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Strong future for engines
Wednesday, 30 Jul 2008 ( #371 )
Special Feature
Jungheinrich's Volkswagen-powered VFG series
Rather than threatening forklift manufacturers, rising fuel costs and environmental concerns are encouraging innovation in design, use and marketing. Allan Leibowitz looks at current trends in internal combustion engine forklifts.

While the first forklift was electric, a makeshift luggage mover deployed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1906, petrol-powered forklifts continue to dominate the market and show no sign of losing their supremacy.

Adrian Burgess, a European market intelligence analyst with NACCO Materials Handling Limited, points out that despite environmental concerns, internal combustion engine (ICE) forklifts are still growing rapidly, especially in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. "China is experiencing exponential growth in ICE trucks, simply because of cost of ownership and acquisition reasons," he explains.

But it’s not just the developing world which is driving ICE growth. These vehicles continue to outstrip electric competitors in mature markets, including the United Kingdom. Frank Hopper, chairman of the British Industrial Trucks Association (BITA) statistics committee, notes "the growing trend towards ICE designs" among UK counterbalance forklifts. In the last decade, ICE vehicles have grown from 64% of the market to 67%, accounting for 10,507 units of the 15,726 sold.

Harald Wozniak, head of international marketing for Linde Material Handling, notes a growing trend toward electric trucks in Europe, but confirms that "the strongest growing market segment in the world is still the ICE truck segment".

"The European trend has no perceptible impact on our sales figures at ICE trucks or on the proportion of electric and ICE trucks," he says.

Toyota Material Handling Europe product marketing manager Anthony Nadalin also notes strong engine-powered forklift sales growth in the overall European market over the past couple of years citing 110,000 units sold in 2007 - compared to 76,000 units in 2005. He attributes the strength to sales in Central and Eastern Europe.

Nadalin estimates that ICE accounted for around 57% of the market last year.

One market where ICE forklifts are feeling the pinch is the state of California in the United States, where tough environmental legislation requires operators to cut emissions by about 95%. Many see next year’s deadline as a watershed which will make electric-powered forklifts more attractive unless there are significant advances in combustion engine performance.

Still's RX 70 diesel hybrid
The new regulations have not yet led to any wide-scale dumping of ICE forklifts onto the second-hand market, according to Denis Prevost, vice president, national accounts division with the largest US equipment auction house, Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers. He does, however, expect to see "increased consignments over the next year or two as different deadlines for compliance draw closer". Prevost notes that the regulations deal with the average emissions of an entire fleet rather than specific machines. "As a result, it is hard to predict which types of equipment will be upgraded or sold by fleet owners first," he adds.

The market dominance of ICE forklifts in past years means that these vehicles also dominate the used-equipment market. Prevost notes an upward trend in ICE forklifts over the past couple of years. "In 2007, we sold approximately 9,000 ICE forklifts - almost 1,000 more than the prior year. Gross auction proceeds have also been trending upward (on the sales of ICE forklifts). In 2007, we generated close to USD112 million in gross auction proceeds on the sale of ICE forklifts. The previous year was under USD94 million," he points out.

Smarter engines

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future trends, especially with oil at record highs and almost five times as costly as it was in 2000. And even where environmental consciousness is not a major factor, improved fuel efficiency is vital for the survival of ICE forklifts, and most of the major manufacturers are boasting some form of breakthrough. Komatsu, for example, is highlighting engine design as a unique feature in the two new series launched this year. Rory Harvey-Kelly, general manager of sales for Komatsu Forklift in Europe, says the key improvement of the new CX50 and DX50 series is reduction of fuel consumption as well as of CO² emissions.

He attributes the improvements to a new diesel engine which incorporates a high pressure common rail system, a turbocharged air-cooled after-cooler and a newly designed piston. "In addition, the latest hydraulic systems of Komatsu contribute to low fuel consumption," he says.

Nissan Forklift, meanwhile, is using smart control systems to improve fuel efficiency in its new-generation engines. The K21 and K25 electronic fuel-injected industrial engines rely on their Electronic Concentrated Control System (ECCS) to automatically analyse engine performance parameters and optimise engine operation. The brain of the system is the Electronic Control Module (ECM), which monitors a variety of sensors to provide engine control. The ECM responds to sensor data input, and adjusts the air/fuel ratio and ignition to provide the appropriate torque and speed, based on job requirement. Nissan claims this results in enhanced productivity, low emission levels and reduced fuel consumption.

The Nissan engines exemplify a new approach described by BITA’s technical consultant, Bob Hine: "Engine speed management systems are playing a vital role in the drive to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. They are now widely used to match engine speed to the driver’s demand for the functions of working hydraulics and travel, thus improving engine efficiencies. Thanks to this, the driver is likely to generate fewer excessive engine revs, which in turn will help to eliminate excess emissions and noise, not to mention saving wasted fuel," he explains.

Hyster has completed successful field trials for hydrogen fuel cell technology
Jungheinrich debuted its VFG 425s-435s ICE forklift at CeMAT this year, claiming significant fuel efficiency improvements over its predecessor thanks to its Volkswagen engines for both the diesel and LPG variants. A spokesman says these engines benefit from many of the innovations of the automobile industry. "They are running very quietly and their fuel consumption is also significantly reduced with very low emissions," he says.

At the launch, the manufacturer’s head of product management, Dr. Tobias Harzer, stressed the contribution of its hydrostatic transmission. "Travel and hydraulic processes are implemented directly, precisely and effortlessly due to hydrostatic drive technology," he explained.

Linde’s Wozniak also cites his company’s hydrostatic drive as a major innovation. The system delivers "energy savings of up to 30%", he says, thanks to its 90% energy efficiency. Furthermore, the hydrostatic drive works without a differential, gear transmission, coupling or operating brake, leading to savings in transmission and differential fluids and brake and clutch linings.

Hyster’s Fortens range also boasts technology to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. European product marketing manager Peter Madoc-Jones says the electronically controlled engines conform to EU Tier 3 exhaust emission requirements. The forklifts use an advanced CANbus communications network to ensure the engine and components are tuned for maximum efficiency and productivity. Hyster also employs a smart transmission system, dubbed DuraMatch, to improve performance and reduce wear on the clutch.

Hybrid technology

Just as Toyota has grabbed the limelight with its Prius hybrid car, the Japanese manufacturer is deploying the same technology in the industrial sphere. Nadalin says Toyota’s hybrid technology, which has been used commercially in Toyota automobiles for more than a decade, combines the advantages of internal combustion and electric power. "The Toyota Hybrid Concept Forklift which was previewed at CeMAT is designed to deliver the same productivity and performance as an ICE truck, but with significantly lower CO2 emissions and fuel consumption," he explains. "Quieter, cleaner and with lower fuel costs, the ongoing research into the Toyota Hybrid Concept Forklift is part of Toyota's global commitment to developing products that are environmentally responsible and economically viable."

Germany’s Still uses similar technology in its RX70 hybrid diesel forklift which picked up the environmental award at this year Fork Lift Truck Association awards in Birmingham. The model was recognised for its low consumption of 2.5 litres of diesel per hour of operation - up to 50 % less than its competitors.

The company attributes the fuel efficiency to the combination of a modern combustion engine and an electrical drive system based on hybrid technology. This uses intelligent drive control for rev reduction with uniform driving conditions and a hydraulic control that acts demand-compliantly.

Despite the accolades, production of the RX70 series has been put on hold as the company waits for super-capacitor prices to fall.

Linde’s Wozniak says his company is also on the hybrid highway, with CeMAT visitors getting a glimpse of Linde’s "prototype IC truck with a smooth/mild hybrid drive with auto start and stop function, energy recovery when braking and a boosting function". This option should hit the market "in five to seven years".

Linde's H2 Hydrogen model
But Linde’s approach to engine innovation doesn’t stop at the hybrid. The company also has a working prototype it claims to be the world´s first direct injection hydrogen combustion engine with turbo compressor.

"Regarding the hydrogen combustion engine, it is still open whether it will stand up to fuel cell technology in the future," he says, noting that Linde also presented a roadworthy tow tractor with a fuel cell drive at CeMAT.

Hyster is also investing in alternative and future fuel technologies, according to Russell Baker, the manufacturer’s UK territory manager. "The success of the CNG fleet at Pall-Ex in the UK is a great example of an alternative fuel being used on a Hyster fleet, and at North American car manufacturer General Motors, rigorous successful field trials of hydrogen fuel cell technology have been completed."

It’s not just the Europeans pounding the hydrogen highway. In the US, Ohio-based Crown Equipment Corporation was this year awarded nearly USD1 million in grant money from its home state to conduct fuel cell research. Crown president Jim Dicke III says the development of fuel cells is a natural extension of Crown’s ongoing focus on environmental sustainability. The project is focussed on addressing the technical and commercial barriers to the application of available battery replacement fuel cell power packs in forklifts.

NACCO’s Burgess puts a five- to seven-year timeframe on the emergence of alternative fuels and/or hybrids on the European market. That’s when the economic viability and political pressure in Western Europe will co-incide. "In the short- to medium-term for established markets, customers are generally happy as long as they have strong and robust trucks with relatively low emissions, that do the job efficiently, procured and maintained with good value for money, and with excellent after-service," he observes. "In the longer term, the product’s propulsion may change slightly, but care needs to be taken to ensure these underlying principles are not lost."

Future prospects

Harvey-Kelly from Komatsu adds that ICE forklifts provide advantages for longer operations where short battery life makes electrics less practical. "The decision for an electric or an ICE forklift depends on how and where the trucks will be used. If they are for indoors, we recommend electric trucks. For long working operations and for outdoors, ICE trucks are more appropriate."

Toyota's hybrid caused a stir at CeMAT
For Jan Kaulfuhs-Berger, a spokesman for Jungheinrich AG, "ICE will always be required specifically in outside and intense applications." However, he notes that "fuel consumption will be even more important in the future".

Toyota’s Nadalin agrees that ICE forklifts will remain popular for outdoor applications and sees ongoing strong demand in the Central and Eastern European markets.

Despite competition from other technologies, Linde’s Wozniak sees no decrease in demand for ICE forklifts in the future. "Probably the trend to use electric trucks instead of ICE trucks even in hard applications will intensify within the near future because the performance of the electric trucks is growing continuously, but there is still a strong demand for ICE trucks which will not abate very soon."

There’s also optimism from Nadalin: "We believe that IC forklifts will continue to play an important role in the coming years, and we will continue to take the kaizen approach to deliver ongoing improvements to our ICE trucks in terms of the environment, as well as safety, productivity, durability and ergonomics. These developments should further reduce the total cost of ownership for our customers."

In the view of Ritchie Bros.’ Prevost, electric forklifts are starting to be used more often now. "New electric forklifts are being produced with varied applications in mind and buyers are becoming more environmentally aware. There are more versatile electric forklifts than ever before. With today's cost of fuel, users are starting to see the benefits of purchasing electric forklifts. But at the same time, there is room for both types. I can't see a decrease in either engine or electric forklifts. There are many needs for materials handling, and in today's marketplace, ICE forklifts will be around for a long time," he notes.

Komatsu’s Harvey-Kelly also sees an ongoing role for ICE forklifts. "Especially for outdoor, long working operations and for higher capacities in the future, ICE forklifts will provide advantages. Customers requiring forklifts for these applications will look more and more for fuel efficient trucks providing technology reducing maintenance."

Roger Massey, marketing projects manager at Barloworld Handling, has no doubt that over the next 20 years, the dynamics of the forklift industry will change. "I believe that ICE will continue to have their place powering the bigger, heavy-duty trucks, but in logistics and manufacturing operations, forklifts will be increasingly powered by battery or one of the new technologies that are currently being tested," he predicts.

Nissan's K21 uses ECCS for efficiency
"ICE lift trucks have a bright future," says BITA’s Hine. "Engine designers are rising to challenges from regulators and legislators to continue improving fuel consumption while at the same time reducing harmful emissions. Using biodiesel is one way to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, but this does have its disadvantages and it’s more likely we’ll see greater utilisation of bio and fossil diesel blends, which will provide fuel stability.

"While ICE lift trucks are predominantly off-road vehicles, their designers are taking note of engine design improvements occurring in the significant population of on-road vehicles, which are controlled by stringent regulations. So, notwithstanding the challenges it faces, the ICE lift truck category is likely to remain alive and well for the foreseeable future."

  • For more information on choosing between ICE and electric forklifts, click here
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