Chain of Thought

AC lift trucks getting IC-like

The electric vs IC application gap continues to close. I just got back from a trip to Columbus, Indiana to attend the official unveiling of Toyota Material Handling USA's  8-Series 4-wheel AC electric lift truck. Here at their manufacturing plant, TMHU demonstrated the progress AC technology is making in narrowing that gap. Now AC is being applied to the controls as well as the drive system. That means it governs the hydraulics, including lift.

With this AC-powered system, you're actually talking about a series of subsystems—each of which either conserves or regenerates power to maximize run-time between battery charges. The motor's “power-keep” function compensates for battery depletion and loss of performance while energy is continually recovered through three forms of regenerative braking: coast control, plug braking and foot braking. TMHU says this will extend run times significantly. That's what's important to IC users.

“IC operators are used to that top speed because they may go 200 yards to get product and load a trailer and they couldn't get that performance with an electric before,” Marty Boyd told me. He's vice president of product planning and marketing for TMHU. “The AC technology was just on the drive system before, not on the controls. Now you have AC control of the hydraulics and the controller.”

But saying this new truck will compete effectively with IC trucks is a bold statement. How will they know this without proof from the field? That's what they intend to collect with the help of USAC Properties, Inc. the performance testing and endorsement arm for the United States Auto Club. They will test Toyota's Series 8 four-wheel against competitors' lift trucks. This will prove whether TMHU's engineers in Japan were able to deliver on their performance promise. These engineers will also go on a tour of customer sites in the U.S. and look for any improvement opportunities first-hand. What they learn during this tour will be applied to the design of the Series 9.

Meanwhile, those IC stalwarts who put the new Series 8 to their own test may find it necessary to adjust their own skills to the truck. However, Boyd told me the learning curve will be real fast. The main differences will be hydraulic handle placement and mini-levers, with feathering of the hydraulics. Plus, that operator will notice he's sitting a little higher. Boyd is confident the new truck's ergonomic improvements will further minimize that learning curve from IC to electric.

“With an IC truck, as soon as I get up to the rack I want to raise the mast four stages to pick up that load and I'm pushing that gas pedal and flooring the hydraulics and getting the engine to rev,” Boyd said. “Now you don't have to do that with electric; it's full speed and on-demand. We'll see the same kind of learning curve with our electric pneumatics. It's a little different configuration because with pneumatics you go a little bigger and the truck designers have the freedom to do what they want with the battery. You can actually drop the battery down below the drive tires and steer tires and once you do that there's a lot more you can do with the operator space.”

Boyd is looking forward to the results of customer surveys. They provide another rich source of ideas for the designers. Even something as seemingly minor as a cup holder is a big plus for operators who get thirsty during their shift. That's how this truck's 32 oz cup holder made it into the design. And for those operators who drink every drop of that super-sized soft drink and it shows in the size of their own frame, the overhead guard of the new truck has been designed to provide more operator entry and exit width than the previous model. The folks at TMHU didn't make that connection between the truck's frame and the expanding frame of many operators. That was my own observation. But if the lift truck fits, wear it.

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