With so many new technologies and applications surrounding forklift trucks, which is the best option? Should you upgrade, or perhaps some new tech is all you need? Maria Highland explores the options.
New technology, new market trends and new warehousing needs all mean times are changing for the forklift market. Consumers want products at their doorstep the day after they place an order and businesses need to cater to this need. And to do that means employing new technologies to increase productivity. Consumer markets have undergone changes in recent years, which has had a direct impact on the way warehouses operate. Online sales have boomed, and consumers now expect to receive their orders within ever shorter time frames. Therefore, the logistics industry has had to respond to this growing need by investing in equipment that helps to maximum use of often restricted warehouse space and delivers optimum throughput efficiency. For example, “large retail outlets are often challenged with storing and handling stock within the tight confines of a small warehouse. These warehouses often are designed with narrow aisle widths and high racking which can make handling difficult,” says Hyster Europe integrated solutions manager Paul Smith. As a result, says Narrow Aisle commercial director John Maguire, “across the world, logistics operators are turning to new intralogistics technology and handling techniques to create cost effective operational solutions that meet the requirements of their clients and, consequently, demand for some long-established warehouse products – some of which had been considered cornerstones of the warehouse planning process for 30 years or more – is dropping noticeably.” But this isn’t cause for concern. Forklift truck aren’t going anywhere, they have simply required to evolve along with other forms of intralogistics technology. “The conventional forklift truck still has its place,” says Hubtex UK sales director Juan Cantalejo. “It will remain the highest volume market segment for the foreseeable future. But the trend of users switching from diesel-powered vehicles to EVs will continue. We believe that this trend applies to all areas of the forklift truck market. New technologies simply offer customers more opportunities to find the right solution for their individual requirements.” Maguire also notes that although “the man-up VNA truck has been a feature of warehouse operations for nearly four decades, but it is increasingly recognised that it is not cost effective to elevate the warehouse worker to the goods for applications where full pallet loads are being picked.” However, Narrow Aisle has seen a significant increase in global sales of its Flexi HiMAX high bay and StorMAX two-deep articulated warehouse truck technology-based intralogistics solution. Therefore, businesses are now searching for the right truck to fulfil their warehouse needs. “Warehouse operators and other industrial companies are under greater pressure than ever to use the space at their facilities in the most cost- and throughput-efficient ways possible,” explains JCB Teletruk general manager Paul Murray. UniCarriers group product manager Jan Callderyd highlights the fact that most customers, regardless of size and business area, are all looking for their forklift trucks to achieve uptime, throughput, safety and ergonomics. “Lately also,” he says, “due to the environmental awareness and related costs, energy consumption has become more discussed. What subject is the most prioritised could vary from customer to customer, but we see them as very much linked together.” Callderyd explains how this can be achieved: “Applications with high level of repetition may be better off with AGV solutions where often automated reach trucks or stackers are efficient.” This kind of investment usually operates 24/7 and accepts a minimum of downtime. And, for intense “multi shift operations, changing battery usually is the best option, but only if it can be done very quick. In peak season when the full fleet is running, no truck can be allowed to be standing for being charged, breakdowns or for any other reason. “Outstanding lifting and driving performance require constant high level of focus from the operator,” says Callderyd. Therefore, finding the correct products that provide a stress free operator environment with unique ergonomic features is key as this results in reduced strain, improved visibility and higher level of safety. Finally, “Vehicle operator management (VOM) systems increase safety with integrated pre-op checks making sure the truck is safe to use. The connectivity makes it easy for management to track driver behaviour and which driver is currently operating each truck. Driver authority levels and truck driver licence is also easily managed,” concludes Callderyd. So, the next question is, to get maximum benefit from your forklift, do you need invest in a new truck or can you simply upgrade your existing forklift truck? Luckily, the current new innovations in the forklift market mean that whatever you require there is most likely a solution for your fleet and your business needs. Looking at traditional forklift trucks, they carry a battery that needs to be changed. This process requires another truck to remove “the drained battery and replace it with a charged unit,” explains Maguire. And “at some warehouses and distribution centres a culture has developed whereby battery changing is seen by forklift operators either as a chance to have an unscheduled break with a mate or a time consuming awkward job, either way, productive and valuable time is often lost,” he says. Likewise, operators tend to opportunity charge, where the battery is partly recharged while it is still on the truck – which Maguire describes as “very damaging” as it “dramatically reduces a battery’s life span and can be dangerous”. However, there is technology such as the Flexi ‘Easi-Change’ forklift battery management system which is designed to stop operators from doing this, making it impossible to opportunity charge forklifts. Technology like this counters the problem as it ensures that a charged battery is always available. “The Easi-Change system combines the latest battery charging technology with established materials handling techniques to ensure that electric-powered Flexi articulated truck fleets require the fewest number of battery units to operate around-the-clock while the amount of time and man-power taken up by the battery changing process is minimized,” says Maguire. Alternatively, you can invest in a brand-new truck that is energy and/or fuel efficient. This could be in the form of alternative fuel trucks like gas or newer models that can work more hours on a single bottle of gas than their older counterparts. JCB Teletruk general manager Paul Murray explains that “regardless of what power-source they use, lift trucks must offer optimum energy efficiency and meet the highest environmental standards.” In the long run, “significant reduction in fuel consumption not only optimises truck up-time but also means total cost of truck ownership is minimised.” However, “a constant drive for less energy consumption may stand in contradiction to increased performance” but new developments prove this to be possible, says Callderyd. He exemplifies the newly developed high pressure hydraulic system on UniCarriers electric counterbalance TX-range. “In addition,” continues Callderyd, “Li-ion technology shows very good efficiency improvements where the technology is beneficial. However, accessibility in multi-shift operations could be low due to frequent charging occasions. For intense operations where utilisation is key, smart one minute battery change systems is key to keep the fleet in operation 24/7.” Li-ion technology can also “be retrofitted with a manufacturer-approved system solution in any truck designed for traditional Lead-Acid batteries,” adds Callderyd. “New Software technology and efficiency improvements can be implemented and will support sustainable cyclic thinking. Existing fleets can be upgraded and benefit from next generation technology.” Maguire notes that when “it comes to running a modern warehouse, productivity is key which is why more lift truck users are appreciating the benefits of lithium-ion battery technology.” Thanks to developments in lithium-ion battery technology, li-ion trucks require zero battery maintenance and offer fast battery charging times – reaching full charge in up to two hours. Lithium batteries are able to distribute consistent power levels each hour, which “means maximum warehouse throughput efficiency is achieved even during the longest and busiest shifts,” says Maguire. Hyster counterbalance products EMEA solutions manager Matthew Allen explains that due to “fast charging speeds and the possibility for opportunity charging, plus up to three times the life of a lead-acid battery, lithium-ion batteries support efficiency in logistics operations and are particularly well suited for extended or multi-shift operations.” They also offer savings of up to 30 per cent in energy costs compared to a lead-acid battery and produces zero emissions. “However,” adds Allen, “they are not for everyone, and lead-acid batteries will still best suit the needs of certain applications.” For example, as UniCarriers’ Jan Callderyd notes, li-ion technology is not without its own obstacles. “One single battery and the elimination of a battery change system is often used as a main benefit for li-ion technology, which is true, but this means the vehicle need to be charged at least three hours spread over a 24 hour operation. It’s often argued charging could be done during breaks, but in reality this is hard to accomplish. Lack of power infrastructure where trucks need to be charged is also sometimes a problem. Opportunity charging needs to be done with no loss of time since it’s done frequently. The more often opportunity charged per day, the more important.” He also explains that in instances where “charging can be done without affecting productivity since the trucks are not frequently used, li-ion technology could be a very good choice,” as often traditional batteries often suffer due to lack of maintenance. “However, in most intense 24/7 operations where utilisation is key, traditional batteries with battery shift in one minute are still more cost efficient. A proper return on investment calculation is vital for cost justification including all parameters involved,” says Callderyd. If li-ion is not the solution for you, there is still many other options to enhance existing fleets. Many forklift manufacturers provide, in addition to different power options like gas, an array of battery management solutions for various trucks. Hyster for example, provides a range of battery management solutions for several of its J-series electric trucks up to 3.5-tonnes. Users also have the “option to use a Hyster side battery exchange stacker, forklift, overhead crane, fork lifting eyes or roller beds, there are now five ways to exchange the battery on a Hyster electric truck. In fact, with the side battery extraction option, exchange can be completed in just a few minutes, saving time and improving efficiency while making the task easier for operators,” says Allen. “We are also witnessing the effects of digitalisation: company processes have changed in the extreme over the last few years and become faster,” says Cantalejo. “This has led to significantly higher inventory turnover, for instance. And forklift trucks are today being more heavily integrated into production processes.” Industry 4.0, automation and digitalisation in complex processes are drivers of innovations, says Cantalejo, “with companies increasingly integrating their industrial vehicles into production processes”. Tailored solutions are required for each specific handling task and an ideal scenario, their integration also facilitates smart process optimisation. The goal is to create a consistent flow of information along the entire supply chain, adds Cantalejo. Indeed, this is where technology steps in to achieve this. Various technologies can be added to trucks to keep operators to provide maintenance and battery alerts, among other things. “Hour meter, cost of operation, periodic maintenance, fault codes and impacts can all be tracked with automatic emails generated when certain faults or impacts occur,” says Allen, “making it easier to record and review incidents and related product damage GPS tracking data also helps identify areas within an operation that may present a higher probability of incidents, such as congestion-prone areas.” Additionally, RFID cards can be introduced into the operation. This means that specific equipment can only by authorised or appropriately trained operators, thus reducing accidents. “To drive down fuel or power costs, the idle shutdown function can also be set to power off a truck after a pre-determined amount of time if the equipment is tracked as idle or unattended,” adds Allen. “Operator Pre-shift Checklist Tracking can also help determine any issues with a truck, so they can be addressed and resolved quickly to reduce expenses and potential downtime.” Automation solutions can also be introduced to the truck. Such technology maps the environment using natural features in the building so that any need for complex changes to enable automated logistics to be required. “This means that the truck’s automated tasks can be easily adapted if the site infrastructure changes,” says Hyster’s Smith. Such technology is also adaptable and customisable. It “allows the truck to be used as a fully automated unit for repetitive tasks, or as a supportive, partly-automated machine, for activities such as order picking. The automation system can even be switched off completely so the truck can be used by an operator as normal,” adds Smith. Another benefit of automating forklift trucks is that they can then be implemented without the need for complex integrations with software and warehouse management systems or, alternatively, integrated with existing software and systems.
This feature first appeared in the October issue of Logistics Manager.