Electric- or Fuel-powered lift trucks? Point/counterpoint.

April 1, 2003
There have been significant advances on both the battery-powered and the engine-powered sides of the lift truck market. Some of the advances on the electric

There have been significant advances on both the battery-powered and the engine-powered sides of the lift truck market. Some of the advances on the electric side have been cited to make a case against lift trucks that use internal combustion engines. MHM decided to present both sides in this edition of our newsletter and let you decide.

First up: Filippo Baldassari, sales and marketing manager at Carer, a Cotignola, Italy-based provider of more than 50 different lift truck models, all of them electric. Carer offers lift trucks in three or four-wheel configurations and with capacities ranging from 1,600 to 35,000 pounds. In this Q/A, Baldassari explains how AC motor control is making a difference in the choice between battery- and internal -combustion-engine-powered models.

Q : Why should a company which has been using IC units for many years now change to electric ?

A : Because now more than in the past there are high performance electric lift trucks that can reach the same productivity of IC and are suitable to work outdoors. Moreover the electric units are environmentally clean and are in keeping with the new stricter regulations about industrial equipments that can be used indoors.

Q : How is it possible to reach the same performance and productivity of an IC ?

A : Now we can design electric lift trucks by using high voltage, high power motors and electronic systems. We can easily reach 80V or 96V in the units up to 17.000 pounds and even 120V in the bigger units. The electric motors can now go up to 50 KW .

Q : Even if the electric units are designed to reach the same performance of IC inside a warehouse, can they be used outside in the rain?

A : Our electric vehicle is properly designed to work outdoors under the rain or in the snow/ice. The "bullet train" in Japan is electric and it is one of the most reliable trains even when it rains! Submarines are also powered by electric motors and they are in the water !

Q : What kind of cost should users expect to service electric units if they are as complex as a train or a submarine?

A : In Europe 50% of the lift trucks sold in the last few years have been electric. And the reason is the much lower operating cost compared to IC units, in addition to the fact that electric power is environmentally clean and in keeping with regulations. If you compare the purchase cost of an electric unit with the one of an IC, the IC is cheaper; the chassis itself is cheaper. Moreover an electric lift truck needs a battery and a charger. But the purchase price of industrial equipment is only a portion of the total cost. The total cost is given by fixed costs, which are purchase price divided by the number of years you use the equipment, plus the yearly operating costs. The operating costs are variable in function of the number of hours you work per year and they are much lower for an electric unit.

Q : How can electric performance compare to IC models?

A : Electrics are much simpler, therefore more reliable and less subject to wear than IC. In the IC you have filters to be replaced, transmission and motor subject to wear. With electrics you need to replace only the bearings; the motor can last for ten years. Electrics don't have a transmission, don't have filters to be replaced, and the electric motor itself is not subject to wear except for the bearings. Therefore service on an electric unit is really cheaper. Fewer parts to be replaced, less labor needed, and lower unit downtime.

Q : But what about charging and the cost of electricity?

A : Thanks to the great energy efficiency you achieve with 80V, 96V and 120V motors, the new generation electric units can work at least 8 hours, if not 10 or 12 hours before you recharge the battery. Moreover, while you have to pay for electricity to recharge the battery every shift, you also have to refuel the IC units, and that means thousands of liters of fuel to be purchased in one year. Therefore if you consider the total cost of an electric in terms of purchase price, plus service costs, plus energy costs, it is 25 to 40% cheaper than the total cost of an IC.

To get the IC side of the story, MHM asked Keith Allmandinger, director of marketing and product support for Nissan, to make the case for engine-powered lift trucks. But before we asked him to address AC, we asked about another challenge to engine powered lift trucks: The California Air Resources Board's (CARB) proposal to ban the use of certain engine-powered lift trucks.

Q: Manufacturers of engine-powered list trucks have been faced with some serious regulatory challenges recently, especially the proposal that models under 8,000 pounds be all electric -- at least in California. How would this measure affect your business?

A: This measure certainly could have a detrimental effect on our sales. But worse yet is the detrimental effect this could have on our customers. Electric lift trucks do not have all of the capabilities of engine powered models, so in many cases the customer would be forced to change their applications to fit the limited capabilities of the electric truck. So in the end, it's a lose/lose situation for both the customers and manufacturers.

Q: What's motivating this effort? You would think the original EPA emission restrictions set for 2004 and 2007 activation would be sufficient to guarantee a safe work environment.

A: CARB is behind this to the best of our knowledge, although battery and charger companies would certainly stand to benefit from this regulation. Current and future regulations should bring significant benefits to the workplace and certainly constitute significant reductions in emission levels. The efforts and cost required to achieve these low emission levels and the costs involved with testing and monitoring these systems has been a great burden on the manufacturers. Internal combustion lift truck manufacturers have been required to steadily increase the levels of low emission forklifts sold into California since 2001 with no requirement for the end users to buy them. This has placed all of the financial burden on the manufacturer. More time should be given to the manufacturers to recover their costs involved in this significant regulation change.

Q: What kind of threat does the new push to AC technology on the electric side represent to manufacturers of IC trucks?

A: The push to AC technology does not pose a threat to manufacturers of I.C. products. AC technology adds benefits for electric truck users, but again, is not a direct replacement for the engine powered forklift. Most manufacturers of engine powered lift trucks also offer a complete range of electric forklifts, so AC technology in itself does not pose a threat.

Q: Will there always be a place for IC powered engines or might fuel cells or some other form of alternative power source revolutionize the industrial truck industry?

A: We feel strongly that there will be, for the foreseeable future, a definite need for the engine powered forklift. Many applications are best served by the engine powered truck and will continue to be unless some significant changes occur in the way customers use our equipment. Until electric lift trucks can run longer, climb ramps, push loads, travel faster, and work continuously without stopping, the engine powered lift truck will continue to be needed. And developments in fuel cells, alternative fuel sources, and other enhanced technologies should work to further enhance the use of engine powered lift trucks.

Q: What other forms of material handling pose the biggest threat to the lift truck market in general as their technologies develop (i.e., AGVs,conveyors, etc.)?

A: The material handling industry is mature. Conveyors, AGVs, and other types of material handling equipment are an integral part of the industry and they have their specific applications. In some situations these items replace lift trucks in routine load handling, but they also have their limitations and it is unlikely that they will eliminate the need for lift trucks.