The move to electrification of vehicles is well understood by the materials handling industry, where manufacturers have been progressing electric vehicle technology for more than a century.
From lead acid to lithium-ion (Li-ion) and beyond, the technology has come a long way. Reaching critical mass means that the industry benefits from a vast range of advantages to consider.
That said, it can be equally as daunting. So how should you utilise electrification to leverage your fleet’s performance now and into the future?
Achieving the best possible outcomes with fleets can be hindered by confusion over a range of issues, according to Swedish manufacturer Konecranes Lift Trucks.
“In many countries, public funding or taxation relief is often available when buying electric forklifts,” explains Konecranes technology director Anders Nilsson. “Sometimes customers are not aware of such possibilities.”
Nilsson notes that charging is another area where operators can benefit from deeper knowledge to maximise operational performance.
He explains: “Power usage mainly comes down to the power capacity of the electric grid used for battery charging. If fast charging is required, this can be a bottleneck that needs to be mitigated by either increasing the power capacity/fuse rating or support via a ‘power bank.”
While electric trucks reduce environmental impact, in the past they raised questions about performance. Nilsson dispels that myth, with a reminder that, for manufacturers such as Konecranes, truck design is a response to customer needs and legal requirements.
“Being the only true tank-to-wheel zero-emissions technology, a Li-ion-powered forklift will outperform combustion engine-powered forklifts in almost all comparisons,” he explains.
The quick-charging capabilities of Li-ion help forklifts save energy, as well as introduce a raft of benefits not possible with conventional lead acid.
Nilsson’s colleague, Konecranes Lift Trucks senior systems engineer Jörn Albers, explains: “It allows for regenerative braking, where braking energy is converted to recharge the battery. In lead acid batteries, this is very much limited, if even possible.”
Thermal management systems ensure Li-ion batteries are “always well-maintained”. As well as allowing for high power, he points out that this can encourage a longer battery lifetime.
“Even the driver’s cabin thermal preconditioning can be done in parallel while the battery is on charge,” he continues. “That’s highly convenient for overnight charging during summer as well as during wintertime!”
Nilsson is equally as impressed with lithium-ion’s vehicle-to-grid capabilities, adding: “When connected to the electric power grid for charging, Li-ion-powered forklifts can be a ‘vehicle-to-grid’ node - used for ‘power shaving’ the electric load on a particular site.”
Total cost of ownership
For US manufacturer Cat Lift Trucks, focusing on total cost of ownership for its electric range advancements means customers can improve their core operations and much, much more.
“New battery technologies provide possibilities to create new forklift design concepts,” suggests Cat Lift Trucks product manager Arttu Kautonen. “Those concepts can be performance-related or application-specific features.”
When power is required, for example, he suggests operators can achieve higher forklift performance with lithium battery technology that is “close to an IC-engine forklift”.
Another advantage is smaller vehicle footprints, he adds, where “you can optimise a warehouse truck’s dimensions to be more agile while adding visibility and ergonomics for the operator.”
Internal combustion trucks, however, may still have a place in fleets - for now.
“IC trucks usually provide high power and an excellent working range with quick refuelling time,” he explains. “There are also a wide variety of applications included to the IC truck operations.”
Because of this, he recommends identifying the core needs of the existing IC fleet and how they can be met with electric vehicles.
While it may not be cost-effective to convert a whole IC fleet, Kautonen suggests that “usually the return on investment is easily available due to lower operational costs of electric fleets.”
He adds: “Using modern battery technology enables good truck availability without very complex charging room investments. However, it is important to notice that some investments are required for the charging infrastructure when converting the IC fleet to electric.”
Ultimately, when businesses convert old battery technology to something newer, Kautonen explains that the decision typically relies on the total cost of ownership and optimising forklift operations.
For some operations, the decision is clearer than in others, he explains: “If you want to remove the battery maintenance efforts and utilise the battery charging room area for your core business, then you should consider converting the whole fleet in short term.”
Shift to electric
At Italian manufacturer Baumann Sideloaders, there has been a “dramatic shift towards electric power” in recent months, according to global marketing director Tony Benson.
“Five or six years ago, we could expect up to 80% of our orders to be (IC) engine models,” he recalls. “Today it is upwards of 85% electric.”
Cost and carbon, he believes, are driving the change. It is not uncommon for customers to ask about performance in relation to battery duration, in the hope of achieving between eight and 10 continuous working hours and performance similar to a diesel-powered truck.
He continues: “Our users want to achieve the same functionality, with less environmental impact and less uncertainty on future fuel costs. In some territories, legal requirements and incentives have driven change, but the technology has also improved.”
While Benson recognises the clear advantages of lithium-ion in some materials handling equipment, he finds it is “not so simple” with sideloaders, due to their big demands.
“We already have lead acid batteries that offer up to 10 hours, perhaps more, of continuous use, and spare batteries can be changed over with relative ease.”
In developing its latest model, the EGX X-plus series, the first of its range to feature a lithium-ion battery option, Baumann strived to achieve a “delicate balancing act”. “The battery is a bespoke design to fit the shape of the chassis. Being lighter means we were able to re-distribute the weight, keeping the same dimensions and truck capacity, but in a machine that is 2 T lighter.
“The combination of 120 v technology, energy-efficient inverters and motors, plus other features such as presence-sensing joystick control, means the mast can be controlled quickly, consistently, and precisely by the operator.”
"It's not always necessary to replace the entire fleet to leverage the benefits of new battery technologies. And different power sources can coexist within the fleet."
Integrate the benefits
Global brands Hyster and Yale recognise the value that integrated lithium-ion designs truck provide for operators and offer a wide selection of lithium-ready trucks.
Ben Newey, Hyster-Yale Group’s vice-president of sales and marketing for Asia, Pacific and India, explains: “By replacing existing internal combustion engine (ICE) or lead acid battery systems with the latest charging and battery capabilities, our customers can effectively reduce the environmental impact of their materials handling equipment. This not only contributes to minimising noise pollution but also eliminates fuel emissions, promoting a cleaner and more sustainable working environment.
But, for end-users operating internal combustion trucks or utilising outdated battery solutions, there are a few considerations and options available.
Newey recommends evaluating the operation’s needs to identify where new battery technologies will be advantageous in reducing emissions, improving energy efficiency and boosting productivity.
“It's not always necessary to replace the entire fleet to leverage the benefits of new battery technologies. And different power sources can coexist within the fleet,” he explains.
Following up with fleet analysis allows operators to prioritise where upgrading will yield the biggest benefits - allowing for a phased approach which unlocks the advantages of new battery technologies without disrupting operations.
When new battery-powered forklifts enter the fleet, he suggests taking time to consider where they will prove most advantageous.
“Utilise the new battery-powered forklifts for tasks where their advantages are most beneficial while continuing to use existing equipment for suitable applications,” he explains.
“This way, you can optimise the fleet's performance while leveraging the benefits of both power sources.
“Ultimately, the advice for end-users is to assess their specific needs, conduct a thorough analysis, and develop a strategic plan for integrating new battery technologies into their existing fleet. By taking a measured approach and considering the coexistence of different power sources, end-users can effectively harness the benefits of advanced battery technologies while maximising the value of their current equipment.”
Gain powerful insights
At the European headquarters for global manufacturer Doosan in Belgium, its team notes that while customers are following the eco-friendly trends seen in other industries, there is one significant difference.
As the benefits of digitalisation become better understood, customers are seeking out the opportunities it offers to gain digital insights.
“Our customers want more cost-effective, safer-to-use forklifts with reduced energy consumption and, especially, lower environmental impact,” according to Jan Droogendjik, Doosan Industrial Vehicle Europe marketing supervisor of materials handling.
“We also see a need for data collection/analysis for improving efficiency and safety around the workplace.”
Making the switch from lead acid to lithium-ion batteries is often worth the investment, Droogendijk explains.
“Switching to lithium helps because they charge faster, last longer and are more energy efficient thanks to their higher power density. As a consequence, customers get improved productivity, reduced TCO and a lower environmental impact.
“Lithium's additional capabilities mainly lie in advanced monitoring systems and ‘communication’ with the battery. Real-time data collection, remote monitoring, optimised charging, etc, are all easy to achieve with lithium technology.”
However, before making the jump to lithium-ion, Droogendijk offers a word of caution: “Always keep your application in mind. Yes, new technologies like lithium can offer many benefits, but this is not always the case for every application out there.”
Instead, he advises implementing: “a step-by-step phasing out of the current fleet and replacing them with newer models with advanced technology. Or, perhaps a mix of various power sources will keep making sense for some customers depending on their requirements and needs.”
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For this report we interviewed the following industry specialists: