Maybe someday lift trucks will be called “smart trucks” like smart cars. “The automotive industry is the birthplace” of much of the technology that is being adopted in the material handling industry, said Joe LaFergola, manager of business and information solutions for The Raymond Corporation. But material handling, with much work done indoors in warehouses, has incentive to innovate to both meet standards and ensure employee comfort and health. Some have shifted to electric lift trucks, while internal combustion, diesel and trucks fueled by other sources have increased efficiency and decreased energy use.
“With today’s AC motor technology, electric lift trucks are able to perform side-by-side with internal combustion engine trucks in many applications,” according to Bill Pfleger, president of Yale Distribution. “It is no longer necessary to vent outside air into a facility to offset internal combustion exhaust or to exchange air as frequently through HVAC systems, which is good for the environment and has the added benefit of
So electric lift trucks reduce or eliminate dependence on fossil fuels. We design our trucks to be very energy efficient,” said Susan Comfort, product manager for narrow aisle products at The Raymond Corporation, “to get longer run time on the battery so you don’t have to stop and change.” Electric lift trucks have slowly gained traction over the years, she said, through technology advancements such as using AC power. The initial price includes the purchase of a lot of the fuel upfront, she said.
New technology reclaims energy as the forklift works. As the truck lowers its fork, the gravity of the load is used to turn potential energy into kinetic energy and send it back to the battery. “You can hear it,” Comfort said. Regenerative braking also sends some of the energy back. And electric lift trucks produce no exhaust. Less frequent need for charging means there’s no down time while a forklift operator waits for a battery change or charge. “I would say the cost of energy nowadays has really brought that to the forefront,” LaFergola said.
When fuel was inexpensive, people weren’t so concerned about how often a battery had to be recharged. The cost of replacement batteries, as well as storage space, also needs to be considered. “A well-maintained battery should last five years,” LaFergola said. But if a battery isn’t optimally maintained, its life might be four years, and it will need to be recharged more frequently.
The Raymond iBattery monitors the water level, electrolytes and about a dozen other processes “to assist the warehouse and facility manager to optimize” the life and efficiency of the battery, saving capital expense and utility usage. “You’re using less battery to do the same amount of work,” LaFergola said.
By design, electric lift trucks have fewer components, making recycling the machines at the end of their life easier. “We sell more than just a forklift,” LaFergola said. “We evaluate the whole warehouse.” That might include suggestions for more energy efficient lighting, racking that provides more space on the same footprint.
Through fleet management, the Hyster Company helps users reduce costs, energy use and emissions, it said. “Through lift truck utilization reports and fleet optimization activities, we enable accurate cost tracking and cost performance management for our customers,” said Jonathan Dawley, president of Hyster Distribution. That might mean retirement of older trucks that use the most resources and are the least efficient.
New fuel sources are under development, and probably the most futuristic and well-publicized is hydrogen. The technology would create water as an emission. It would recharge very quickly and voltage and truck performance remain stable throughout a work shift. But hydrogen fuel cells will need government grants to offset costs, LaFergola said. “I think you’re going to see hybrid batteries before you see fuel cells. They’ll be lithium ion and lead acid to enable the battery to charge faster and maintain that charge longer.” Hybrid batteries are already in development, he said. “Despite the higher startup costs, using fuel cells yields longer-term savings, with costs made up in the difference in labor savings,” according to Yale. “Labor productivity will improve by eliminating the time it takes workers to exchange batteries in a traditional battery room operation. A battery exchange typically takes between five and 15 minutes and it’s not unusual to have several operators waiting to switch out profits. Refueling at hydrogen stations takes no more than five minutes and sometimes as little as two minutes.”