In a world where industry is being forced to become cleaner, how does technology such as the internal combustion engine stack up against its perceived greener counterparts? Melissa Barnett spoke to logistics specialists, manufacturers and dealers about the current state of the market for ICE forklifts and where it might be heading.
Despite a global trend away from internal combustion engine (ICE) forklifts, there are many applications and markets where this robust and reliable technology maintains its position. China and the Asia Pacific markets currently hold the majority of the global forklift market by value and volume and this is expected to increase as these markets develop in e-commerce and industrial manufacturing. They are also markets where ICE forklifts hold a strong marketshare.
According to the China Construction Machinery Association (CCMA), ICE forklift sales in China increased by 10% in 2016 over the previous year. Zhang Li, secretary of research and development for Chinese manufacturer HELI, says that ICE forklifts are one of the company's best performers, accounting for 60% of all product sales. Johnson Hsu, sales director for Taiwanese manufacturer Tailift, says that ICE forklifts still constitute the largest marketshare and is Tailift's major seller in North, South and Central America as well as Asia and Oceania. Although growth is minimal compared to other classes, he feels this has more to do with increased competition in the ICE forklift sales bracket and stricter regulations.
UniCarriers Platinum II series
Brian Markison, senior director of sales and marketing at UniCarriers Americas, says that while electric truck sales in the US were up by 8.7%, Class V sales were also up by 2.5%. "Generally, we sell a greater share of ICE forklifts; there is still strength in the market, depending on application," says Markison.
American manufacturer Hoist Liftruck says until recently, almost its entire range was ICE forklifts. "When we introduced our pneumatic tyre P-series, Neptune series marina truck, port equipment and rigger trucks, sales shifted heavily to ICE products," says marketing coordinator Colleen Burke.
Italian logistics company La Cisa notes that ICE forklifts are still the first choice. Lorenzo Bonazzi, La Cisa's marketing and communications manager, says: "In our product line, ICE forklifts and reachstackers represent 90% of our machinery fleet of 320 motor vehicles and 260 industrial trailers, and this number is increasing every year."
Flexible and adaptable
So, what is it about ICE forklifts that keeps them in the game despite market and environmental regulation pressures? Zhang believes it is because ICE forklifts have "more power, faster speeds and stronger climbing power", and they have an advantage in outside environments. Gerald Wood, territory manager and OSHA training officer for dealer Atlantic Coast Toyotalift, says he sells both ICE and electric forklifts to the "correct user". "The one thing that electric forklifts can never do is use (their) fuel and be ready within five minutes to work another eight hours. That gives the industry the flexibility to change shifts, add or subtract workers in certain areas and to be ready to take advantage of any swing in the market which demands more forklift use in a short period of time without incurring a major expense," Wood explains.
Hoist ICE forklift
The argument that ICE forklifts aren't clean and green enough is no longer valid, either. Since the introduction of stringent EPA requirements, forklift manufacturers have been diligent in their endeavours to comply with regulations. As Burke explains, "ICE engines now incorporate many after-treatment components and systems such as selective catalytic reductions (SCR), diesel oxidation catalysts (DOC) and diesel particulate filters (DPF). Engines are becoming progressively more efficient as well, and further advances in efficiency could potentially offset increased unit costs." Zhang adds that energy-efficient technology is helping the image of ICE forklifts. "Heli has introduced energy-saving technology in the form of a load-sensing system and double-pump confluence which reduces engine power loss and improves fuel consumption," he explains.
Markison believes that if the customer is engaged in higher cycle applications in terms of the number of hours, for electric forklifts to replace ICE forklifts, you need to have fast-charging technology. This, he says, places strain on a facility's current electric system. This is especially true if you have to make changes to your facility and its infrastructure, he adds.
La Cisa heavy load carrying ICE forklift
Bonazzi has been testing a new biodegradable hydraulic fluid in La Cisa's machines. The fluid has a high biodegradability and low toxicity and means longer intervals between oil changes, thereby protecting resources and protecting the environment - which is a good positive image for ICE forklifts, he thinks. Hsu believes Tailift's mature powertrain, utilising its proprietary transmission, has proven to be a stable and long-lasting selling point. This, together with a low price-per-ton ratio, has kept ICE forklifts in the market.
Wood believes that the innovations that were going to move the ICE market ahead, such as hybrid technology, hydrogen fuel cells and CNG fuel and others, have not proven to be economically feasible. "I don't see that changing in the future. ICE forklifts are not going away because they have become less costly to maintain and much more environmentally friendly," he says.
What happened to hybrid?
Hybrid engine technology, which was once seen as the saviour of ICE forklifts, seems to have both its advocates and detractors. While a number of materials handling equipment manufacturers continue to research and develop hybrid technology - both for large and smaller forklifts, some say it hasn't lived up to expectations. Burke suggests that hybrid technology started to look attractive when fuel prices rose. "Fuel prices made some manufacturers contemplate hybrid engines, but they never garnered any kind of foothold, perhaps due to the complexity. Current industry trends indicate pure electric vehicles may command more market acceptance, perhaps due to the familiarity in other materials handling applications."
Tailift ICE 9L Plus forklift
Markison doesn't believe that hybrid engines will play a significant role in the marketplace. "Frankly, if customers are going to transition from ICE, they're most likely to fully move to electric. As customers move to electric because of simplified maintenance and service, hybrid technology adds a layer of complexity in servicing and maintenance that most customers would prefer not to deal with or pay for," Markison explains. James Kuo, product planning director for Tailift, believes low volumes and a lack of government incentives have kept the price of hybrid engines for forklifts too high to be a viable alternative for the current market.
Bonazzi thinks that hybrid engines are still not sufficiently developed and tested in order to be a valid option for ICE forklifts at the moment, but that the technology is in its initial phase and right now is an important moment for the development of new technologies. Zhang believes that hybrids are developing some interesting technology: "Multinode energy control strategies and management systems make engines work for extended periods, effectively reducing fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. Because of the battery, it is very convenient to recover kinetic energy from braking," he explains.
The future for ICE forklifts
Despite maintaining their current marketshare and, in some areas, even growing, the long-term future of ICE forklifts looks uncertain. When asked whether ICE forklifts will be able to keep marketshare in the future, experts were evenly divided. "I don't think so," says Zhang. "With the upgrading of emissions requirements, ICE forklifts will continue to change to hold marketshare, but the proportion of electric forklifts will continue to increase. Electric forklifts, new energy forklifts and taigas treatment devices will be more and more popular in materials handling," he predicts.
HELI ICE 12T
Wood is more optimistic and says that ICE and electric forklifts both have their own positives and negatives, and successful management uses the one that meets their needs, no matter what the "hype of the moment" tells them. Bonazzi believes that ICE forklifts will hold the market in the foreseeable future. "We think that the La Cisa's magnetic system together with reachstackers will become more important in the logistics industry; in fact, we are developing new machines that will represent a new border for our market. I believe this innovation will open new markets and new applications," he says.
Kuo, agrees that ICE forklifts have their place. "Although ICE forklift sales are increasing in our markets, they are doing so at a declining rate. However, while they maintain a good price-performance ratio, ICE forklifts will continue to be the major product line, especially in countries that do not impose strict environmental regulations. In Asia and the Central and South American regions, diesel will continue to be the dominant fuel source in forklifts. Electric forklifts will eventually drop in price and that is when we will see them replacing ICE equivalents, starting in the lower capacities," he says.
Burke believes ICE forklifts will continue to hold marketshare for the time being as there are still some concerns about using alternatives, such as run times, required infrastructure and refuelling. "Ultimately, customers will have to weigh variables such as operating costs and environmental impact when determining the best fuel choice for their particular application," she says. "Emerging technologies and petroleum prices, as well as other market forces will continue to shape the landscape of product offerings." Hoist, she adds, will continue to offer power-neutral products capable of being fitted with multiple power choices.
Markison believes ICE equipment will hold its own in the short run. "As long as ICE forklifts can benefit from the low and consistent fuel costs that we've seen in the last few years, which here in the US seems likely, ICE forklifts will remain an attractive, cost-effective option for many forklift owners. However, as advancements continue in batteries, or if alternative fuels become commercially viable, I think the trend in electric forklifts will continue."
Whatever the long-term future for ICE forklifts will be, it seems that, for the time being, they will continue to be the powerful, hardworking materials handling equipment they always have been - albeit with a few Tier IV and Tier V nips and tucks.
Additional information and a special THANK YOU to our sponsors:
HELI begins production of new H3 series electric forklift truck
JAC Forklift: website
La Cisa: website
Atlantic Coast Toyotalift: website