They'll probably always be known as the workhorses of the warehouse, but today's lift trucks would be more accurately termed thoroughbreds. Using input from customers, lift truck makers are designing machines that are cleaner, safer and faster than their predecessors. The new trucks are smarter as well: Many models have advanced communications technology on board. And they're noticeably more comfortable, with added leg room and generally better ergonomics than older models.
Take the operator compartment, for instance. These days, it's not unusual for trucks to come with "mini levers" or joystick controls, says Brett Wood, vice president, marketing and product planning and dealer development at Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A. As you might expect, the idea is to appeal to younger drivers. As Wood puts it, "The Nintendo Generation is the new lift truck operator."
If the new trucks' driver compartments look cushier than in the past, that's no accident either. "Today's operators arrive in state-of-the-art cars. They expect similar comforts in the trucks they drive. That's why we are selling more and more full cabs in our lines," says Mark Roessler, general product manager of Linde Material Handling North America Corp. "That means air conditioning, comfortable seating and ergonomically designed controls."
And it appears there's more to come. Wood says Toyota will be demonstrating a new model in November that will offer even more operator comfort and flexibility than earlier models. They may sound like luxuries, he says, but features like fingertip controls, adjustable hand rests and swivel seats enhance operator comfort. And increased operator comfort translates into increased operator productivity.
Another productivity-boosting feature found in more and more of today's lift trucks is the built-in scale. "As warehouse and distribution center management moves toward a more automated work flow process, the use of lift truck scales has provided a significant increase in efficiency," says Andre Marshall, marketing programs manager for Cat Lift Trucks. For one thing, he says, incorporating a scale into a forklift truck minimizes the need for floor scales, freeing up valuable warehouse space. For another, he adds, they allow operators to weigh loads faster and more easily, eliminating several labor-intensive processes.
Cat has taken the integrated scale a step further, introducing what it calls the Integral Wireless Communication Scale. The scale communicates via radio frequency with an on-board printer that creates measurement readouts for each load. Innovations like these from Cat and others "create a more seamless work flow process and contribute to maximizing labor efficiencies within warehousing and distribution," says Marshall.
In fact,the entire industry seems to be at work incorporating more mobile computing capabilities into the lift truck. Some trucks, for example, now come equipped with automatic datacollection devices that have revolutionized asset management. One such system is Crown Equipment Corp.'s InfoLink, which the company describes as a wireless fleet management system that is made up of a "user-friendly, on-board operator interface that communicates with a central server." Using the wireless communications structure that most warehouses already have in place, InfoLink automatically provides DC managers with vehicle operating data that once had to be collected manually. With a system like InfoLink, says Jim Moran, Crown's senior vice president, managers have an easy way to "gather data on how each truck is being used in their operation; control who is allowed to operate any given truck; ensure that each operator conducts safety inspections; manage planned maintenance programs; and be alerted and track when and where trucks have been in collisions."
Today's sophisticated fleet management systems can do more than simply enhance individual lift truck performance, adds Cat's Marshall. "[T]he data can also be used in order to track truck usage in relationship to overall productivity." For example, with access to data on any given unit on the floor, a manager can easily shift idle units to busy areas, thereby optimizing fleet usage.
Meanwhile, the RFID revolution that has swept through DCs in recent years has influenced forklift design as well. A number of manufacturers have been experimenting with lift truck-mounted RFID readers that eliminate the need for operators to dismount in order to record the receipt, movement or placement of loads. Raymond Corp., for one, has been testing RFID-enabled trucks in a working RFID warehouse in Alberta, Canada.
Today's "thoroughbred" trucks also offer new safety features. Toyota's Wood, for example, says much work has been done to incorporate automobile safety technology into forklift design in recent years. He points to his company's development of "SAS" for forklifts. That stands for "System of Active Stability" and is a way of using embedded sensors in the truck that, in effect, tell the truck when it is becoming unstable and help to prevent rollovers.
And like the automakers, lift truck designers continue to look for ways to make their vehicles easier to operate. For example, Doosan Infracore America Lift Trucks now offers AC-powered trucks with ITC or Intelligent Torque Control, which maintains equivalent operating speeds whether the truck is empty or fully loaded. Toyota has introduced a new feature that, at the push of a button, levels the forks so they're parallel with the floor, stopping the tilt at 90 degrees. For generations, operators have had to "eyeball" it.
Lift truck manufacturers haven't forgotten about the technicians either. Several have added features to make mechanics' lives easier. "We design our trucks today around the operator and the mechanic," says Wood. "Readouts, for example, these days are more and more digital. This means diagnostics are done in minutes from the digital displays on the truck."
With fuel costs spiking and states cracking down on vehicle emissions, it should come as no surprise that lift truck makers are focusing much of their creativity on power plants. Some are experimenting with alternative fuels. Toyota, for example, offers a forklift option that uses CNG (compressed natural gas), which is perhaps a "niche market" item but does demonstrate what can be done to reduce emissions to nearly zero even in gas-powered trucks.
Toyota isn't alone. Nissan Forklift Corp. tells DC VELOCITY that it will soon showcase a system that promotes the use of alternative energy "at one of the logistics exhibitions overseas." Other manufacturers are moving quickly as well to find ways to take advantage of emerging technologies.
Even makers of gas-powered lift trucks have gotten into the game. For example, Clark Simpson, who is Clark Material Handling Co.'s internal combustion (IC) truck product manager, notes that manufacturers now offer catalytic converters for gas-powered vehicles that clean up their emissions. He also points to innovations designed to increase fuel efficiency, such as regenerative braking and the use of ultra capacitors, which don't wear out.
When it comes to electric trucks, the news these days is all about AC in the DC. Over the past few years, practically the entire market for electrics (with the exception of walkies) has moved toward AC power, reports Toyota's Wood. AC has the advantage of simplicity, explains Al Grywalski, Doosan's marketing manager. "AC technology eliminates a number of motor and control panel components, which translates into significant reductions in maintenance requirements." That reduction in maintenance requirements, in turn, translates to lower maintenance costs and less downtime.
"This technology is moving pretty fast; with the higher-voltage electrics in particular," says Roessler of Linde Material Handling. "Higher-voltage AC trucks have been common in Europe for years," he says. "Over here they are becoming more and more attractive."
For evidence of that, you need look no farther than Germany-based Jungheinrich Lift Truck Corp. Jungheinrich's latest entry into the U.S. market is an AC model. Called the ETR 320, it is "a pantographic reach truck in which all three motors—steering, hydraulic and driving—are based on three-phase AC technology," according to the company. Jungheinrich says the truck also "recycles" energy when braking, just as hybrid cars do.
Fill 'er up ... with hydrogen
But even bigger changes appear to be on the horizon. "A technology to look out for that could directly benefit distribution centers and warehousing is fuel cell technology," says Cat Lift Trucks' Marshall. "There are many benefits associated with hydrogen fuel cells that could make this technology practical for multi-shift and high-throughput distribution centers. For one, fuel cells deliver a steady level of power throughout the shift and eliminate the need to replace or charge a battery because the refueling process on a fuel cell takes just minutes."
"Hydrogen fuel cells offer higher productivity simply because they can be rapidly refueled—in several minutes versus several hours—eliminating the need to change a battery," adds Steve Medwin, Raymond Corp.'s manager of advanced research. "Also the voltage delivered by a fuel cell remains constant until the fuel is depleted. And hydrogen is environmentally clean: The only by-products from a fuel cell are water and heat," he says.
Introducing the hydrogen fuel cell to the DC would be much easier than adapting it to the auto industry, notes Mark Dyster, electric truck product manager for Clark Material Handling Co. "That is, to successfully use hydrogen fuel cells on the roads in cars means major change to the country's fueling infrastructure," he says. "The fueling issue in a plant or warehouse is much simpler."
The Canadians are already experimenting with fuel cells on lift trucks provided by NACCO Materials Handling Group (which markets trucks under the Yale and Hyster brand names) at a General Motors of Canada car plant in Oshawa, Ontario. The tests are part of the Canadian government's clean air initiative.
For all the interest and hype, it doesn't appear that fuel cells will be hitting the market anytime soon. Linde's Roessler believes it could take another five to 10 years before fuel cells become a practical alternative or addition to industrial truck technology. The reason is simple, he says: "It is simply not a perfected technology now."