Sophisticated reach truck technology is gaining fresh momentum. Last year Toyota, Jungheinrich, Crown, and Still, all unveiled newly enhanced designs, boasting better visibility and stability, improved productivity, and brandishing advanced safety features to boot.
Manufacturers are working hard to drive down total ownership costs. To help guide the development of its fourth generation BT Reflex range, Toyota interviewed hundreds of users across Europe to identify the areas believed to be most critical to success. The results showed that lifetime costs trumped capital costs as a priority for buyers.
Mark Ogden, reach truck product manager at Toyota, says: “Buyers know that the service levels, quality of components and energy efficient designs provided by a good supplier will quickly outweigh the short term gains of a lower purchase price.”
AC technology is at the forefront of reach truck technology, providing smooth control, high performance and, with brushless motors, reduced maintenance.
Jungheinrich UK’s Craig Johnson points to advanced AC technology as the key which keeps its truck running costs low, since it helps reduce energy use via regenerative breaking and regenerative mast lowering features. The technology kicks in whenever a driver brakes or lowers the forks and reclaims the excess energy, which is then used to charge the battery. Johnson says around 25 per cent of the energy needed during typical operation is reclaimed this way.
Last year Still released its first fully-automated version of the FM-X reach truck. This features a triple braking system which offers maximum safety and energy recovery. When braking, the kinetic energy is converted into electrical energy by a generator and fed back into the battery, which enables the truck to work longer on a single battery charge.
As soon as the accelerator pedal is released the generator brake becomes active – foot-off-the-gas braking. If the driver operates the brake pedal, the generator effect is boosted and, if it is operated further, is backed up by a hydraulic load-wheel brake. This system helps improve safe braking with high energy recovery, regardless of load.
Although most forklift manufacturers continue to churn out more advanced designs, the truck core remains unchanged. Phil Ireland, product engineer director, Linde, reckons that “fundamental improvements in truck design are currently limited by battery technology.”
He points to today’s batteries as having good cost performance, but says they are too big and heavy. “As higher storage density batteries become available smaller, lighter trucks will emerge with longer endurance before needing to be charged. Ergonomics will also be improved as operator cabs will no longer need to be designed around the battery.”
However, some manufacturers have so far side-stepped this thorny issue by relocating the battery to underneath the driver’s seat, instead of its traditional place between the mast and cab. Linde set the bar for this when it introduced its X range a few years ago, in doing so it broke the mould for reach truck design.
The pressure to gain higher residual capacity in warehouses – up to 12.5m – has led to a demand for reach trucks which can lift to these heights. Ireland says: “Other trucks, for example VNA trucks, operate well at height, but people tend to favour the reach truck’s low capital cost and flexibility in a retail distribution environment.”
Johnson reckons that with warehouses getting bigger, it’s important to pick a truck with a high operating speed. “Some trucks on the market slow down considerably when carrying a load, so I would advise anyone tasked with specifying new reach trucks for their company to check that the top speed quoted by their supplier is the speed that the truck can actually achieve when carrying a load.”
When it comes to choosing a reach truck, the mast is a key consideration. Function and control of the mast is important, as around 25 per cent of the operating time is spent reaching the mast in and out.
Ireland points to mast oscillation as another key factor. “The shorter the mast’s oscillation time the more usable it is. To reduce it the mast must be made stiffer to counter forward deflection and maintain torsional stiffness.”
Traditional reach trucks experience a stop-start motion as the forks and load pass through the transition between main lift and free lift (the point where the second phase of the mast itself begins to lift as well as the forks). Ogden describes this as the “point of inertia” in both the lifting and lowering movement – as it slows down the pallet handling, adds vibration for the driver, and saps battery power.
Toyota’s BT Reflex has been designed to combat this. Advanced programming and improved hydraulics cushion the forks and mast through the transition, which help make the handling more seamless. Ogden says the transitional lift control has helped the new generation of trucks deliver 12 per cent more productivity, while reducing power consumption by 15 per cent.
Repetitive strain injuries cost industry millions of pounds each year in absenteeism and lost production. Drivers of conventional reach trucks are particularly prone to this, especially the neck and shoulders (from looking upwards when stacking), and the wrist and arms when steering – with a standard steering wheel a driver will move their arm more than 2,000 times an hour.
Most reach trucks now feature tilting seats and floating armrests to help stop this. Toyota has gone a step further and introduced a tilting cab option to its BT Reflex range. This positions the driver and the instrument panel simultaneously, for a clear view as the forks gain height. “While fork cameras have their place in supporting drivers, many feel more confident when they can see the forks with the naked eye,” says Ogden.
Reach trucks are often driven backwards as much as they are driven forwards, so all-round visibility is important.
Toyota has redeveloped the chassis to boost all-round visibility. A low-sloping console, which angles away from the driver, enables a clear view of the forks and support arms, while an elliptical support post and large rear cut-out improves visibility when travelling. The overhead guard has also been redesigned – the bars are angled in a way which provides a better view of the forks as they’re raised, and matt black paint helps reduce glare from overhead lighting.
The shift towards faster travel speeds and increased lift heights calls for more hefty safety features. Still’s autonomous FM-X is fully computer-controlled using a laser system to detect its environment. A rotating scanner with a 180 degree opening permanently scans the surroundings of the truck. The truck can be used manned or unmanned but in both modes can detect if a person walks into its working area. If this happens the truck automatically slows to a stop.
In autonomous mode, the computer’s navigation system allows the truck to see its environment and compares the images generated with maps stored in its memory. This enables the computer to accurately localise the truck to within millimetres. The system uses a computer chip coupled with precise sensors and intelligent algorithms.
Of course, a truck that’s travelling at its maximum speed risks undermining its overall stability. Technology such as Nissan’s S3 electronic supporting and monitoring system, is designed to prevent this.
Doug Wyatt, national operations manager, Nissan, says: “The S3 system is thinking ahead all the time and can compensate by reducing speed and acceleration. By constantly analysing parameters such as steering angle, driving direction, load position and load weight system, it limits the driver’s opportunity to make mistakes.”
The system also modifies the relationship between the speed of the truck and the sensitivity of the steering wheel to give maximum control of the vehicle. The system automatically reduces the speed of truck travel and functions in proportion to the height lifted. It overrides potentially unsafe manoeuvres and reduces jerkiness in the operation of the controls.
The UNS is available with lift capacities of 1,400, 1,600 and 2,000kg at lift heights to 10.8m. Nissan says the truck boasts the fastest acceleration on the market, with top speeds of 14km/h and specially developed motors taking lift speeds to 0.7m/second. “Travel speeds for long runs and lift speeds for high lift operation can make a big impact,” says Wyatt.
Mast damping when lifting and lowering helps provide safer and smoother pallet handling. The new motors have been designed to be even quieter.
The system is governed through the reach truck’s ATC computer, which also enables driving parameters to be programmed to suit the operator’s preferred driving style or level of competence. Up to 350 individual operator profiles can be stored in the ATC memory, with PIN codes to prevent unauthorised use.