Following the path of least resistance may be a natural tendency, but it's not always the best policy. Your average teenager, for example, will grab the carton of milk from the front of the fridge, leaving the open carton in the back to go sour. The average distribution center worker in search of a replacement lift-truck battery will cruise through the battery room, pulling out the first one he finds that's fully charged (and appropriate for the truck), leaving fully charged batteries at the far end of the stacks sitting unused, sometimes for months.
And those are the drivers who at least take responsibility for replacing the battery. Mike Fusca, operations manager for Standard Distributing, a Delaware distributor of beer, wine and spirits, says he's seen drivers whose trucks' batteries were running low simply jump on another truck, leaving a near-dead truck in the aisles.
Fusca solved his problem by buying a new fast-charging system from Edison Minit-Charger and demanding that drivers use it—drivers are responsible for keeping their own trucks charged by connecting to a fast charger at every break. But that's not the only solution available to DC managers seeking help with battery management. Today they have plenty of choices: Everybody from battery and charger manufacturers like EnerSys, to battery handling companies like Battery Handling Systems (BHS) and Materials Transportation Co. (MTC), to the emerging fast-charge providers like Edison Minit-Charge and PosiCharge has come up with a solution designed to help busy managers take charge of their batteries.
An end to plug and pray
If buying a battery management system sounds like overkill, perhaps you haven't priced lift-truck batteries lately. These are expensive assets: industrial truck batteries cost upwards of $3,000 apiece. "In the battery room, a big investment is based in the battery itself," says Tony Amato, vice president of sales and marketing for the St. Louis-based BHS. "Whatever people can do to maximize the life of the battery is beneficial." But that doesn't mean they're necessarily willing to pay thousands of dollars for battery management software. "They're not looking for something really expensive," Amato says. "They're asking, 'How can I rotate my batteries and be alerted if I have problems?'"
Amato says his company, which provides battery handling equipment and technology, has received an overwhelming number of requests for a system that provides basic information for helping manage batteries.What BHS offers is a system called Next Available Battery, which features a computerized touch screen that directs operators to the most appropriate replacement battery. A DC can maintain its entire battery inventory in the system. When lift truck drivers come to the battery room to make a change, they scan the battery currently in their truck. The system gives the driver the replacement battery's location. The driver scans that, and the system confirms that it's the correct battery. The system can also alert drivers if a battery is scheduled for watering and if it needs to be equalized (plugged in for an extended charging session to assure all cells in the battery are brought up to the same level).
The system also provides alerts if a battery is discharging too quickly, which could indicate potential problems with the battery, the charger or the lift truck. "You can look at cycle data on a particular battery," Amato says. For managers, that information on a particular battery's health can prove helpful in forecasting replacement requirements. That's also crucial to the health of lift trucks, as over-discharging can damage vehicles.
"We didn't want to make this overly sophisticated," says Amato. "Our main thing is to be able to maintain the battery and keep the cost of the system down and affordable for most users."
Users can set the system up to assure that it directs drivers to the proper type of battery for each type of vehicle.While it generally sends drivers over to the batteries that have been in the battery rack the longest, it's programmed to prevent selection of batteries that are being equalized—a process that normally takes an extra three hours over normal charging.
By directing drivers to a particular battery, the system also assures balanced use of batteries in a DC—overcoming the tendency of drivers to pick the newest battery they can find. "The system won't let you take an incorrect battery," Amato says. "If they try to take another, the system will catch up with them. It knows exactly when it went out. It can easily identify who took a battery."
Checking the monitor
Then there's Materials Transportation Co., based in Temple, Texas, and a competitor to BHS, which offers what it calls E-Batt, its electronic battery management system. The system constantly samples charger voltages and reclassifies batteries as their status changes. Using the collected data, the system directs a battery handler to the best available battery for a specific vehicle. The technology includes data acquisition at the chargers to feed data on each charger's status as necessary to charger monitoring software.
Jim Lane, vice president of sales for the battery changing systems division of MTC, says customers like food distributor Dot Foods are saving a lot of money with the system. "They can identify batteries that are performing poorly and make decisions on repairing or replacing them," he says. "It has helped them manage by group size." That is, the reports help managers know exactly how many batteries they need for each type of lift truck in a facility.
The data collected help users manage both batteries and trucks. Lane explains that the system tracks hours of use by specific forklifts and records the hour meter usage each day—that is, how many hours the truck has been active. That provides information useful in a couple of ways. Comparing meter hours to clock hours provides a gauge of truck utilization. Lane says some customers are using that data as a benchmark to compare fleet utilization among facilities to help determine optimal fleet size.
In addition, the hour meter data collected can be used for scheduling preventive maintenance. "It generates accurate hour meter reports for preventive maintenance and saves the customer from running around a warehouse collecting hour meter readings," Lane says. "This information can be downloaded to a preventive maintenance software application."
For the batteries themselves, the system can provide alerts when average run times fall below a predetermined level, which may indicate a battery needs replacing.
The E-Batt Manager software allows data entry and can generate reports on individual batteries or trucks. The system, accessible from a ruggedized computer at the battery handling workstation, can show the location of a battery, the charger status and identification information on each truck, battery or charger.
During battery changing, information on the truck, the batteries (both the battery removed from the truck and the battery loaded onto the truck), and the rack locations is captured through bar-code scanning. MTC says the asset tracking and managed battery rotation system allows users to reduce their battery inventory.
Before long, managers looking for help with battery management will also be able to turn to EnerSys, a battery manufacturer that offers battery charging and management tools as well. Drew Stump, the company's product manager for its Motive Power marketing division, says EnerSys is rolling out a number of products to help customers manage their batteries. Several of those are in the testing stage. The systems offer data on battery usage and charger usage and assure that batteries selected match the truck. Stump says the system creates an audible alarm if a battery handler attempts to select a battery that is not fully charged or is otherwise not ready for use.
A screen display informs battery handlers what battery is available and where it's located. Battery data are also accumulated to a PC, which generates reports that allow managers to check usage of both batteries and chargers.
The results of the tests so far are promising, he says, with fewer battery changes and longer truck operations between battery changes. In addition, truck maintenance costs have fallen.
"We have some other products we're working on with vendors," Stump says. One is an automated system that makes use of RFID technology to communicate with the system and has batteries changed robotically. The first such system was scheduled to be delivered to a warehouse customer last month. The unmanned system will collect data on charging and amp hours, and will provide fault messages on charging or battery problems.
When seconds count
Such is the demand for battery data management that even the manufacturers of fast-charging systems are getting into the act. Fast chargers can return battery energy while the battery is still inside the truck, eliminating the need for battery changes. Lift truck operators connect their batteries to the fast-charging system during break times or at the end of a shift.
For example, PosiCharge, a division of AeroVironment Inc., a California-based energy technology company noted for its research into solar- and electric-powered vehicles, now offers a fast-charging technology that also collects and manages data from a battery during the charge. The system was developed, the company says, to ensure safe battery charging by constantly collecting measurements of temperature, voltage, charge rate, ampere hours and state of charge during the charging process.
The data collected, PosiCharge says, tells managers what they need to know about both their battery inventory and driver productivity. The system collects data on charge times and duration of charge, information that managers can use to assure drivers are complying with charging rules and times. The system also monitors temperature and voltage, which can help identify batteries that are performing poorly, and state of charge and amp-hour data, which can help identify batteries with reduced capacity.
On a broader scale, PosiCharge says, the actual amp-hour usage per truck provides data that managers can use to evaluate fleet battery requirements. For instance, the information collected by the charging system provides indications of vehicle use—since each battery stays in the same truck—and can help managers identify vehicles that are underused and may be expendable.
PosiCharge says it is beta testing an integrated data collection and analysis software package designed to provide information to managers more efficiently, using a simple interface. Details on the system were not available at press time.
Another fast-charge player, Edison Minit-Charger, also offers products with built-in feedback systems. An operating company of California energy giant Edison International, Minit-Charger developed the industrial business out of its research into development of electricpowered cars and buses.
Peter Michalski, director of Edison Minit-Charger, says one advantage of fast-charging operations, in which batteries stay with the trucks, is that the chargers' feedback systems can track data on each truck as well as each battery, including a water-level sensor. The systems collect about 20 data points on each battery, according to Michalski. "A feature every Minit-Charger has is that it allows reports on a per-truck basis that can be overlaid or aggregated to a subfleet or fleet," he says. "It can analyze throughput, battery health and utilization."
Michalski says the chargers provide information in plain language on any problems detected by the system.Drivers can report issues to their managers or to maintenance technicians, who can initiate additional diagnostics if needed, he says."The idea is to get a quick response back without the added layer and expense of a complete communications system."