Thursday, December 2, 2021

As Electricity Becomes a Favourite Fuel for the Multimodal Industry One Sector is Ahead of the Game

Materials Handling Suppliers Have Been on the Ball for Decades and the Future Looks Bright
Shipping News Feature

WORLDWIDE – With the desire for green credentials plus the impetus of climate change, and the world of industry moves inexorably to where in many areas, including much of logistics and transport, electricity is king and replacing many traditional forms of fuel, there is one area particularly ripe for the change, that of materials handling.

The ubiquitous fork lift truck for example was almost exclusively fuelled with diesel when first introduced, with bottled gas taking more of the market as time moved on, mainly for the same reason electricity is so sought after now, a cleaner exhaust product.

In the confines of a warehouse however the beneficial warmth of a gas powered truck, so appreciated in winter, is far outweighed by the still noxious emissions produced, and for decades electric trucks have been taking a steady share of the market. Electric fork trucks have also however been seen by many customers as ‘small end’ handlers, fine only for working in narrow aisle racks and with loads up to and around 1,500 kilogrammes.

As battery technology improves, this scenario is likely to change. On a car or lorry battery weight affects performance detrimentally. On a fork lift it simply provides beneficial extra counterweight balance. Toyota Material Handling offers advice on switching to electric, and this month Paul Bowers, the company’s counterbalance specialist, has been looking at the state of the market and we incorporate here some of his conclusions.

According to the most reliable estimates, the forklift market has historically been split roughly 60-40 between LPG or diesel-powered internal combustion engine (IC) trucks and battery-driven electric models, with diesel being the most dominant fuel. Toyota anticipates the market for electric counterbalanced forklift trucks, at least in the UK, to grow by as 10% in the next five years as more and more truck users opt for electric-power over IC-engine driven machines when the time comes to replace or upgrade their fleets.

This predicted rise in uptake is based on number of different factors, including heightened environmental concerns, rising fuel prices and greater awareness of staff welfare. Advances in battery technology, such as the further development of lithium-Ion and to a lesser extent (for now) hydrogen fuel cells, are also leading to greater interest in electric power, while the wide ranging changes to intralogistics processes brought about by the seemingly relentless increase in internet shopping tend to favour electric trucks too.

Of course, environmental issues have been on the corporate agenda for many years but recent talk of the introduction of a ‘carbon emissions tax’ has seen a sharp increase in the truck users that include like-for-like carbon emissions comparisons as part of their forklift fleet purchasing process. IC-engine trucks rarely come top of the class in such tests, which will not be a surprise to many given that electric-powered trucks have always been perceived to have the edge over the IC-engine alternative in all matters ‘green’.

Recent developments in technology mean the electric lift truck is now a highly sophisticated product that offers real business benefits to the broadest range of users. And, furthermore, today’s battery-driven forklifts are capable of performing highly effectively within the type of harsh environments that historically only diesel trucks would be considered suitable for.

Although it is estimated that in the region of 90% of all electric forklifts in operation throughout the world are still running on lead acid batteries, the Lithium-Ion solution has now become well established as a viable alternative. Indeed, nearly a quarter of all Toyota electric-powered forklift trucks ordered for delivery in the UK now feature Lithium-Ion battery (LiB) technology.

Lithium-ion is revolutionising the way that some companies operate their intralogistics processes. Lithium-ion batteries have the ability to be recharged in as little as one hour, which increases a truck’s overall availability. One hour’s charging will give in the region of 4 to 5 hours of operating time. Also, as these batteries allow for opportunity charging, trucks can be recharged anywhere by the operator during breaks in a shift or other periods of downtime. As a result, there is no need to swap batteries, so dedicated charging rooms and spare batteries are not necessary.

Hydrogen fuel cells are also emerging as another viable alternative to lead acid batteries. At the present time, Hydrogen only becomes financially realistic where in the region of 90+ trucks are in operation at one location due to the significant investment required in hydrogen generation and storage systems, so the potential user market is currently somewhat limited.

However, large fleet operators are keen to embrace the technology and Toyota Hydrogen fuel cell-powered forklifts are already operating at sites across the Nordic region and Europe as well as Australia. Meanwhile in the automotive sector Toyota claims its hydrogen-powered Mirai is at the forefront of a new age of hydrogen fuel cell cars that deliver long distance zero-emissions driving as described in a piece on the Toyota US based project vehicles we featured in 2017.

This current rush to prove each company is taking care of business in terms of committing to a greener future will doubtless spur the growth Toyota envisages in the material handling arena and with increased take up, so market forces are likely to cut the cost of winning products, perhaps dramatically.

So does this sound the death knell for diesel? If so it is unlikely to be a quiet passing, the torque required for some lifting operations, particularly anything over 8 tonnes, the sheer donkey work required on some sites, such as construction where trucks may be frankly abused, means, despite the myriad benefits that electric trucks offer users in terms of running costs, productivity, reduced pollution etc. these may continue to be outweighed, at least for the next decade.