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Industry remains charged up about lithium-ion batteries

Though lithium-ion technology has been around for more than two decades, it’s just recently that this technology has been available in material handling applications.

“We’re definitely in an evolution, if you think of it as crawl-walk-run adaptation, we’re still in that crawl stage,” says Jennifer de Souza, senior director of Energy Solutions & Procurement for Raymond. “There’s a lot of shiny objects.”

But that interest and buzz is good for the industry, as lithium-ion does offer advances not available with lead-acid batteries.

“Lithium-ion batteries offer a lot of advantages to the material handling industry but one of the most valuable benefits of this design is its ability to deliver a better overall end-user experience,” says Harold Vanasse, senior director of marketing, Motive Power Americas at EnerSys. “Nowadays, especially with rising real estate and labor costs, material handlers are searching for ways to cut expenses and boost productivity, which in turn is driving demand for lower maintenance lift trucks.”

Vanass says that, for example, EnerSys’ NexSys iON battery eliminates watering requirements and enables fast, effective opportunity charging.

“No watering means less labor and no risk of spills, and opportunity charging means no more dedicated battery changing rooms, further reducing labor while freeing up valuable floorspace for revenue-generating activities,” he says.

Focus on Education

The benefits are clear, but industry experts all note that much of the focus right now is really on educating customers to ensure that they not only understand this latest-and-greatest technology, but that they are able to separate the truth from the hype and find the right power solution for their own needs.

“Everyone knows lithium ion batteries give longer battery life, save energy with less charging time and provide virtually maintenance-free operation,” says Frank Russo, vice president of sales, marketing, dealer development for HC Forklift America Inc. “It’s our responsibility as industry professionals to teach, train and involve our customers in the latest cost-saving technologies.”

For example, de Souza says that not all li-ion batteries are created equally, and that can ultimately be a factor that’s not always considered.

“Your battery should be UL certified or UL equivalent,” she says, noting that not all lithium-ion batteries are in the market. “Not all lithium batteries are made the same, and not everyone understands that.”

Initial Investment

One of the biggest initial hurdles in introducing lithium-ion batteries to forklift fleets is the upfront cost, but those companies that are dabbling in this new technology are looking at this investment a little differently.

While some customers are piloting a few batteries to see how they work and what the return could be on this type of investment, others are crunching the numbers in advance and then making a more comprehensive switch.

“We’ve been working with the larger fleets, with the companies that are looking to eke out more cost efficiencies,” reports Ron Dutt, CEO of Flux Power. “They’re approaching it from an ‘all-in’ cost perspective – not just the cost of the battery. When you do that kind of side-by-side comparison, that’s usually the tipping point.”

Like all new technologies moving through the market adaptation process, the cost of lithium-ion batteries have started, and will continue, to decrease over time.

“Costs for lithium-ion batteries have been dropping and will continue to drop as the chemistry of the compounds improve,” says Russo. “Understand that the lithium-ion battery and the manufacturing expertise of such is not equal across our competitors. We believe and can show a 50-percent lower cost of ownership with the use of lithium-ion batteries for most any application vs. other battery configurations.”

The Green Factor

Lithium-ion batteries offer an eco-friendlier power option, which is not going unnoticed by the industry. Dutt says that this incentive is starting to hit the radar of government customers as well as private/public companies who have made green initiatives a priority.

“Especially in California, the costs [of lithium-ion batteries] have been offset by grants,” adds Mike Marzahl, president of XL Lifts. “For example, we just delivered our World Lithium forklifts to the Port of Stockton as part of the California Air Resources Board’s Zero and Near-Zero Emissions Freight Facilities Project.”

Marzahl also notes that other grant funding is now being rolled out in that state: California’s Air Resources Board recently announced the Clean Off-Road Equipment Voucher Incentive Project, a $44-million acceleration program that provides purchasers with point-of-sale incentives to purchase and deploy zero-emission off-road freight equipment.

 A Hybrid Environment

Ultimately, there is likely room for both lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries in the material handling workplace.

“At the same time lithium-ion has been entering the marketplace, there have also been advances in lead-acid technology,” said de Souza. “I think there’s a definitely a middle ground there.”

She notes that Raymond offers a power study to customers, which meters power usage and gathers data on how fleets are using it. From there, customers are able to see which battery sources are the most appropriate for their needs.

“I think we’ll eventually see room for both, in terms of power usage,” she said. “It’s the usage that justifies the power application, whether it is lead-acid or lithium-ion.”


Laurie Arendt is an award-winning business writer based in Wisconsin. Her writing regularly appears in national trade publications in a variety of industries. To contact Laurie Arendt email [email protected].