July 29, 2011
material handling update | Batteries/Chargers

A look down the road

Think there's nothing new in lift truck batteries and associated equipment? Not so. Here are four trends that could have a big impact on how you manage those assets.

By Toby Gooley

Let's face it: Lift truck batteries and associated equipment—such as battery changing, monitoring, and charging systems—aren't the sexiest things in the warehouse. They're not as glamorous as robots or as attention-grabbing as high-speed conveyor systems. As a result, they're often taken for granted.

But these workhorses of the warehouse and DC are especially worthy of attention right now. Several factors—including technology, the economy, the environment, and regulatory controls—are having a notable impact on what buyers of batteries and associated equipment are purchasing and how they manage those assets.

What can you expect down the road? Here are four trends to watch.

1. Companies will adopt more efficient charging systems. Although high-frequency chargers have been available in Europe for years, they're now becoming a hot topic in North America. Most chargers for industrial batteries used here are ferroresonant or silicon-controlled rectifier (SCR) types, but these typically have only a 60- to 80-percent efficiency rate for converting AC current into the DC current needed to charge a battery, explains Steve Spaar, marketing director-Americas for the battery maker EnerSys. They also require large transformers that include costly commodities like steel and copper.

High-frequency charging technology, which uses a different type of switching componentry, doesn't require large transformers. These chargers have an efficiency rating of at least 90 to 92 percent and many are even higher, Spaar says. Fleets that use this technology typically see slightly lower electric bills. Electric utilities like these high "power factor" chargers, and many are willing to give a rebate to the end user for purchasing them, Spaar says. Buyers also can get LEED credit for installing these efficient charging systems.

There's no question that high-frequency chargers are becoming more prevalent, says Dan Dwyer, vice president and general manager of Sackett Systems, a manufacturer of battery handling equipment. "About 80 percent of the systems we've installed this year have some sort of high-frequency chargers involved," he says. For those installations, his company has had to modify the racking configuration in its multilevel battery changing systems because most high-frequency chargers have a smaller footprint and are mounted differently than traditional equipment, he says.

Concerns about electricity costs are encouraging lift truck fleet managers to reconsider not just how but when they charge their batteries, says Arun Patel, president of Access Control Group, a provider of asset management solutions for lift truck fleets. Charging during peak hours when electricity rates are highest, especially during the summer, can raise costs, he points out. By collecting and analyzing battery usage data, managers may find that they don't need to charge every battery at the same time or that some batteries are getting little enough use that they could be charged at night instead, he notes.

2. Regulatory restrictions will increase. Battery charging systems have come under scrutiny in California, where the California Energy Commission has proposed a regulation that would ban the sale of certain types of chargers in the state. The rule would apply to both consumer and industrial chargers.

The commission believes that charging devices that more efficiently convert AC electricity from the power grid to DC electricity stored in the battery will greatly reduce the billions of kilowatt hours of wasted energy generated by battery chargers in California each year. According to the commission's draft proposal, the regulation would require all chargers to shut off the flow of electricity after the battery has been fully charged. It would also set standards for the charge return factor (the amount of energy applied to a battery compared to the amount extracted from it) as well as for the efficiency in converting high-voltage AC to lower-voltage DC, power losses occurring in circuitry during charging, how well a charger synchronizes with the electric utility's 60 Hz cycle, and the amount of power the device draws to keep a battery at full charge. Finally, it would require that the charger draw no power when no battery is attached and the charger is in standby mode.

The proposed standards could make it illegal to sell SCR and ferroresonant chargers, according to Spaar. The commission is expected to issue its proposal this summer; if adopted, the standards could take effect as early as July 2013 for industrial chargers. It's believed that California is the only state planning to regulate chargers, but if the measure should prove successful, then other states might adopt similar rules.

3. Battery rooms will get "lean." Lean systems are becoming ubiquitous in manufacturing, and lean processes have been making headway in logistics and warehousing. So why not in the battery room? Lean is all about the systematic elimination of waste. Of the eight wastes that lean processes address, six (transportation, inventory, motion, people, waiting, and defects) exist in battery rooms, says Hal Vanasse, vice president of sales and marketing for Philadelphia Scientific, a provider of battery management systems. "People are happy to throw money at battery rooms, but they do not look systemically at what's going on and how to reduce waste," he says.

Almost any process related to changing and charging batteries can be wasteful and inefficient, Vanasse points out. For example, if you're checking the water levels of batteries that don't need water, then you've wasted time, money, motion, and people. If operators are queuing for battery changes because of poor charging practices or slow watering, then you're wasting time and people. And having more batteries than are needed for the required work produces costly excess inventory. All this waste can add up to tens of thousands of dollars annually, even for a small fleet, he says.

Not surprisingly, Vanasse touts electronic battery management systems as a tool for ensuring that only necessary tasks are done, and in the most efficient way. But he's hoping that the concept of lean itself will catch on with every company that uses industrial batteries, whether they adopt battery management systems or not. "The interesting thing about the lean framework is that it has a feedback mechanism that requires you to measure what you are doing against a plan, then make decisions that will lead to improvement," he explains. "It's systematizing not what we do, but what we should do."

4. Fleet managers will look to get more productivity out of existing assets. There is tremendous pressure on fleet and battery room managers to improve their return on assets, says John Kim, general manager of Aerovironment's Power Systems Business Unit, which supplies battery charging systems and accessories. "Management wants more out of that same piece of machinery and the people who use it," he observes.

Vendors are responding to that pressure by developing new technologies specifically aimed at achieving more with less. Kim's company, for instance, currently has a product under development that will allow users of fast chargers to charge two trucks from a single port. Port Splitter, as the device is called, does "sequence charging," constantly checking the state of charge for two batteries and automatically charging one or the other as needed.

Other vendors have focused on devising ways to give customers better management information. One of Access Control Group's products, for instance, lets forklift fleet managers integrate data from disparate sources like asset management and battery management systems for analytical purposes. "That way, they can combine them in a single view of how the whole mobile asset is working," Patel says. "You need a good picture in one screen that includes information that comes from different sources."

The pressure to improve asset utilization is also behind the rapidly growing interest in electronic battery management systems, says Dwyer of Sackett Systems. "We're seeing an increase in requests for battery management systems software because it helps customers with both operational decisions and capital decisions—for instance, which batteries they need to replace and how much they need to allocate from a budgetary perspective."

Indeed, says Kim, battery management systems that used to be a luxury are now seen as a necessity. Those systems' ability to prolong battery life, which is what drives a battery's total life-cycle cost, makes them worthwhile investments, he says.

Technology is important, of course, but battery owners also are seeking personal advice on how to get more benefit from existing assets, according to Spaar. "Customers now are looking to us not just to sell batteries and charging systems to them; they want us to be more involved in that part of their business," he says. "They want us to be the experts in what we are selling to them and advise them on how to best utilize them."

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Senior Editor
Before joining DC VELOCITY and its sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly, where she serves as Managing Editor, Toby Gooley spent 20 years at Logistics Management covering international trade as Senior Editor and Managing Editor. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

More articles by Toby Gooley

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