The future of power for forklifts

Sandra Hogan -
Local Feature Article
- 31 Mar 2022 ( #1070 )
9 min read
More than 60% of forklifts sold now are electric
More than 60% of forklifts sold now are electric

Sandra Hogan examines the way the energy revolution is affecting the global materials handling market.

Thirty years ago, internal combustion engines were the norm for forklifts and the idea of converting to electricity made no sense. Propane-powered forklifts simply provided more effective, longer-lasting power than electric batteries could.

Today, electricity has won the international market for powering forklift fleets: more than 60% of forklifts sold now are electric. The victory of electric power began as the needs of the market changed. Forklifts were redeployed from their traditional outdoor use to indoor use, mostly in warehouses. The need for a quiet, safe, non-polluting option for indoor use was created.

The second factor tipping the balance to electricity was technological change. Advances in technology have been occurring rapidly since the late 1990s, when lithium-ion batteries were being developed and perfected for mobile phones, laptops and electric cars. Performance and power increased rapidly, and the price of batteries dropped by 87% between 2010 and 2019.

Battery-powered forklift fleets have now become the dominant offering in the market because:

  • Electricity is increasingly seen as more cost-effective.
  • Electric forklifts require less maintenance.
  • With electricity, there is no need to change gas tanks or fill onboard tanks.
  • Electric systems can be recharged during lunch breaks or brief breaks in production so that they run at or above 75% for three full work shifts.
  • Electric power is the most environmentally sustainable choice, with zero emissions.
  • Electric-powered forklifts eliminate the hazard of carbon monoxide poisoning and run more quietly than internal combustion engines.
  • Since the transition from DC to AC power drives, electric power provides the same or better level of power and performance as propane.
IBA is fielding increased enquiries about lithium batteries
IBA is fielding increased enquiries about lithium batteries

Market size and growth

Kenneth Research notes that the global forklift battery market is a USD6 billion industry predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8% between 2022 and 2030.

This predicted growth is based on high demand for forklifts, advances in storage capacity and battery life, and the fact that batteries do not release harmful gases like nitrogen oxides and carbonic acid. The main growth in the industry is expected in the Asia Pacific market, but the European region is also projected to witness significant growth because of the number of construction projects in the region.

What is the electric battery of the future?

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are not the only batteries around, but you would be forgiven for thinking they were. They were commercialised by Sony in 1990 and now most people keep a Li-on battery in their pocket or handbag, to drive our personal phones and other consumer electronic gadgets.

Alex Holland of UK technology research company IDTechEx says the continuous improvements being made to Li-ion technology will make it increasingly difficult for alternative battery chemistries to gain market share. While Li-ion batteries remain the dominant force for consumer devices, electric vehicles and stationary storage, Holland predicts that the second half of the 2020s could bring supply disruptions to the Li-ion industry. This will open up opportunities for battery chemistries and energy storage technologies that use cheaper, more widely available materials as well as being safe for people and the environment.


"The lithium market is expected to double again in the next five years, but lead batteries and their premium versions will remain the logical choice for most applications."

Alexandre Bourdy, International Sales Manager at Eaxtron

Yale side-loaders powered by OneCharge lithium batteries
Yale side-loaders powered by OneCharge lithium batteries

Green Cubes marketing director Robin Schneider cites industry consensus that Li-ion batteries will go from constituting about 10% marketshare to the vast majority of the power solutions for class 1, 2, and 3 vehicles within the next five to 10 years. “There’s an expected uptick in the use of fuel cells, also, but that is for more niche applications,” she says.

David Cooper, managing director at Industrial Batteries Australia, also notes exponentially increasing demand for electric forklift alternatives to lC forklifts.

“This is great news for the environment,” he points out. “Electric forklifts have zero emissions, eliminating employees’ exposure to contaminated air (and) improving air quality.”

Tim Karimov, president of US lithium batteries manufacturer OneCharge, believes there is little doubt that all industrial equipment, including construction and mining, will be electrified using lithium power. “Not only are lithium batteries more economical to use, but they help companies reduce their carbon footprint and keep workplaces clean of ICE exhausts and pollutants,” he stresses.

Another significant development, according to Tamas J. Pataky, head of product innovation at Stromcore Energy, an industrial lithium battery manufacturer in Ontario, Canada, has been the adoption of automation in a move to improve the safety of the warehousing environment. “With the availability of high-capacity and plug-and-play lithium charging technologies, automated forklifts can operate largely untouched by maintenance teams,” he points out.

While the cost of lithium batteries has decreased as the production increases, allowing more companies to explore the benefits in the long term, Alexandre Bourdy, international sales manager for battery connector specialist Eaxtron, believes it’s still a technology best-suited to multi-shift or energy-intensive applications.

“The lithium market is expected to double again in the next five years, but lead batteries and their premium versions will remain the logical choice for most applications,” he insists.

Battery advances

Industrial Batteries Australia’s Cooper says his firm has recently responded to the need for lithium-ion forklift batteries. However, there is still strong demand for their traditional CEIL lead-acid batteries.

“Battery maintenance and misuse are inherent issues with lead-acid battery life,” say Cooper. “Monitoring batteries for usage issues before a costly replacement can save businesses a lot of money and headaches.” To support business with battery care and maintenance, Industrial Batteries has recently introduced a five-year replacement battery warranty, which it believes is an industry first.

“A large customer had various fleet requirements in contracted service agreements around Australia,” says Cooper. “With their previous supplier, they lost a lot of money when battery warranties were voided for ‘battery misuse’. In some cases, it was battery failure, not misuse, but it was hard to prove. Our five-year replacement warranty has overcome these issues, saving them a lot of money.”

Hawker FLEX Li3
Hawker FLEX Li3

American-based Hawker claims to be the largest brand of industrial lead-acid batteries in the world, and it also offers lithium-ion batteries.  Dean Portney, Hawker VP sales and marketing, says the company carefully assesses the needs of its customers and then provides the right battery chemistry for each application, to deliver low costs and a convincing ROI.

While lithium may be the ‘big thing’, Hawker has enjoyed strong demand for its Hawker FLEX TPPL (Thin Plate Pure Lead) motive batteries.

Many customers are opting for a combination of TPPL and Hawker’s newer FLEX Li3 lithium solutions. Portney cites a large food manufacturing company where Hawker modelled different charge rates and battery capacities for each of their applications. “This company had previously tested competitive lithium batteries, but our data analysis convinced them to choose a hybrid solution. They have been extremely satisfied with the resulting efficiency and cost savings.”

Stromcore's 80V Turbo Lithium batteries are capable of working at very low temperatures
Stromcore's 80V Turbo Lithium batteries are capable of working at very low temperatures

Stromcore Energy is a lithium battery manufacturer that has recently made substantial progress in two areas including:

  • The achievement of UL Listing for its Class 1 and 11 forklift battery systems across North America in 2021. The UL Listing ensures products are powered to the highest standard of safety and durability. One example of Stromcore’s safety achievements is its results during a fire test: the batteries self-extinguished in less than an hour during the fire test – a remarkable result.
  • Stromcore’s integration with leading automated forklift OEMs. As the warehouse industry shifts towards the use of automated forklifts (AGVs), Stromcore has integrated its easy-to-use plug-and-play lithium systems. This means AGVs can maintain high levels of productivity with less than one-hour charge rates – reducing human intervention and increasing safety.

OneCharge’s Karimov says the company excels at developing new models of batteries to fit the requirements of operations with different work hours, in different industries, and with different loads.

“We have developed models for extreme cold conditions, where batteries are working and being charged at sub-zero temperatures, never leaving the cold storage facilities,” says Karimov.

He cites a large US beverage distributor which ran a temperature-controlled warehouse with two shifts daily and a fleet of 17 sit-down lift trucks powered by lead-acid 36 v forklift batteries.

“The company decided to switch from lead-acid to OneCharge Li-ion batteries. The purchase of six Yale ESC035AD stand-up lift trucks and six Yale ERP035VT sit-down forklifts powered by a 36 volt lithium battery allowed Standard Distributing to streamline its fleet from 17 trucks down to 12 to do the same job.”

Green Cubes Technology's MultiVoltage SAFEFlex batteries
Green Cubes Technology's MultiVoltage SAFEFlex batteries

Green Cubes Technology is another US manufacturer of lithium batteries which specialises in designing batteries for harsh environments. Robin Schneider, director of marketing, says that the Green Cubes MultiVoltage battery technology allows charging at twice the output voltage for half the time, making opportunity charging even more effective. She  says they had introduced a new line of multi-output chargers capable of fast-charging three batteries at a time.

Schneider cites a major beverage distributor which replaced 23 lead-acid batteries with Li-ion batteries in 5,000 lb. (2,200 kg) sit-down Hyster trucks. “They were able to replace 850 Ah batteries with 600 Ah batteries for the same run-time. They also implemented high-frequency fast chargers. They saw improvements in warranty, maintenance, safety and utility cost and shorter charge times.”

BSLBATT's modularisation allows forklift OEMs and end-users to 'build their own' lithium battery
BSLBATT's modularisation allows forklift OEMs and end-users to 'build their own' lithium battery

BSLBATT is a lithium-ion battery manufacturer located in Guangdong, China. Hugo Chen, product director, says that modularisation is the key to meeting the power needs of different handling industries.

Modularisation allows forklift OEMs and end-users to 'build their own' lithium battery within 135 Ah increments and treat every individual module as an independently serviceable battery.

His company’s lithium modules are equipped with voltage acquisition and temperature sensors so that battery voltage and temperature changes are monitored in real time – a great aid to the performance and safety of the battery.

“BSLBATT has developed the very first 135 Ah lithium modules capable of forming parallel building blocks in a forklift battery compartment,” says Chen. “The modules can stack up to 20 in parallel for a total of 2,700 Ah. Each is independently connected to the internet and the cloud, thereby reporting continuous health updates. The modules can be remotely activated or deactivated if a fault is detected. Finally, the modules are constructed for quick and easy swapping: simply slide one out and put the new module in.”

Eaxtron's new 430A Fast Charge connector
Eaxtron's new 430A Fast Charge connector

The move to faster charging has brought new challenges, according to Eaxtron’s Bourdy. 

“As the batteries and equipment evolved, the weakest point became the connector. With fast charge applications, higher currents are needed, more charging operations occur and, with them, more risks of hazards due to improper connections, hard to pull connectors, or unsecured installations,” he explains.

To meet market demand for more robust connectors, Eaxtron has introduced a new option, the first-ever Fast Charge Effortless connector which has been UL approved for continuous charging at 430 A, without requiring larger cables than 4/0 (120 mm²), and within the same dimensions as the more common 320A connectors. 

“Our patented locking device is the safest system on the market. Its design prevents electrical arcing by ensuring the connectors can’t disconnect by accident during the charging or the powering of the equipment,” he adds. 

           


For this report we interviewed the following industry specialists:

 

Dean Portney
V.P. Sales and Marketing
Hawker Powersource, Inc

 

Hugo Chen
Product Director
BSLBATT

Read more.

 

Robin Schneider
Director of Marketing
Green Cubes Technology

 

Tamas Pataky
Head of Product Innovation
Stromcore Energy Inc

Read more.

 

Tim Karimov
President
OneCharge Inc

 

Alexandre Bourdy
International Sales Manager
Eaxtron

Read more.

 

 

 

 

All mentioned solutions can also be seen in this dedicated Virtual Showroom.

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