Mhlnews 2240 Lift Trucks 200

Lift Trucks—For Real

June 1, 2011
Today’s lift truck advances are driven by practical realities gleaned by OEMs and distributors anxious to provide the answers to their customers’ business needs.

The biggest things happening in the lift truck world these days are happening on the customer side, not at the OEM. Sure, there’s plenty of new product being pumped out by the lift truck vendors, but that pump is primed more these days by changes in the customers’ business than by what marketers think they can sell. Take it from a marketer.

According to Jonathan Dawley, vice president of marketing for Nacco Material Handling Group (NMGH), Wal-Mart is focusing its supply chain strategy on building smaller, “boutique type” distribution operations with 25,000 sq ft footprints rather than the 200,000 sq ft facilities of the past. The idea is to better service strategic regions.

“The influence of rail is growing,” he says. “Even 3PLs are looking at how they can locate their operations along the rail line to service the regions.”

For companies looking to expand into larger distribution spaces, space and energy efficiencies go hand-in-hand. They want to make best use of their square footage while leaving plenty of room for future growth. Kuna Foodservice, for example, worked with its local Jungheinrich dealer to apply moving-mast reach trucks that enable operators to make better use of the cube and better use of energy as they go in and out of spaces cooled to various degrees of refrigeration (see Foodservice Forklifts for Freezer and Fridge).

European Influence Gaining Traction

Those changes could stimulate growth from a DC perspective, adding more new buildings to the landscape, and whether large or small, requiring a lean management orientation to make best use of time and space. That has important implications for lift truck vendors. Will companies relocate their existing equipment, or will they need more equipment? Maybe these facilities will require lift trucks designed for shorter runs and more condensed storage operations. Maybe that means more emphasis on reach trucks or even very narrow aisle (VNA) equipment.

U.S.-based lift truck vendors are seriously considering such maybes, even paying more attention to European trends than they have before. After all, that’s what drove Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc. to establish a manufacturing and distribution agreement with Germany’s Jungheinrich lift trucks a couple years ago. Jeff Bowles, product line manager at Cat Lift Trucks, notes that what was seen at this year’s CeMat Material Handling Show in Germany was noticed by lift truck vendors in America.

“Very prominent at CeMat this year was the use of automated carts to work in sophisticated very narrow aisle applications, specifically freezer applications,” he says. “Instead of using a turret truck [the exhibit] had a high density storage facility analogous to a drive-in rack or a gravity flow rack where automated carts went in, selected pallets and brought them back to a reach truck.”

Bowles sees this automation trend as both a threat and an opportunity for material handling equipment dealers in the U.S.—in that they need to catch up with the growing acceptance of automation by their customers.

“We’re in an era of innovation because [lift truck vendors] are stuck in the same boxes and the trucks are stagnant in the same dimensional footprints,” he says. “We have to find other ways to improve our practices and that’s why technology right now is in the forefront, whether it’s automation or different energy sources that allow us to start to shrink that box that is a lift truck.”

Automated Operations

Lift truck dealers didn’t have to go to Germany to get that message. The same rumblings of lift truck automation could be felt in Chicago, where at this year’s ProMat attendees saw a Crown PC 4500 Series pallet truck equipped with automatic guided vehicle routing from Dematic. Using Dematic’s voice picking software, an order picker can do his job while this vehicle is automatically directed to each pick zone.

Similarly, The Raymond Corporation announced a collaboration with Seegrid to develop automated lift trucks that integrate vision guided technology — “Guided by Seegrid” — with Raymond lift trucks for both man-on and man-off functionality. The lift truck learns the individual steps of the operation it will be performing, guided by vision—not lasers, tape, wires or additional infrastructure. However, what makes this arrangement more attractive to the market isn’t all that technology as much as the comfort factor of applying it via a familiar service infrastructure—the dealer network. But why now?

“I would ask what’s been holding this back,” responds Scott Friedman, chief executive officer of Seegrid. “The need in the market has been there for a long time but there haven’t been appropriate technologies or an appropriate way to get it to customers. The comfort level issues are less around the automation than around the delivery system. Customers like the value they get from their suppliers and their service staff for parts, logistics and fleet management. That system has been finely honed over decades to deliver what customers want. Up until now you couldn’t deliver them automation in that way.”

Even Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc., which has established a comfortable leadership position supplying lift trucks through its dealers, has seen the wisdom of broadening its offering with automation and automatic guided vehicles (AGVs). According to Martin Boyd, vice president of product planning and marketing for TMHU, the initial stages of getting its national dealership network to support automation proved to be a bigger challenge than getting customers to buy into the technology.

“We have intentionally brought our dealers into the process by enabling them to support those AGVs in service,” Boyd says. “As they became accustomed to servicing, troubleshooting and programming these AGVs, the intimidation barriers they initially had with automation quickly eroded. Today, our dealership network is increasingly, and confidently, seeing themselves as solution providers rather than just equipment servicers and suppliers.”

Service Getting Smarter

Boyd believes one reason AGVs had limited success when first introduced to the market more than 30 years ago was that the manufacturers of these systems were the sole source of support. A nationwide servicing provider, such as we see with a lift truck distribution network, was never given that privilege. But now that lift trucks have essentially become every bit as sophisticated as AGVs, the learning curve on the service and support side isn’t as steep.

“With the technology leaps and bounds, especially with software development and memory storage, it’s not a stretch of imagination to believe that a lift truck technician can learn how an AGV operates, learn how to troubleshoot it, and even be able to troubleshoot the traffic control software,” Boyd continues. “By having that total solution mentality going into a customer, the likelihood for that customer coming back to that dealership is better.”

That doesn’t mean lift truck operators will be replaced by automation. Boyd believes companies will always need that human interaction with the material handling environment, but there are processes in manufacturing and distribution facilities that will yield a justifiable return on automation’s investment.

Mastering Alternative Powers

Just as lift truck automation is changing the buyer/seller relationship, so are trends in lift truck power sources. The productivity that’s possible with this new automation calls for power that can protect that productivity throughout an entire shift—and maybe beyond. But customers are still trying to get their heads around the nuances of quick charging and opportunity charging, as well as the promise of newer alternatives like hydrogen fuel cells and lithium-ion batteries.

“When you bring this energy into your facility there are limitations when it comes to amp draws,” says Dawley. “When putting 800 amps back into a battery in five minutes or less, what’s required from your line infrastructure? Customers have realized that if they were to put lithium ion in right now they would need to double the amperage in their facility. So we have to figure out how to meet that hurdle.”

Even today’s maintenance-free lead acid battery presents challenges and opportunities for both customers and service providers.

“So many dealers are getting out of the power game and turning it over to a battery manufacturer with a service base,” Dawley contends. “It used to be we were pushing dealers to service batteries, but as battery technology changes and you go to maintenance-free products, the dealer becomes a shuttling service between the customer and the battery manufacturer.

Frank Devlin, marketing manager, advanced technologies, for the Raymond Corp., believes that once the idea of replacing batteries with fuel cells takes hold, it will not only free users from the existing battery charging infrastructure, but it will give lift truck manufacturers more design freedom as well.

“You could make the truck a little shorter if you could redistribute that counterweight so you might see a reach truck in a 7 ft aisle instead of a 9 ft aisle,” he says. “Maximizing their space is a driving force for many customers. You could also add more space in the compartment for the operator or for the RF terminals and accessories people want to put on trucks now. And instead of a 36 volt reach you could have an 80 volt—with larger motors, faster lift speeds and maybe longer component life.”

But Joe LaFergola, Raymond’s manager of business and information solutions, thinks we’ll see more advances in battery technology before fuel cells become widely implemented. Lithium-ion and hybrid batteries show particular promise.

“One of the drawbacks of lead acid is it takes eight hours to charge and there should be a cooling cycle, meaning the user gets only one shift out of a battery per day,” he says. “And now that lead is approaching higher dollar per pound value, a lead acid battery for a high end application is approaching about $6,000. You’re looking at almost 50% of the cost of the truck with an investment in three batteries. Many of the battery manufacturers are looking at integrating lithium into the battery as a rapid charge type application so charge times can be reduced from 8 hours down to a half hour. They’re looking at different combinations of lithium to make it more affordable.”

Internal Combustion Trends

Just as lithium-ion battery advancements in on-road applications will broaden their welcome in off-road applications, internal combustion innovations are also heading from the highway to the aisleway. For example, liquid injection technology in automotive engines shows promise in IC lift trucks, according to Brian Feehan, vice president in charge of engine fuel programs for the Propane Education and Research Council.

“You maintain consistent power from a horsepower and torque perspective as a gasoline engine would,” he says. “Just a few years ago before we introduced liquid injection technology into onroad applications, there always had been some decrease from the horsepower and torque perspective. Now propane is able to mirror gasoline performance in onroad vehicles with liquid injection technology. There may be ways for us to explore those types of applications in the lift truck market.”

Propane hybrid technology also shows promise, according to Feehan.

“We already have propane hybrid systems for onroad applications in Asia,” he says. “Hyundai makes an LPG hybrid vehicle that they sell into the taxi cab markets in Korea. You have other companies using gasoline hybrid technology like Toyota with the Prius. We think it would be a simple extension to apply some of that technology to propane. And because of the prevalence of propane in the U.S., that technology, if economically feasible, could be introduced into the forklift market.”

Economic feasibility comes with market demand, so if any of the trends discussed in this article seem like a good fit for your workplace, let your dealer or OEM know. Better to drive the trends than be driven by them.

Latest from Powered Vehicles and Forklifts