Take Part in the Lift Truck's Rebirth

June 1, 2001
In this special report, productivity and safety take the front seat in the development of new lift truck technology and power sources.

Take Part in the Lift Truck’s Rebirth

Productivity and safety are driving research and development for lift truck OEMs. More than ever, the end user is in the driver’s seat for vehicle design.

By Tom Andel, chief editor

Influence is rampant in the lift truck industry. It’s shaping the design of the vehicles you rely on to keep material moving through your plant or warehouse. Europe. The Environmental Protection Agency. OSHA. The automotive industry. Electrical utilities. All of these entities have influenced the latest lift truck design trends. But as diverse as they seem, these trend-setters share a common interest: your operator’s productivity.

Power play

The market is pretty evenly split between fuel- and battery-powered lift trucks. But neither side is content to keep it that way. Both are battling to conquer their shortcomings — emissions on the fuel side and the need for longer duty cycles on the battery side. Technical advances are resulting in cleaner internal combustion engine models as well as electric-powered trucks that operate longer between battery charges.

Alternative fuels like compressed natural gas (CNG) have been talked about as possible solutions to the carbon monoxide emission problem, but until recently the infrastructure to support fueling stations was insufficient. That’s why companies like the Kingdom Group, headquartered in New York City, have dedicated themselves to providing an affordable, fast-fill CNG fueling infrastructure.

Kingdom handles everything from conversion, station design, equipment installation and regulatory approvals. Service is aimed at private fleet operators in all industries. And with the EPA’s goal to significantly reduce the exhaust emissions of spark-ignited engines by 2004, companies like Kingdom, as well as NESC Williams in Cleveland and FuelMaker Corporation in Toronto, are using established customers in the airline industry as a point of entry for establishing a fueling infrastructure for lift trucks.

Fresh air

Industrial truck manufacturers are doing everything they can to find ways to help customers comply with pending EPA clean-air regulations. They’re getting a head start by concentrating on their markets in California, where the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has already set the standard for emission limits. For example, Nissan launched its “Breathe Easy” campaign, offering its CARB-compliant H20-II and H25 four-cylinder engines on its 3,000-8,000-pound cushion and 3,000-6,000-pound pneumatic models. These engines feature electronic feedback systems and three-way catalytic converters.

Twenty-five percent of the engine-powered product Nissan and any lift truck vendor sells into California this year has to be CARB compliant. This percentage increases every year — 50 percent in 2002, 75 percent in 2003, and total compliance in 2004. In 2004, Federal EPA is expected to adopt the same standard with some variations for the entire country.

“The requirement will be for a clean-air, low-emission lift truck for everyone in the U.S.,” says Keith Allmandinger, director of marketing and product support for Nissan Forklift Corporation North America. “The clean air engine adds somewhere from $700-$1,000 to the price of the truck, but with the low emissions and the benefit to the employees, you’re getting the ease of an IC truck. If you run a shift and a half, you won’t require the second battery you’d need to power an electric.”

Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks is also selling product with cleaner running engines in California and making them available throughout North America. While the company wants to capitalize on the benefits of the new engine systems, it must also be sensitive to the concerns of its price-sensitive markets.

“We’ve opted not to take a price increase associated with the implementation of this system,” says Fred Mallett, manager of product development for Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks. “Even though there is an associated cost increase for the manufacturer, this is outweighed by the marketable benefits to all end users.

“Apart from the low emissions, there are stipulations on extended warranties in California for fuel system components over and above our standard warranty,” he continues. “It’s adjustment free, and the components are tamper resistant. Controls are sealed so that there are no adjustments required on the fuel system. It’s managed by an electronic control system. In fact, the management of the fuel system is more like an electric truck than a conventional IC truck.”

Lift truck OEMs with roots in the automotive industry have adopted manufacturing efficiencies to help them afford the product support and innovation discussed here. Jack Shnelly, product support manager at Hyundai, explains:

“We’re targeting the 3,000- to 6,000-pound lift truck market, LPG systems and diesel. When I toured Hyundai’s automotive plant in Korea, the car was hardly touched by human hands in final assembly. They set up the same type of JIT efficiency in building the lift trucks they ship over here for us. That’s how they’ve been able to keep costs down.”

Hyundai’s industrial truck presence in the U.S. is growing. It has 40 dealers in place and plans to add another 20 by the end of the year.

What AC adds

AC motors have been generating a lot of interest in the lift truck world lately. The trend started overseas but is making its way to the U.S.

Germany-based Jungheinrich is testing the waters in America with its product lines. It started developing and offering AC sit-down trucks in 1998. Today about 80 percent of its 4-wheel electrics are AC trucks. In 2003 its 3-wheelers will have it, and by 2005 Jungheinrich expects all its electric lift trucks to be sold with AC motors.

AC offers the following advantages:

• Travel speeds up to 12.5 mph and lift speeds up to 108 fpm;

• Up to 30 percent less energy consumption than conventional electric lift trucks due to highly efficient controllers and regenerative braking;

• Totally enclosed motors, gears and multiple disc brakes that are maintenance free (no contactors or brushes).

Toyota Material Handling USA has invested a lot of R&D capital in AC motor control to bring electric lift trucks into greater power parity with internal combustion engine models. It will follow last year’s launch of an AC pneumatic 4-wheel electric model with a cushion-tire version this year. Why is Toyota pursuing AC so aggressively?

“We’re finding that the AC drive system results in more battery life than the DC system,” answers Brett Wood, Toyota’s national product planning manager. “That means getting more work done with the same battery using conventional charging methods.”

Wood explains that many users of electric lift trucks run 8- to 10-hour shifts. When the vehicle runs down to 20 percent discharge before the end of a shift, the operator then has to leave his/her work environment, go to a battery changing or charging station and hook up the battery, or pull it out and put in another.

“That’s lost productivity,” he adds. “That’s why we’re focusing on adding battery life.”

Another strategy for doing this involves converting the inertial energy generated while braking and reversing to electrical energy and sending it back to the battery. Toyota is adding another form of regenerative energy to new models, combining it with its AC drive motors. It’s done while coasting to a stop.

“Even when coasting for a few feet the motor is retarding the speed, and the new lift truck will coast to a stop quicker,” Wood concludes. “The braking force produced by the motor generates electricity, which is retrieved by the battery. It’s not abrupt, but it gives better control to the vehicle, extended brake life and more energy returned to the battery.”

Advances like this lead many to believe that electric lift trucks are closing the application gap between themselves and IC-powered lift trucks. Explains Kim Wanamaker, vice president of sales and marketing for Drexel Industries LLC, these AC components result in lower discharge levels per cycle and thus longer battery life. Drexel offers AC as standard on its MDR line of multi-directional reach trucks for narrow-aisle applications.

“The cost of AC is coming down as more manufacturers offer the option,” he adds. “The operator gets improved operation during a shift and longer operating periods between charging.”

Users in the U.S. can thank improvements in lift truck controls for AC’s arrival on American turf. Mark Rossler, corporate marketing manager for Linde, explains that the higher voltages used in Europe — 72 to 80 volts — made better use of AC until now.

“When you’re operating at a higher voltage, you’re operating at a much lower amperage,” he explains. “That makes it possible to run the trucks more aggressively, generating less heat in the process. One of the drawbacks to AC is the controller; in the process of converting the voltage, it generates a lot of heat. Any time you generate heat on an electric truck, that’s lost efficiency. The newer controllers are becoming better and more efficient.”

AC is far enough along from a development standpoint where the advantages of higher travel speeds and better shift life are making it more attractive to the U.S. market. Rich Robinson, vice president of engineering for Drexel, adds that with those improved controls, AC is more effective with the 48-volt systems more common in this country. Whether it will work its way down into vehicles with lower voltages remains to be seen.

Incentives for electric

The electric lift truck is gaining allies among electric utility companies around the country. Many point to the environmental concerns associated with internal combustion. Some are even starting to offer incentives for going with electrics. And with the promise of electric automobiles continually stalling out in Detroit, lift trucks may provide utilities with an attractive alternative showcase for the power of electricity.

“Once we saw there would be no profits in the short term [coming from the Big Three], we started looking more closely at the non-road side of transportation, including lift trucks,” says Bob Hawkins, manager of electric transportation for Alabama Power Company. “A lot of the lift truck and battery dealers were looking for someone who would help them market their products, so we made a point of forming partnerships with the dealers throughout Alabama.”

Three years ago this utility company developed an incentive program wherein it pays $100 to the dealer for every Class 1 and 2 electric lift truck it sells, and $50 for every Class 3. As a result, the power company got back in business about 54 times what it paid out in incentives, and the market is growing.

Hawkins admits that electric lift trucks don’t fit every application, but in most they are cost comparable — sometimes, with a little help. Where the cost of batteries and chargers might make electrics the more expensive choice, Alabama Power is looking at financing those items at an affordable rate and making them an operating line item on the customer’s power bill.

Another strategy to make electric lift trucks more attractive is to make some of these extra items unnecessary. Fast-charging is being pitched as a way to eliminate battery changing equipment and even battery rooms. This is a relatively new technology that delivers a charge current up to four times higher than conventional chargers.

Several battery manufacturers have expressed reservations about the safety of this technology, but providers of this equipment have answers to those concerns.

“We’ve tested the top four or five manufacturers’ batteries and exchanged information with manufacturers about how fast-charging reacts with the battery and vice versa,” says Peter Michalski, director for the Edison Minit-Charger, a product of Edison Source. “We’re now approaching more than 300,000 shift hours of fast charger use. The battery manufacturers are realizing that if you fast-charge correctly there isn’t a negative impact on the battery. Operators can charge during shift breaks, shift changes and lunch breaks. With the correct ratio of chargers to trucks in a facility, state of charge throughout the course of the day will fluctuate between 40 percent to 80 percent. The owner may see savings anywhere between 10 percent to 30 percent over a battery-room-oriented operation.”

Michalski says that once all the battery manufacturers are on board with fast-charging, their products will evolve to make them even more fast-chargeable. Lift truck design will also change, he says, with connections and cabling becoming integral to the back end of the lift truck.

AeroVironment, makers of PosiCharge equipment for fast-charging, provides different types of chargers for different types of operations. Its ELT 600 and 750 models fast-charge 48-volt lift truck packs while the ELT 680 fast-charges 80-volt packs. Ford Motor Company’s Dearborn Assembly Plant has been using this equipment successfully with its lift trucks for two years while American Airlines uses AeroVironment’s MVS multi-vehicle fast-charger for its ground support equipment.

“The primary cost advantage is increased productivity,” says Larry Hayashigawa, product manager with AeroVironment. “The lift truck driver doesn’t have to leave his job for a half-hour to change a battery. A battery attendant doesn’t have to drop off batteries. You have fewer battery movements because you have fewer batteries, and you’re not pulling them out as often. The higher the battery-to-truck ratio is, the more the return on investment. If you’re doing 2.2 battery changes a day, we estimate the lifecycle savings are $15,000 to $18,000 a year, which will pay for the fast charger in the first year.”

What’s coming?

The best way to ensure long lift truck lifecycles is to employ operators who’ll take good care of them. That’s where the U.S. can learn a few lessons from Europe. Even the leading lift truck makers in this country agree that European employers do a better job with operator care and maintenance.

“Europe seems to have more of a stakeholder mentality where North America has more of a shareholder mentality,” says Mike Gallagher, vice president of design at Crown. “With a stakeholder mentality there tends to be more input among all those involved in the lift truck decision. As such, the culture is one where operator creature comforts are a given.”

Gallagher points to the fact that on European reach trucks, full seats are standard. But he adds that if you look at warehouse tasks anywhere around the world, operators have to get on and off the truck frequently to work the load.

“That’s one reason Crown offers a stand-up reach truck with a tiltable seat,” he continues. “It lets operators sit occasionally, but can also allow for an immediate change to the standing mode. This makes for a flexible truck that provides for operator comfort and efficiency.”

Rick Haines, product advocate at Raymond Corporation, says standing is often the way to operate in warehousing operations, and lift truck manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad are finding ways to make that more comfortable.

“I think there’s a trend to stand-up counterbalanced trucks,” he continues. “As people look more at the application rather than submit to the emotion of sitting down, they start realizing that standing up is a very comfortable and very productive way to do things — especially if you’re on and off a truck all day long.”

John Feeley, president of Schaeff, sees benefits to both positions. That’s why this company, which has specialized in three-wheel stand-up narrow-aisle lift trucks for years, is finally offering customers a chance to sit down.

“We’ve entered into an agreement with an Italian manufacturer and are exploring opportunities to expand our product line in the next 12 to 24 months,” he says. “It’s a sit-down model that will be produced in Italy. Once demand for the product outpaces manufacturing capability at that plant, we’ll begin producing it here in America.”

Feeley expects other operator-oriented features that are popular in Europe to make their way to the U.S. For example, many European trucks have fully integrated, multi-function controls in the arm rest. This puts control of all functions at the operator’s fingertips. He also sees value in adopting the 4- to 5-inch-diameter steering wheel, adding to control and operator comfort.

“The more we can win that operator over feeling comfortable, safe and productive in our product, the more likely we’ll close that deal with the owner,” Feeley adds.

Many material handling purists have lauded the futuristic lift trucks exhibited in Germany at the Hannover Fair as representative of a new global standard of excellence. Although many of those features are still too expensive for American tastes, they still have the power to influence.

“The Hannover Fair has had a major impact on the design, manufacturing and engineering of all Hoist lift trucks,” says Nick Marshall, marketing manager for Hoist, which acquired the assets of Elwell Parker last year. “The design trends in lift trucks are very similar to what we’ve seen in automobiles. On the exterior, square, sharp lines are being replaced by flowing, rounded edges. On the interior, operator controls are wrapped around the driver — within easy sight and reach.”

Will workers in American plants and warehouses soon be driving lift trucks with rotating cabs that swivel 180 degrees in either direction and have rear-mounted masts? That’s not gee-whiz technology any more. And some lift truck manufacturers say it’s viable and justifiable from a safety aspect alone.

“If the operator could swivel that entire cab and move that truck in either direction with full visibility, that’s a neat feature,” Feeley concludes.

Jere French, vice president of TCM Lift Trucks, says some of that innovation isn’t so new. “That rear-mounted mast was implemented with Allis-Chalmers Corp. back in 1970,” he notes. “There were 37 patents left on it at that time. The operator had the ability to select what he wanted to do with the cab, if he wanted to stay down or go up with the load. We never manufactured it because it was too costly, but some of the patents that came out of it were implemented in our electric trucks at the time and into our IC product.”

We’ve covered many innovations in this article, many of which were user-driven. The message is clear. Tell your needs to your dealer. That’s how great lift trucks are born. MHM

For More Information ...

Information on lift truck vendors can be accessed through our Web site: www.mhmanagement.com. Contact information for the companies mentioned in this article is listed below:

AeroVironment, www.posicharge.com

Clark, www.clarkmhc.com

Crown, www.crown.com

Drexel, www.drexelindustries.com

Edison Minit-Charger, www.edison-source.com

FuelMaker, www.fuelmaker.com

Hoist Liftruck, www.hoistlift.com

Hyundai, www.hyundai.com

Jungheinrich, www.jungheinrich.com

Kalmar AC, www.kalmarac.com

Kingdom Group, www.thekingdomgroup.com

Komatsu, www.komatsuforkliftusa.com

Linde, www.linde.com

Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America, www.mcfa.com

NESC Williams, www.nesc-williams.com

Nissan, www.nissanforklift.com

Raymond, www.raymondcorp.com

Schaeff, www.Schaeff.com/Inc

TCM Lift Trucks, (713) 681-8888

Toyota, www.toyotaforklift.com

Yale Materials Handling, www.yale.com

Getting the Right Charge

At the least, fast-charging technology shot a load of energy into a somewhat complacent battery industry. There are strong opinions about this method, pro and con.

The moderate opinions, however, will say that no battery charging method fits every application, which, of course, is true. Therefore, here are a few factors you need to consider when deciding how to keep your lift trucks moving.

Fast charging is controversial primarily because it could fundamentally change how many batteries you buy and how often. It will also change how the industry measures battery life. The number-of-years measure will go out in favor of a more accurate measurement — amp-hours.

“Fast charging can eliminate battery change-out,” says Cal Tanck, director of marketing, GNB Industrial Power. “You may need fewer batteries on site, and you won’t need a battery room, which also eliminates those problems.”

Agreed Rick Hancock, western regional manager, Enersys Inc., “You could use two-thirds fewer batteries for an operation, which can be a huge cost savings.

“There’s little advantage to fast charging on single-shift operations,” continued Hancock. “On two-shift operations that also involve battery change-out, fast charging can save money.”

In general, lift trucks may not need three batteries each. Often 2.25 or 2.5 batteries per truck are sufficient for most applications. For pallet trucks, you may need only 1.5 batteries per truck.

“But, the way we all evaluate battery life, in calendar years, needs to change,” added Tanck. “We need a measure that indicates how much literal power is available in a battery, which means you need to know its amp-hours.” Tanck explains that the battery industry assumes users are charging a battery once a day, equalizing it and letting it cool, and that’s how they determine the average battery has a five-year life. But if you charge it two or more times a day, you still have a “five-year” battery life, you’re just using it up at a faster pace. “No one’s developed a good, inexpensive way to measure amp-hours out of a battery yet, because batteries are commodity products. But once they do, the industry will issue warranties based on amp-hours instead of years of life,” continued Tanck.

Fast charging is different from what’s usually called opportunity charging, even though both are done during breaks, shift changes and shut-down periods.

“Fast charging puts significantly more energy into a battery,” said Larry Hayashigawa, product manager, AeroVironment. “In addition, most fast chargers have excellent monitoring systems to minimize heating and adjustcharging algorithms to maximize charge efficiency.

“Opportunity charging, if done properly, can help a truck that requires, say, 20 percent more charge to finish off the day without having to resort to a full battery change,” continued Hayashigawa. “It’s most useful in charging applications where energy usage is typically less than the equivalent of 1.2 batteries per day. When trucks require 1.5 batteries or more per day (an additional 50 percent charge), then fast charging is a solution. It can keep trucks between a 40 percent and 80 percent state of charge without overheating or changing a battery. So you don’t have to recharge up to a full 100 percent. You can pick up extra juice for a few extra hours.

“Bear in mind, though,” continued Hayashigawa, “that unlike fast charging, opportunity charging does not measure battery temperature. The possibility of overheating a battery is an ongoing problem.”

Presently, fast charging is used on wet-cell batteries. “There are very few lead-acid batteries we’re aware of that don’t work with fast-charging systems,” said Hancock. “We’ve had an installation at Nestle for three years. Actually, you shouldn’t opportunity charge a lead-acid battery. A short-charge is still considered a cycle, so you’re using up cycles out of your battery. It should always undergo a full charge, followed by a watering, and then an equalization. But most operators won’t or can’t do that.”

Engineers at MTC think it’s too soon for fast charging. But they do agree that opportunity charging has drawbacks. “It can shorten the life of the battery,” said Terry Orf. “The average battery has 1,500 cycles, but actual run-time hours will be a different number, usually less.”

Use of fast charging on gel batteries is still under evaluation. Gel batteries tend to have a higher internal resistance, which can result in faster battery overheating. And regardless of charge method, the key to proper charging is to control temperature rise in the battery cells.

The need for better temperature monitoring systems is probably the single most important aspect to come out of the recent developments in battery charging. Most developers of fast chargers have accurate monitoring systems to ensure a battery doesn't get overheated. Opportunity charging systems typically don’t monitor battery temperature at all.

“Ideally, battery charging and battery maintenance should be automatic,” said Hancock. “The battery should hook up, charge, equalize, and so on without operation intervention. That’s really what the industry wants and needs. Operators have other things to think about, like moving loads.”

But Orf brings up other concerns. Interested parties dispute the need for, let alone potential importance of, many of these concerns, so be sure to investigate before you buy. Orf says battery design needs to change to accommodate the larger influx of current. “It’s not the size of the cables on the outside,” said Orf, [although in most cases batteries need larger cables to handle the extra current] “it’s the plates on the inside that need to be able to carry more current.”

Others, like Waseem Ahmad, vice president of engineering at Hawker Powersource, mention the need for changes in venting to help cool batteries.

If fast charging is not for you, it doesn’t mean your charging options are limited. Technical developments are influencing other charging systems, making them more efficient and able to charge better. Technologies like switchmode/high frequency provide more DC output from power coming out of the wall. Power factor correction is big in Europe and may come here soon. It changes the frequency, resulting in more power. It’s a more efficient charger with smaller components. And, along with fuel cell developments, smaller systems will likely be the next changes to watch in charging technology.

— Leslie Langnau, senior technical editor

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