

Innovations

To remain in business for 100 years or more, there must have been successes through the years that allow it to experience such longevity. It is no different for Oshkosh. According to Messina, one of the company’s most significant innovations is one that Pierce now uses for the fire apparatus it builds: the TAK-4 independent suspension system. “Oshkosh’s TAK-4 technology is an amazing innovation,” he says. “When developed, it gave us the ability to pursue specialized applications. It gave us the ability to chase after some of these opportunities that required a much higher performing system. Today, we’ve incorporated the TAK-4 suspension into many of our product lines, and it’s helped increase vehicle mobility and ride quality, lower lifecycle costs, and much more. We continue to innovate this technology to serve our customers.”

He adds, “The reason it’s revolutionary is because when you have a suspension system that isn’t capable of going off road, you have to move off the battle space in a very predictable way. When you add off-road mobility, you allow our warfighters to operate in an unpredictable manner. For the operators, it means they are more comfortable and can travel faster in off-road environments.”

2 Providing mobility to people where roads were not paved was how the company began. In the case of the its JLTV Solution, the L-ATV (Light Combat Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle), Oshkosh’s TAK-4i®  suspension allows that mobility in some of the world’s toughest terrains.
2 Providing mobility to people where roads were not paved was how the company began. In the case of the its JLTV Solution, the L-ATV (Light Combat Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle), Oshkosh’s TAK-4i® suspension allows that mobility in some of the world’s toughest terrains.

The Pierce Effect

Oshkosh acquired Pierce Manufacturing in 1996, with both companies realizing the benefits of the acquisition. For example, Pierce has been able to incorporate different technologies – e.g., TAK-4 independent suspension – into its products. On the flip side, “Pierce brings to us a very robust process for dealing with custom vehicle solutions,” says Messina. “A customer can specify every detail on a Pierce fire truck. What that has taught us to do is to recognize how important our ability to support customer needs is in order to take our business to the next level.”

Oshkosh has also helped Pierce “by sharing very advanced technologies, primarily from the modeling and simulation techniques from defense and the aerial work platform industry,” Messina comments. “That helps us with the structural design approaches we take to our products. It also allows us to share best practices. This is what makes Oshkosh unique – we operate as a family.”

Change, Challenge, and Evolution

Over 100 years, a company is going to go through significant changes, experience myriad challenges, and emerge as a constantly evolving entity. According to Messina, how computers impact vehicles and their design processes has been one change over the years. “One of the biggest changes is the readability of high-powered computers,” he says. “It impacts how our vehicles operate; it connects to how they interface together.” He continues, “We used to have to work with paper to pencil in a very long cycle to iterate on designs – whether concept or computer solution. Now, we can use computer power to rapidly develop from concept to model and simulation to how our vehicles will function.”

To have lasted this long, a company must overcome challenges through the years. For Oshkosh, remaining a company that attracts the best of the best is one of its most important challenges today. “We have a great people-first culture, but it’s important that we continue to develop our team to help them grow. In the Oshkosh family, we want to be a destination workplace to attract talent that is committed to making a difference in the world around us and developing solutions that our customers rely on every day.

“With many baby boomers retiring and with the turnover in technology, you have to stay relevant to stay competitive. It’s important that you find ways to engage and develop your talent around today’s innovation technology.”

3 Rob Messina helps lead Oshkosh Corporation as its chief technology officer.
3 Rob Messina helps lead Oshkosh Corporation as its chief technology officer.

Having short-term and long-term plans is one key to a company’s success. To continue evolving over the next 10 years, Messina says, “Connecting our vehicles through more sophisticated controls and user-friendly interface capabilities is one major trend we see. In the fire industry, we have customers who want to individualize operation characteristics similar to a smartphone where you select the apps you want to employ.

“One of the ways we’re evolving is by connecting our network of product developers and internally sharing best practices. What our team members learn in one of our business units has several elements that directly apply to the fire and emergency business. We want to give our team members access to information that allows them to innovate in their own area.

“All of our business units are well positioned for success. We’re taking products to market in a third of the time that we used to because we’re sharing resources, engineering talent, and intellectual property. It’s a real competitive advantage. “We’re working hard to connect our team members around the world and continuing to grow our people-first culture.”

Additionally, Messina says, “We are constantly evaluating product performance, weight vs. cost tradeoffs, and providing capabilities that don’t exist in the market today so we can allow those who use our equipment to do their jobs more effectively and safely.”

Legacy

Any time a company starts up and becomes successful, its leaders no doubt think at some point about their legacy and the legacy of the company. For Oshkosh, according to Messina, the legacy for both includes giving customers the courage and capability to do things they didn’t think possible, and the company accomplishes this through its approach.

“In 1917, we started as a small off-road vehicle company,” says Messina. “At the time, we were focused on improving off-road mobility. Since that time, we’ve grown significantly. We acquired several companies starting in 1996 and have built a family of market leaders. Growing this strong family of brands has allowed us to share talent, to better standardize our operations and processes, to more rapidly evolve our technology, and to position ourselves as a global leader around the world. Today, we’re still giving our customers the courage and capability to go and do things that they didn’t think possible.”

“I think a lot of people are proud, and our approach has resulted in a legacy. We look at our portfolio and see market-leading products. Oshkosh products make a difference in the world around us, and we have an amazing team committed to doing just that. We’re excited to move into the next 100 years and continue to develop innovations that will serve our customers and make the world a better place.”

CHRIS Mc LOONE, senior editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 23-year veteran of the fire service currently serving as a safety officer and former assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has served on past apparatus and equipment purchasing committees. He has also held engineering officer positions, where he was responsible for apparatus maintenance and inspection. He has been a writer and an editor for more than 20 years.

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