In an era of spiking energy prices and mounting "green" imperatives, it's not hard to understand the industry's fascination with the technology of tomorrow—the fuel cells, hybrid power packs, and such that will someday be used to run lift trucks. And there seems little doubt that those technologies will have an important role in the DC of the future.
But right now, lead acid batteries, and the related charging and handling tools, still dominate, and it looks like they won't be going away anytime soon. The technology is proven and reliable, and many experts believe it will remain the standard in warehouses for at least another decade.
It's cost effective as well. Jim Lane, vice president of sales for MTC Worldwide, a Temple, Texas-based manufacturer of battery handling equipment, says that when it comes to technologies for powering industrial trucks, batteries have the clear cost advantage. "Overall, lead acid batteries' cost per kilowatt [makes them] the lowest-priced form of energy available for lift trucks."
And they're becoming more cost effective all the time. The last few years have seen a big push to improve battery efficiency and economics, as well as to simplify maintenance. The emergence of AC technology, for example, has allowed lift trucks to run for longer intervals between charges. Developments like fast charging, improved handling and charging systems, and advanced battery management tools provide DC managers with a host of options to get the most out of their batteries, and thus, their lift truck fleets.
In fact, lead acid batteries and their handling systems are a very much improved technology com- pared to just a decade ago. "Today, battery handling systems are more precisely engineered," says Terry Orf, vice president global sales and marketing for St. Louis-based Battery Handling Systems. Manufacturers have adopted modeling techniques to reduce production issues and improve tolerances, he explains.
On top of that, today's systems make greater use of automation— including tools like lasers for precise battery placement—than their predecessors did. "We see automation playing an increasing role in battery changing," says Dan Dwyer, vice president and general manager for Sackett Systems of Bensenville, Ill.
Among other advantages, automation promises to ease what is fast becoming one of the top challenges for DC managers: finding skilled labor. "The biggest commodity problem facing the industry will soon be a shortage of employees with the right skill sets," says John Pratt, president of Multi-Shifter, a Charlotte, N.C.-based maker of battery handling equipment. "We're going from a people-looking-for-jobs economy to a jobs-looking-for-people economy."
Today's DC managers also have choices when it comes to battery-charging technologies. Traditional battery changing systems have been challenged in recent years by developers of fast-charging and park-and-charge systems.
As for what managers should consider when choosing a technology for their operation, factors include changeover and operational costs, as well as the demands on trucks used in multi-shift operations. Battery diagnostics, maintenance, and life cycles are other issues that come into play.
"The advent of operation-embedded charging has shifted the accountability of battery management from people to the chargers themselves," says Lisa Horiuchi Heiberg, director of marketing and venture development for Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment, whose PosiCharge systems are among the market leaders in fast charging. "The best of these chargers are intelligent rather than just fast, because a high-current charge without sophisticated controllers will result in damaged batteries and compromised run time."
Fast charging, with its sophisticated controllers and high-powered chargers, allows opportunity charging—that is plugging a battery in to charge during breaks, lunch, or other opportunities.
The last few months have seen a flurry of new product introductions in this area. In May, for example, Portsmouth, N.H.-based On Board Solutions introduced a line of multi-stage commercial and industrial grade battery chargers, the ProTech-C Series for 24- and 36-volt DC applications.
On Board Solutions president Bob Unger notes that this new series of chargers reflects another developing trend in the industry. "These new products are what we call global in design; they fit lots of different kinds of equipment used all over the world," he says.
Also in May, Sackett Systems introduced its Centurion Elite Automatic Changing System, a follow-up to its Northstar System, an automated one-minute battery changing, storage, and management system that it launched in 2007. The system allows forklift drivers to change their own batteries, reducing the need for trained specialists, who are in increasingly short supply. "The benefits of this system are labor savings, reduced equipment damage, and improved battery efficiency," says Dwyer.
What the future holds
Though they're certainly not abandoning their traditional battery research and development programs, a number of manufacturers have expanded their programs to include alternative or hybrid technologies. Several of those technologies have already shown great promise. For example, East Penn Manufacturing Co. Inc., maker of the Deka brand industrial batteries, has conducted several successful trials of a new hybrid fuel cell/battery unit, ReadyPower (see "all charged up," DC VELOCITY, June 2008).
Hawker, a major battery maker with a manufacturing plant in Warrensburg, Mo., is developing what it calls the Thin Plate Pure Lead (TPPL) technology for use in forklifts. "TPPL offers great energy densities, accepts higher recharge rates, and ... could make an enormous impact in the future," says Dean Portney, national accounts manager for Hawker, which is an EnerSys company.
In the meantime, Portney says, Hawker has seen growing demand for its high-frequency chargers from energy-conscious DCs. The company says the chargers, which it has sold for 25 years, are able to use a greater percentage of incoming electricity than other charger technologies.
In fact, there's evidence that the nascent green movement is boosting interest in electric lift trucks in general, since electric models are significantly cleaner than their internal combustion counterparts. Lift truck fleet managers face mounting regulatory pressure to reduce emissions, particularly in California. There, rules imposed by the California Air Resources Board last year require reductions in emissions for fleets of four or more vehicles, with the first phase of the regulations taking effect on Jan. 1 of next year. "Actually, we are receiving more calls from customers with LP (liquid propane) fleets who are trying to convert to electric lift trucks for environmental reasons," says Dwyer. "We see this change as a growth opportunity."