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For years, the choices of motive power for forklifts have been well defined. But new technologies mean that the range of options is expanding. So, asks Malory Davies, what are the advantages for the buyers?

Change is in the air. For years forklift trucks have relied on diesel power for open air activity and lead-acid batteries for inside the warehouse. And while there has been plenty of talk about new technologies, these have been just on the horizon.

But increasingly, technologies such as lithium ion are becoming practical solutions and the signs are that prices are dropping, opening the way to large scale take up.

That’s not to say that existing technologies will disappear, but they are changing to keep pace with their upstart rivals.

Last year consultants McKinsey published a report suggesting that the price of lithium ion batteries could fall dramatically by 2020.

“Our analysis indicates that the price of a complete automotive lithium-ion battery pack could fall from $500 to $600 per kilowatt hour today to about $200 per kWh by 2020 and to about $160 per kWh by 2025. In the United States, with gasoline prices at or above $3.50 a gallon, automakers that acquire batteries at prices below $250 per kWh could offer electrified vehicles competitively, on a total-cost-of-ownership basis, with vehicles powered by advanced internal-combustion engines,” according to McKinsey.

And a report just released by Navigant Research suggests that the market for advanced electric technologies, such as fuel cells, lithium ion batteries, and fast chargers will continue to gain market share in North America – from just over $100m in 2013 to $500m in 2020.

Cost remains a significant barrier to expansion, says the report entitled Advanced Electric Forklift Technologies in North America. “Lead-acid batteries for lift trucks cost $2,500 to $5,500 per battery pack, and current lead-acid battery prices are around $200 to $280 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Current Li-ion batteries are approximately three times the cost of a lead-acid battery. Since lead-acid is a mature technology, prices are likely to remain the same. Prices for fuel cells, Li-ion batteries, and fast chargers, on the other hand, are likely to fall.”

Navigant also sees growth for fuel cell systems with the lead being taken by the Asia-Pacific region. The report, “Fuel Cells Annual Report 2013” says that globally, Asia Pacific still leads the market in terms of manufacturing and adoption, shipping more than 22,000 of the 28,000-plus fuel cell systems shipped in 2012. Asia Pacific will likely remain the leading market, in terms of shipments, for the short term, according to the report. With increasing activity in Europe and the United States, however, the Asia Pacific region’s leadership position is likely to be challenged in the coming years.”


A Briggs spokesman points out that at the moment, all eyes are on developments in the automotive sector because this is where the catalyst for change will come from. “At the moment, advancement is happening slowly, but this doesn’t get away from the fact that businesses need to be ready to act when the change comes.

“Admittedly for the smaller user, their best option might indeed be to monitor progress on alternative fuels and then take advantage of them when the time is right. But catching up with competitors is not something a large company would want to do – they must be at the forefront.”

John Lawton, director of marketing, Enersys Motive Power, Europe, Middle East & Africa, says: “With batteries there is a clear trend towards reduced- or no-maintenance operations. For example, advances in technology now mean that modern batteries require little or no topping up with water. This not only reduces a significant maintenance burden but also helps to improve battery performance and reliability because the electrolyte is always present in the right quantity at the correct specific gravity.

“Another major trend is towards energy efficiency. Advances in battery and charger design have resulted in better performance which reduces overall power consumption.”

He also points out that batteries like the Hawker XFC allows a rapid recharge in less than four hours from 60 per cent depth of discharge and opportunity charging as often as needed without damaging the batteries.

The advances in lead-acid batteries have closed the performance gap and offer many of the perceived operational benefits of lithium-ion.

But he points out that EnerSys has developed lithium-ion batteries to support wider choice in the market but these are primarily used in applications such as Reserve Power and Aerospace sectors where the premium price is less important. “For the MHE sector lithium-ion is still a relatively new and evolving technology that for many operators does not yet offer the right combination of price and performance.

“The additional cost is likely to restrict large-scale uptake for the foreseeable future because it is harder (although not impossible) to find a commercial edge to justify the investment. Nevertheless its availability does extend choice for OEMs and end-users. Some have adopted lithium-ion from EnerSys to support specialist applications where it is easier to justify the costs.”

Manufacturers such as Jungheinrich, Toyota and Linde have been developing li-ion powered trucks. Toyota Material Handling says its experience has shown that Lithium-ion powered trucks run longer on less energy and at a lower cost.

They offer multi-shift users considerable advantages over conventional lead acid battery-powered trucks in terms of productivity, cost efficiency and reducing CO2 emissions.

The lithium-ion battery only takes one hour for a full recharge, which can be spread across the working day, using breaks or lunch times. It can reduce electrical energy consumption and costs by a significant 30 per cent while providing a power source that typically has a three times longer lifespan that the conventional lead acid batteries.

Sales and marketing director Tony Wallis says:  “We now offer lithium-ion powered warehouse trucks to all our customers but primarily look to work with those who will get the largest business benefits from this type of power source.


“Alongside lithium-ion, we are also looking into finding a sustainable, productive solution to both fuel cells and hybrid technology. We are trialling fuel cells in the USA and Hybrid technology in Japan while we continue to develop and understand how these technologies can provide a strong business case for their introduction,” Wallis says.

 Jungheinrich showed its new lithium ion-powered pallet truck, the EJE 112i, at IMHX earlier this year. Jungheinrich reckons Lithium-Ion technology offers a number of significant environmental and productivity benefits over traditional lead acid batteries. The battery used to power the EJE 112i weighs 14kg. It looks like a brief case and can be handled easily without lifting gear.

Charging takes 30 minutes to deliver a 50 per cent charge and the battery is fully charged within 80 minutes. The short charging times enable more flexible truck utilisation and ‘opportunity charging’ – something that will be particularly welcome at sites running multiple shifts. A single charge is sufficient to power the truck through a typical eight-hour shift. The smaller and lighter battery also means that the truck’s battery compartment is smaller.

Linde launched the prototype T16 pallet truck a couple of years ago highlighting the benefits of the greater energy density of the lithium-ion rechargeable battery. A very small battery with an energy content of 2.1 kW/h (the same as a 120 Ah lead battery) in combination with an integrated fast charger enables the equipment to be used throughout the day.


Trevor Clifton, technical manager at Briggs, says: “Where scale permits, hydrogen can be generated via an electrolyser using solar and wind generated power. Hydrogen can then be compressed and stored ready for use. These systems are as close as you can get to being carbon free. Smaller operations would require Hydrogen to be trucked in, so it more closely resembles LPG systems in terms of the carbon footprint.

He points out that fuel cells are still bespoke systems so attract high costs but volumes are increasing all the time so costs are gradually falling and within the next decade we could see their use becoming more common.

“Currently some 1.5 metric tons of Hydrogen are dispensed daily throughout the world for use by materials handling equipment and this figure is growing. In the meantime Briggs is involved in a pioneering project with Honda in the UK that’s demonstrating the benefits that fuel cell technology will soon bring on a much wider scale.”

Case study: Line to trial fuel cells at BMW

Linde Material Handling, BMW and Munich Technical University are being funded by the German Ministry of Transport to run field tests of fuel cell industrial trucks BMW’s Leipzig plant.

The funding will run until April 2016 and the research is being carried out under the National Innovation Programme for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology and amounts to a sum of €2.9 million.

The money will be used to develop a fleet of hydrogen-powered forklift trucks and tow tractors for logistics trains. The aim of the project is to test the eco-friendly and efficient hydrogen drive system in industrial trucks under realistic production conditions. Charging cycles, battery replacement and the maintenance of common lead/acid batteries require relatively long downtimes for conventional trucks.

The fuel cell hybrid system for forklift trucks and tractors, however, is refuelled within just a few minutes and requires very little maintenance.

The preparations for the field trial in Germany are currently underway at the BMW plant in Leipzig. This involves the set-up of Germany’s first indoor hydrogen refuelling station in the production shop for the BMW i series of sustainble vehicles.

Linde is providing the industrial trucks for these trials, all of which are fitted with fuel cell system and hydrogen tanks.

BMW will test the technology under everyday conditions in a real production environment, using CO2-neutral hydrogen.

Changing demands

Logistics Manager surveyed forklift truck buyers among its readers on what they are looking for in terms of motive power.

First we asked what was the priority in deciding on which form of motive power to go for and it was clear that performance comes first for the majority of truck buyers. But cost was also an important consideration ranking first or second for almost 70 per cent of buyers. Impact on the environment was a clear third.

We also wanted to see if priorities are changing by asking what technologies companies currently use and what they expect to use in the future. Today of course, IC engines, either diesel or LPG are the mode of choice for external applications, while lead-acid batteries dominate within the warehouse. However, it is clear that some of the new technologies are finding a place in lift truck operations.

Some 15 per cent said they were already using li-ion battery systems, and a few said they were using hydrogen fuel cell technology.

But look ahead and the picture changes significantly with 40 per cent saying they expect to use li-ion systems while 13.4 per cent are looking forward to hydrogen fuel cells. Even so, there is still a major role for the existing technologies.

What motive power technologies do you expect to use in the future? 
Response (per cent)
– LPG 30.5
– Diesel 26.8 
– Lithium ion battery 39.0 
– Lead acid battery 19.5 
– Hydrogen fuel cell 13.4

What are the most important considerations when deciding on which form of motive power to use?
Response (per cent)
– Outright performance 40.2 
– Low cost 35.4 
– Impact on the environment 14.6
What motive power technologies do you currently use?
Response (per cent)
– LPG 40.2 
– Diesel 35.4 
– Lithium ion battery 14.6 
– Lead acid battery 35.4 
– Hydrogen fuel cell 1.2

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