The technology behind Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc. (TMHU)'s hybrid concept lift truck combines an IC engine, electric generator, and battery. The lift truck shifts automatically between battery and engine mode, simultaneously recharging the battery during operation.

It’s no question that lift trucks are getting smarter—and with this, user capabilities and access to information becomes better. Continuing efforts to streamline operations, cut energy costs, and improve data tracking have resulted in material handling advancements relative to lift trucks, fuel options, and associated fleet management systems.

“Since fork lift drivers are usually responsible for collecting the material movement data, drivers become the source for inventory transaction data, and therefore, many of the errors in inventory tracking records,” says Larry Mahan, President and COO of Sky-Trax.

Because data collection can be such a huge demand, often distracting lift truck operators from their primary tasks of moving materials, or—worse—safe driving, many lift truck manufacturers are developing automated systems.

“The solution is fully automated data collection performed by the smart vehicle, where load and location data are automatically generated for each transaction without human involvement,” says Mahan. “Devices based on optical technology and RFID technology are entering the marketplace and becoming integrated with other on-board sensors. We believe new optical sensors will complement existing RFID equipment to provide a variety of solutions suitable for a broad spectrum of load types.

“Our own results show 30 percent or better productivity improvement by removing bar code scanners, clipboards, and data entry terminals from fork trucks and installing fully automated data collection. The new ‘smart truck’ will be the standard for the future.”

The Energy Question
According to a recent press release issued by MHIA (Material Handling Industry of America), supply chain executives have showed varied responses to energy efficiency issues. Citing a survey by Accenture, the release suggested that most warehouse efficiency strides have addressed what might be termed ‘low hanging fruit:’ “These measures were predominantly in the areas of recycling and using natural light, lighting management systems, and energy efficient bulbs,” says the study.

“Previously overlooked as a small portion of the operating budget, the electric bill has become a key area for improvement in the warehouse manager’s responsibilities,” says Bryce Gregory, Research Engineer, The Raymond Corporation. “In response, warehouse managers are considering ways to reduce the energy consumed in their facilities—including energy consumed by electric lift trucks. In addition, there is an even greater need to ensure that lift truck fleets run at optimal efficiency, and that productivity is maintained with as little unscheduled downtime as possible.”

From a power source perspective, the fuel cell buzz has only heightened over the past several years, with many lift truck manufacturers experimenting with designs using hydrogen. “There is significant industry discussion about the role of fuel cells in lift trucks. Fuel cells do hold potential for the lift truck industry, and for certain organizations and applications, they are a viable solution that can provide operational benefits and cost reductions,” explains Eric Jensen, Manager, New Technology Research & Development for Crown.

Still, he cautions, there is no such thing as a silver bullet, and manufacturers will need to take into consideration the type of infrastructure changes that will come with such a big material handling initiative. “It is important that organizations not overlook the complexity involved in integrating fuel cell lift trucks into an existing fleet. Organizations need to have a plan and take into account factors such as maintenance, service, and the hydrogen supply costs to gain a total cost of ownership viewpoint.”

Maintenance Adjustments
From a practical standpoint, new lift truck power sources will mean additional know-how in maintenance relative to these newer, more complex systems, and fuel cells specifically could mean big changes. Adds Crown’s Jensen: “Proper maintenance is critical for lift trucks containing fuel cells. For example, ensuring proper air flow is extremely important. Consistent air flow is required to cool the fuel cell stack as well as supply oxygen for the reaction with hydrogen to create electricity. If air flow to the fuel cell stacks becomes obstructed or blocked, it can significantly impede the efficiency of the fuel cell and, in severe cases, cause the fuel cell to shut down completely to prevent failures.

“Repeated restrictions can shorten the life of the stack. Not only does this impact the bottom line because there is now a lift truck out of service, but there is also the cost of repairing or replacing the failed fuel cell. Preventive maintenance is as important to the fuel cell as it is to the truck itself,” he says.

Down The Road
According to Sky-Trax’s Mahan, the key to long term competitive warehouse operations must also include a hard look at labor costs. “For the ubiquitous forklift operations, the number one cost is drivers, which represents 70 to 90 percent of overall operating costs. Any serious attempt to cut costs must address labor cost. The ultimate solution for productivity will be to automate more material movement tasks,” he says.

Hydrogen, says Raymond’s Gregory, will likely fill the shoes of lead acid batteries: “Lead acid batteries currently provide power for more than 99 percent of all Class I, II and III lift trucks. In the past few years, the hydrogen fuel cell has been touted as the next energy source for lift trucks,” he says. “The expectations are high, but evaluation still must be conducted into the role of fuel cell-powered lift trucks and their effects on warehouse efficiency. Research indicates fuel cells offer benefits such as reduced footprint through elimination of a battery room, reduced downtime for battery changes, and reduced maintenance costs for battery washing and filling.”