Power Options: The hunt for operational efficiencies

Industry experts present their customers’ pain points around fuel and energy, and offer tips to ensure efficient and productive fleets.

Lift truck uptime is the key to productivity in the warehouse, and the management of energy and fuel are the keys to lift truck uptime. Unfortunately, there is nothing predictable about energy prices.

As the price of lead has climbed in recent years, battery prices have doubled. Emissions standards have driven owners of internal combustion (IC) forklifts to transition to battery electric platforms, even as propane prices trend downward. In some cases, the focus on warehouse efficiencies has created the business case for the substantial infrastructure costs associated with fuel cell-powered fleets.

Most end-users just want equipment that works when they need it to work. Efficiencies are nice, long-term planning is great, but many fleet owners already have full plates as they try to do more with less. Those considering new equipment or technology platforms often buy first and hunt for efficiencies later.

But why separate those steps? According to industry experts, early consideration of power options can make life easier throughout the life of the equipment, no matter what business changes may come. The culture of each operation might need to make some big changes to reap the full benefits, but they don’t have to go it alone. Modern spoke with makers of lift trucks, batteries, charging systems, and fuel cells to learn how efficient technologies, operator training and data capture can keep costs down and equipment up.

The cultural shift
Whether transitioning from IC to batteries, from battery rooms to opportunity chargers, or from the status quo to more efficient practices, old habits die hard.

“You can expect a lot of resistance,” says Kenro Okamoto, electric product planning specialist for Toyota Material Handling. “But you should treat a battery maintenance program with as much importance as you would a safety program.”

The transition from IC to electric is perhaps the riskiest, according to Steve Rogers, senior product marketing specialist for Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America. Rogers says end-users are pushed to adopt electric technology in an effort to prevent product contamination or comply with state regulations governing the average emissions of a fleet. IC lift truck operators accustomed to running tanks dry, swapping them quickly and heading back to work might face a more extensive list of responsibilities with an electric lift truck. Battery health and productivity can be greatly impacted by well-meaning operators who are accustomed to focusing on activities other than checking fluid levels and battery discharge indicators (BDI).

This is why Okamoto recommends managers try to take as much of the maintenance responsibilities as possible away from operators. Let technicians clean batteries, he says, or hold a one-time course where a tech can teach operators proper cleaning techniques and signs of corrosion, even if it is not their responsibility. Quick-watering technologies can also simplify operator tasks and can be stationed next to opportunity charging stations for easy access.

For some, says Rogers, outsourcing maintenance might be the answer. “There are a lot of factors that go into the decision to outsource equipment maintenance that goes beyond the numbers, such as culture and employee relations,” he says. “I’m not advocating everyone outsource, but it can help some customers find the lowest-cost solution.”

Zero battery change applications
Just five years ago, opportunity charge and fast-charge systems weren’t on most fleet owners’ radar. Now they are enabling gradual transitions from IC to electric, transitions away from a battery room, and increased accountability inherent in permanent forklift/battery pairings.

Although Battery Council International offers a technical definition of each, the difference between fast charge and opportunity charge is largely irrelevant to the end-user, says Lynda Stephens, director of information solutions at EnerSys. She prefers to group both under the umbrella of “zero battery change” applications.

An important aspect of specifying battery and charging systems and comparing them as a customer is how to get through sales rhetoric. “One supplier says a 10 kw system will work, another says it can’t be done below 15 kw,” says Stephens. “If I don’t want to spend too much money, or find out my new system is under-powered, who do I believe?”

Stephens strongly encourages a full energy usage analysis before pursuing zero battery change technology. “The analysis provides a specification for charging times and intervals, at which point you essentially ignore the truck’s BDI and just follow the program.” This can ensure productivity and lead to longer battery life, but it can also cut costs at the time of purchase. “I can sell you a lower power charger if you promise to charge more often,” she says.

Deploying the technology as a program as opposed to a product is critical to its success, says Stephens. This entails a cultural shift and strict management of operator habits, but it also informs the purchasing process. Perhaps most important is that the battery provider and charging system provider are working together. “The customer must act like a general contractor and mediator in that relationship, and therefore 90% of everything that goes wrong in fast charging is the customer’s fault,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important that it’s a program and not a product, with a good deal of self-monitoring.”

Battery maintenance
Any hiccups in self-monitoring will make themselves apparent very quickly, says Jim Gaskell, director of Global Insite Products for Crown Equipment. “I have visited facilities where customers will say they are definitely plugging in their trucks. We went out on the floor to find four of them unplugged. Tomorrow, when that truck doesn’t finish the shift, what are they going to do?”

If a battery isn’t properly watered, that can also sap half the battery life for the next shift, says Gaskell. A battery should last through 2,000 charge/discharge cycles. When well maintained in a single-shift, five-day application, that works out to about eight years. Poor treatment won’t kill a battery overnight, he says, but it can cut the life to only three or four years.

Joe LaFergola, manager of business information solutions for The Raymond Corp., says reduced battery life is especially concerning since battery prices have doubled in the past few years, from $3,000 to $7,000 or more. “When batteries cost a few thousand dollars, they were almost a throw-away in a $30,000 lift truck,” he says. “Now, if the customer is running three shifts, that’s almost $20,000 in batteries for each lift truck.”

Battery and lift truck monitoring technology
Battery-mounted technology can monitor the battery’s charge, discharge, equalization, water level and temperature, with data points delivered to the manager through a Web-based portal. In zero battery change applications, this technology can also improve lift truck visibility and operator accountability. In addition, says LaFergola, reports from battery-mounted units can inform battery maintenance or training, and can serve as warranty assurance in the event of a bad battery cell. These systems can add 20% to the life of a battery, says LaFergola, providing a six-month ROI.

Truck-mounted fleet management technology can provide a more basic window into battery status in operations where batteries are not changed. These systems might monitor the voltage when the battery is plugged in, and the voltage when it is unplugged. Discrepancies in performance can identify trucks that were left unplugged, or identify failing batteries.

With or without truck-mounted technology, battery management gets easier when the batteries stay in the truck, says Gaskell. “In that case, poor performance sticks out,” he says. “The truck doesn’t make it through the shift. But if the customer is swapping batteries, that poorly performing battery is just out there somewhere.”

Fuel cell electric vs. battery electric
A viable fuel cell application once required all the stars to align: new facility, large fleet, multiple shifts, and access to hydrogen. But, the demographics have shifted somewhat. According to Reid Hislop, vice president of marketing and investor relations for Plug Power, depending on the price of labor and estimated hydrogen consumption, fuel cells can easily accommodate fleets of about 35 lift trucks running two or more shifts.

“We have equal opportunity with brownfields and greenfields,” says Hislop. “We are seeing inquiries from folks that are coming to the end of their traditional battery life cycle and are looking at fuel cells. Two years ago, managers asked, ‘Why fuel cells?’ Now it’s, ‘Why aren’t you looking at fuel cells?’”

Hydrogen is highly efficient, producing more energy per ounce than any other fuel, says Hislop. A current tax incentive of roughly 30% is also available on the price of a fuel cell battery replacement unit through 2016. More sales will boost overall infrastructure and make fuel cell costs increasingly competitive, says Hislop, and each year shows improvement.

According to Gus Block, director of marketing and government affairs at Nuvera, key obstacles to wider fuel cell adoption include flexible hydrogen supply contracts that can accommodate changing conditions, as well as the limited range of fuel cell product availability. As a solution to the question of supply, Block’s company now offers an on-site generation solution he says is cost-effective at smaller scales, for as few as 10 to 20 reach trucks, 30 to 60 pallet jacks, or some combination. Customers pay a fixed monthly fee and avoid capital investments into infrastructure. This is a popular tool allowing large fleet owners to test the viability of a full-scale implementation by converting only a small segment of the fleet at first.

“There are obvious advantages to just converting the workhorses of the fleet,” says Block. “It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing solution for the stars to align.”

The future of propane 
Tucker Perkins, chief business development officer for the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC), says that in terms of propane engines, the industrial forklift market is the group’s primary emphasis. According to Perkins, PERC is working on an unprecedented deep study to illustrate the benefits of propane over electric. Results could be released in 2013, but Perkins says the case for IC will only improve in that time.

“The supply picture is radically different than it was four or five years ago. For the next century, we see an abundance of propane, and in the places we always wanted it,” says Perkins, referring to natural gas deposits beneath New York state. “As a result, we see a favorable price trend. We believe this will be a fundamental, long-term shift.”

The shift has been rapid, but its effects can already be felt. Fifteen years ago, about 60% of propane came from crude oil, says Perkins. Today, about 70% comes from natural gas, which is largely domestically sourced. “Ten years ago we imported 60% of our propane demand, and now we are net exporters.”

PERC is watching these trends, as well as the trend toward increased electric forklift use. Certain applications benefit more from IC, but some applications have no IC option on the market. “If people make the switch from IC to electric due to factors other than fuel, then we can work with the industry to create products that address that. We’re already looking at what the next generation of IC forklifts needs to look like.”

The forklift of the future might include more accurate fuel gauges, fuel injection systems and simpler, more ergonomic tank attachment methods. “We’re studying hydraulic hybrids and electric hybrids, but advances in conventional engines, informed by the automotive industry, are driving plenty of change.”

Companies mentioned in this article

Crown Equipment: crown.com/usa
EnerSys: enersys.com
Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America: mcfa.com
Nuvera: nuvera.com
Plug Power: plugpower.com
Propane Education and Research Council: propanecouncil.org
Raymond Corp.: raymondcorp.com
Toyota Material Handling U.S.A.: toyotaforklift.com

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About the Author

Josh Bond
Josh Bond was Senior Editor for Modern through July 2020, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.
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