Chain of Thought

Walmart fits itself for fuel cells

Walmart has never been afraid to be bold when it comes to living up to its environmental sustainability pledge—even if it means moving away from the familiar. For material handlers, one of the most familiar things is a pallet truck. So when Walmart Canada decided to try fuel-cell-powered pallet trucks at its new perishable distribution center outside of Calgary, Alberta, the lift truck vendor involved in the project made it clear that the change would require a change in how operators interact with this equipment.

Fuel cells are still in the beginning stages of development in the industrial truck world, so OEMs like Crown Equipment have to take a research-based approach with every project. Its latest project was equipping its PC 4500 Series pallet trucks for this Walmart application, which will go full speed ahead with them in September. The Calgary facility is the first complete distribution center in Canada to be powered exclusively by hydrogen fuel cells.

The promise and the challenge of this project involved incorporating fuel cell controls and gauges into the pallet truck's dashboard. This would mean operators would no longer need to stop work to access the truck's control box to check the status of the fuel cell. However, this technology isn't at a point where you can just buy the fuel cell of your choice and pop it into the lift truck of your choice.

Walmart chose to use Plug Power GenDrive fuel cells. Eric Jensen, manager of new technology research and development for Crown, told me this required some re-engineering.

“We knew that the cell was taller than a conventional battery and would interfere with the steering,” he said. “We decided to build a prototype to move the fuel cell behind the driver but maintain the traction and plugging designed into the PC 4500. Lab testing of the prototype showed that we needed to move the fuel cell controls off of the cell and up to just below the Access 1 2 3 display on the truck dashboard so the operator could see the fuel level gauge and operate the controls without having to turn around or get off the truck.”

The lesson of this and any new fuel cell project is that one size does not fit all. That means customers who want to try fuel cells in their environment must be ready to work with their lift truck manufacturers to incorporate fuel cell lift trucks into their fleets. Not doing so would work counter to the original intent of adopting this technology.

“Without the proper research, adding a fuel cell power pack to a truck may compromise performance and safety standards,” Jensen added. “Our research has shown this to be true, and given us the knowledge we need to determine what alterations must be made to a fuel cell-powered Crown lift truck, if any, so that it meets the same industry standards as a truck running on a battery.”

The challenge in all this, as with any new technology, is that the pioneers pay a heavier cost burden than those who will eventually benefit from the lessons learned during these early trials. The more the fuel cell industry and lift truck manufacturers collaborate with these early adopters, the greater the acceptance by the material handling industry and the rest of its customers. Jensen believes the resulting sales volume will drive costs down for everyone.

I asked Jensen what the biggest surprise has been as Crown continues to qualify lift trucks for fuel cell applications.

“The speed of acceptance of this technology into our market,” he answered. “We are definitely seeing an increase in the number of customers with questions about the technology and wanting us to work with them to see if fuel cell lift trucks are a good fit for their facility and how they might help them meet their environmental sustainability goals.”

We'll check back on this project once Walmart has some operator feedback from its September startup. In the meantime, let me know if you have some questions or insights about the promise and the pain of fuel cell adoption. Without such input, fuel cells won't be worth the water they output.

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