Manufacturers of counterbalance trucks are feeling the pressure from customers to provide more sustainable technology, leading to an increase in the use of electric vehicles. Alexandra Leonards reports…
Across the logistics sector there is a shift towards finding new ways of powering the supply chain. Influenced perhaps by guilty consciences, but more likely pressures and legislation outside of the industry, logistics is moving towards a greener future. And that’s no better demonstrated than by the forklift truck market.
Electric power is not only growing in popularity and importance for the automotive sector. It is also becoming a newly favoured choice for many businesses in the market for counterbalance trucks.
Francesco Pampuri from Baoli agrees that the move towards electric trucks is largely to do with the growing importance of environmental sustainability and the reduction of emissions. According to him, in the European Union, electric trucks were outselling diesel models as far back as 2009. A gap he predicts will increase with new regulations which will see the market share of diesel engines diminish even further.
“Having the right power choices for the specific application has never been more important,” says Tracy Brooks, industry solutions group manager, Hyster Europe. “So, which power option is the future?”
It often depends on the application. But over the past few years, the use of electric counterbalance trucks has certainly grown. Of course counterbalance trucks are often used for heavy jobs, like loading and unloading in the yard – and in the past, more often than not, they’ve been powered by diesel. But this is beginning to change.
“Energy consumption and ergonomics are at the high end of the market requirements,” says John Clements, business development manager at UniCarriers UK. “In 2019, new emission regulation changes will be introduced, and if customers’ look at cleaner IC options, costs will increase.”
And this is part of the reason why the company has seen a migration to electric in customer needs. Due to the required reduction in carbon footprints, alongside financial benefits, many businesses are now more inclined to explore new ways of powering their materials handling equipment.
“This can be seen in the BITA figures; these show a gradual move from a 50/50 split IC/Electric to more like 25/75,” says Clements. “This is due to the latest generation of electric trucks being built to cope with operating externally in all weathers.
“An electric truck is more expensive to buy but its life cycle costs are lower over five years. This is due to the lower maintenance and the high fluctuating costs of carbon based fuels.”
Manufacturers are exploring the possibilities for trucks that operate using alternative, more environmentally friendly, power sources, says Hyster’s Tracy Brooks. Hyster is developing a zero-emission, high-capacity electric lift truck, “with a view that, in the near future, ports and heavy industry may be able to electrify their entire big truck fleets,” she says.
Of course there are a range of reasons why a company would switch from a diesel powered counterbalance truck to an electric truck. Not just for sustainability. There are benefits like improved efficiency from battery power, and low cost of ownership. Electric trucks are now also becoming even more economical than previous models, as well as offering environmentally friendly operations with no emissions.
However, for many businesses, LPG, diesel or CNG internal combustion trucks may continue to be the best choice.
With the move towards electric vehicles, there is a varied battery market. Lithium ion is one of the technologies that is increasing in popularity – it has very fast recharging times, and because of the absence of emissions during recharging, it makes it possible to eliminate the need for dedicated recharging rooms, which lowers the costs for the customer.
“At the moment lithium-ion is seen as the next step, with benefits to the customer converting from IC trucks,” says John Clements of UniCarriers. “If an operator runs 24/7 the inclusion of spare lead acid batteries reduces the advantages in cost and safety.”
A lithium battery also means that no spare battery is needed. An electric truck can extend its use of the battery through using the energy from regenerative braking.
“However, these products are still quite expensive and are convenient only in those environments where the advantages offered by this new technology bring truly remarkable benefits,” says Pampuri. “The majority of customers still opt for traditional lead batteries which still guarantee excellent performances at lower prices compared with lithium ion technology.”
Some of Hyster’s trucks are able use lithium-ion batteries, including electric counterbalance lift trucks, reach trucks and low-level order pickers. “Lithium-ion batteries are also becoming more widely available as a power option in the pallet and stacker truck market,” says Brooks. “But is lithium ion the right power choice over lead-acid batteries? Again, that depends on the specific requirements of the individual operation.”
A big advantage of the technology is that it allows for opportunity charging, which makes it ideal for stop/start operations.
“Meanwhile, a standard lead-acid battery can offer good battery life when well-maintained and charged overnight, and tends to be the best choice where the truck is in constant use, presenting no opportunity to charge during the shift,” says Brooks. “When looking at counterbalance trucks, the weight of lead-acid battery also acts as a counterweight, unlike lithium-ion which is lighter, requiring potential modifications to the truck or battery box.”
Richmond points out that research and development has long been undertaken to review the safety and energy efficiency of battery technology. “As consumers and businesses alike have become more concerned with sustainability, the use of lithium-ion battery technology has seen an increased pick up over the last few years,” says Richmond. “Lithium-ion batteries have an extended life expectancy of many thousands of full cycles and a higher number of partial cycles by comparison to the average life of a lead acid battery.”
From diesel to electric
Covers, a family owned timber and builders merchants, previously only ran diesel forklift trucks in its fleet for yard duties, including the unloading of lorries.
The business decided to order a Doosan B30X-7 3-tonne electric counter balance truck, and after a successful trial period a second B30S-7 was ordered. The trucks have now been in operation at the business’ main branch in Chichester for some time, and results show an unexpected strategic shift in the type of trucks that Covers expects to specify for its future needs.
Alongside the obvious environmental reasons for considering electric trucks, Covers’ energy cost comparison of diesel vs electricity show huge savings – a cost per hour of £0.29 for electric as opposed to £2.30 for diesel.
“We are a very environmentally conscious company, so we wanted to explore the possibility of using electric counterbalance trucks in the yard,” says Adam Conrad, group transport manager at Covers.
“But what was impressive was that when we compared the expected total lifetime costs, it showed in favour of the electric truck – which was great. However, we needed to prove the concept by putting an electric truck through its paces on site. The trial truck proved the case, so we ordered a second.”
There were questions about whether or not the first electric truck acquired would perform as well as the diesel in such a harsh environment.
“The first electric truck has been in place for over a year now and the second for several months, and they are really standing up to it, with no problems to date – no issues at all,” says Conrad.
Another concern was whether or not the battery would last all day before it needed recharging. In practice, Covers found that the heavy-duty 80-volt batteries only needed to be charged every third day. “Generally, we charge the trucks overnight and top up the electrolyte once a week, which is easily manageable, especially when you look at all the positives of going electric,” he says. “We are now looking at ways to use the electricity generated by our solar panels in our charging regime.”
Listing some of the benefits of an electric fleet Conrad says: “They are cleaner, no emissions, they cost a fraction in terms of energy, have fewer moving parts so servicing is cheaper, they can move in and out of our warehouses without any problems because there are no exhaust gasses, and you can easily customise how the trucks drive by setting parameters such as speed of lift and travel.”
Both Doosan electric counterbalance trucks supplied are standard with Doosan’s well renowned oil-cooled disc brakes, and have been upgraded with weather-proof cab, 5.5m triplex mast, hydraulic side-shift fork positioner and full LED road lights. Conrad is looking to expand to other areas of the business: “We will probably put another electric Doosan in next year in another area and we will look to roll them out to other branches too.”
The importance of safety in the warehouse can often be overlooked. “It’s important that innovations consider all aspects of the warehouse,” says Steve Richmond, director – logistics systems, Jungheinrich UK. “Innovations in forklift truck technology are, for example, a crucial part of making not just the trucks but also the working environment safer.”
Digital location solutions can be used to locate trucks inside the warehouse, and these systems can also offer a real-time position-based analysis of movements, which can be viewed live or retrospectively.
“The system can calculate a truck’s current position at all times,” adds Richmond. “By analysing the resulting motion data, businesses can drive efficiencies by managing their fleets more efficiently, while also increasing the level of warehouse safety.”
Pedestrians in the warehouse are often the most likely to be harmed in the event of an incident. “ As such, it has become increasingly important for organisations to consider solutions that provide pedestrian detection and speed control,” says Richmond.
“On-board cameras, scanners or sensors, for instance, can be used to continuously scan for potential obstructions in a truck’s path.
“When an obstacle is detected and identified, the system will deliver audible and visual alerts for the driver, while automatically slowing the truck to ‘crawl’ speed or ultimately stopping the vehicle in emergency mode. “
Of course, these days, most trucks include a number of safety and assistance systems to help the operator identify critical situations in advance and reduce the risk of accidents like collisions and incorrect operation.
“ Various functions include reversing cameras with personnel detection and digital solutions such as indoor tracking, which uses sensor technology to mark particular accident black spots within the warehouse,” adds Richmond.
48 tonne electric truck
Hyster Europe is developing a 48-tonne capacity laden container handling truck powered by electric motors.
“The first electric Hyster Big Truck, powered by lithium-ion battery, is at our test facility in Weeze, Germany,” says Jan-Willem van den Brand, director big truck product strategy & solutions for Hyster.
“The first trucks are being developed with lithium-ion batteries. However, once fully developed, we aim to offer the truck with a choice of three power options. A combination of a small or medium battery and a Nuvera fuel cell, or it can be powered by battery only,” continues van den Brand.
“This truck is being developed in response to the evolving needs of customers, who are increasingly demanding zero-emission trucks to support their environmental goals, while still specifying the right truck for their particular application needs.”
Although Hyster can offer lithium-ion batteries as a power source on many trucks, Li-Ion power will have more limited use in electrifying container handling trucks. Battery capacity is currently not sufficient for the most intense applications without opportunities to re-charge during the shift.
“This is where fuel cells come in,” says van den Brand. “These innovative Big Trucks are expected to be able to support continuous operation with operator-friendly re-charge or quick H2 (hydrogen fuel) refill options, delivered through our relationship with Nuvera Fuel Cells.”
This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, February 2018