The News Is in the Guts

June 1, 2001
"You can't judge a lift truck by its cover."

The News Is in the Guts

Pretend you never saw a lift truck. What would you say of the industry after looking at pictures of models introduced in the U.S. over the last 10 years?

“Big deal,” probably.

Attend a material handling show in Europe and you may come back with another impression of the industrial truck. You’ll see models with ergonomic “cockpits,” rounded corners and streamlined design.

“WOW!” you might say. “Now that’s a big deal.”

Sure. Do any of those lift trucks have real jobs? Not yet — but they sure are pretty to look at.

Let’s get real. Over the last 10 years there’s been a great deal going on inside the warehouse’s workhorse. You’ll put these latest developments to work before any of those futuristic prototypes show up at your door. Beneath the plain vanilla veneer of today’s industrial truck, several revolutionary features are starting to find a home:

• AC motor control;

• Cleaner-burning engines;

• Fast-charged batteries;

• Regenerative braking;

• Fuel cell technology.

OK, that last one is still a stretch. But the Big Three automakers are working on getting fuel- cell-powered cars on the road by 2004, and you can bet lift truck manufacturers will follow their lead. Linde is already working with Siemens and BMW on fuel cell technology. These systems use hydrogen in an environmentally friendly energy transformation that uses only water in the reaction. The result is an efficient, low-noise system with a net output of 10 kilowatts.

Linde’s Mark Rossler told me this system is still in the experimental stages, and it’ll be put to work in Europe before we see it in U.S. lift trucks. But that’s not as long a wait as you might think.

After a trial period running fuel-cell-powered lift trucks at one of its sites, Munich-based BMW announced it’s investigating the prospect of changing all 2,000 lift trucks in its factories to electric drives with fuel cells.

One of the roadblocks to widespread implementation is limited infrastructure, i.e., not enough fueling stations. Another is cost. Still another — at least in the auto industry — is the weight of the system. The metallic hydride technology used in the hydrogen tank poses a problem for cars. However, in a lift truck it would be put to good use as a counterweight.

The auto industry is still struggling with the cost issue at the consumer level. It’s pushing for a $4,000 tax credit to help customers offset the costs of vehicles with fuel cells. On the research and development side, the technology is sparking some interesting partnerships. General Motors and Toyota are collaborating on it while DaimlerChrysler and Ford are doing road tests of fuel cell cars in California.

While all of this fuel cell activity in the automotive world is exciting, there’s still a lot of other work going on among the lift truck OEMs. In fact the industrial truck industry is providing the proving grounds for this and other leading-edge technologies. Read our Cover Story for more information on what’s going on under the lift truck’s skin. That’s where the industrial-strength action is.

Tom Andel

chief editor

[email protected]

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