September 9, 2013

Three trends that could reshape the lift truck battery market

Systems integration, super-efficient trucks, and lithium could have a major impact on the battery business, manufacturer says.

By Toby Gooley

Thinking about how technology is changing material handling equipment? It's unlikely that the familiar, box-shaped lift truck battery will come to mind. But perhaps it should. According to Bill Rubenzer, vice president, sales and marketing for the battery manufacturer Storage Battery Systems LLC, several technology trends in the battery market could have a notable impact on warehouse operations.

One is the growth of data collection and communication between warehouse systems and equipment. Large amounts of data can now be extracted from lift trucks, batteries, and charging systems, and then used to optimize fleet costs and operations. But the data is harvested from multiple sources, so it's difficult to see how it all fits together and what it means. What's missing, Rubenzer said in a recent interview, is "integration—the various things that affect battery usage are not all tied together." Someone will step up to fill that gap and act as integrator, but whether it will be the battery manufacturers, lift truck dealers, or some kind of third party is not yet clear, he said.

Another trend is the move toward 80-volt electric lift trucks, which can run for 12 to 16 hours on a charge. That could allow fleets to use fewer batteries and perhaps avoid the need for fast charging, which tends to reduce battery life. These trucks often have larger-than-usual battery compartments—"so not only do you have a more efficient truck," he noted, "but you also have a considerably larger 'fuel tank,' as it were, which allows you to do things that were impossible with an electric before." Those and other cost and productivity benefits could encourage a "profound shift" to 80-volt trucks, he said.

Finally, Rubenzer anticipates some fleets will switch to lithium batteries. These batteries don't lose capacity in cold temperatures; they don't require watering; and if properly managed, their lifespan can be up to five times a valve-regulated lead acid (VRLA) battery, he said. (The lifespan of a flooded two-volt lead acid cell will be similar to that of a lithium battery, he noted.) Lithium iron phosphate, the battery's main component, has a high energy density and therefore greater capacity. But they do have some drawbacks, he said, including a higher initial cost and the need for specialized battery management systems and technical training.

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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