Rising energy costs are taking a toll on consumers and businesses alike, and in the warehouse, that means companies are placing a sharper focus on the systems and equipment they are running as well as the power those systems consume. This is especially important when it comes to the forklifts traversing warehouse floors nationwide. As warehouse managers seek ways to get more out of that equipment or upgrade to energy-efficient and productivity-enhancing solutions, they are increasingly turning to equipment suppliers to learn about the latest technologies and automation strategies that can reduce costs.
“[Inflation and higher costs] are accelerating some trends we’ve seen in the industry for a few years now—[especially] demand for automation and new power systems,” explains Bill Pedriana, chief marketing officer for material handling equipment manufacturer Big Joe Forklifts. “[There is a] huge appetite out there for both of those things. In some cases, there is an appetite for both at the same time. Labor costs, power costs, all costs are going up, [and] companies are scrambling for a more efficient means of moving things through their supply chains.”
For many, those strategies begin on the warehouse floor, with new battery technologies, upgraded equipment, and in-depth analyses that can boost equipment performance and deliver data that can help managers make more-informed decisions. Here’s a look at what some battery and equipment makers are doing to help customers reach their energy- and cost-savings goals.
Leaders at Quebec-based lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery company UgoWork set out to help industrial customers get a better handle on their energy usage in the warehouse seven years ago, when the company’s founders recognized a common problem in warehouse logistics: Forklift battery maintenance and energy management were taking too large a share of warehouse managers’ time—time that would be better spent focusing on ways to get products in and out of the facility faster and more efficiently. UgoWork’s leaders were confident that switching from traditional lead-acid batteries to Li-ion solutions would solve that problem for many companies—especially those running large fleets—but the higher cost of Li-ion batteries was too much for many customers to swallow.
So UgoWork developed a subscription-based model that removed the upfront costs of purchasing Li-ion batteries and chargers, giving customers a more affordable way to make the switch. For a recurring monthly fee, users get a Li-ion battery and charging station along with access to UgoWork’s cloud-based software system that monitors and manages the battery. The program is similar to subscription-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) programs designed to help companies outsource IT needs.
“The whole idea behind UgoWork and energy-as-a-service [is to] provide a sole supplier for everything related to energy—with the mission to really change how the industry operates,” explains Jean-François Marchand, the company’s director of marketing. “With the energy-as-a-service option, there is no [capital expenditure]. It is a pure subscription model that removes that problem of adoption—because you eliminate the upfront equipment costs.”
The model is gaining steam as companies attempt to manage today’s higher energy costs—largely because it gives them a partner that manages their energy use and makes sure they’re getting the most out of their equipment. Marchand offers an example: A UgoWork customer was using 20 forklifts in one area of its warehouse. Switching to trucks powered by Li-ion batteries improved uptime by reducing the amount of charging time required for the equipment—a standard savings when switching from lead-acid to lithium, according to Marchand. But UgoWork was able to dig deeper into the equipment’s usage—via its energy-as-a-service monitoring system—ultimately discovering that the customer could do the same work with fewer forklifts. In the end, the customer removed seven trucks from that particular section of the warehouse, reallocating them to other areas.
“That’s huge in terms of cost savings,” Marchand said. “It’s one example of what data can bring in terms of real-life savings.”
Using energy-as-a-service also helps customers maintain a more predictable energy budget, according to UgoWork.
“By using a subscription model, they know their fee will be stable, or at least proportional to their energy usage,” Marchand explains.
For years, battery and equipment makers have provided power consumption studies designed to give warehouse managers a look at just how well their equipment is performing. Such studies—which can be conducted on all types of batteries and equipment—evaluate warehouse workflows as well as examine how much energy a particular forklift, or an entire fleet, is using. The feedback can lead to solutions for better equipment usage and energy management. Pedriana, of Big Joe Forklifts, says he’s seen a renewed interest in such studies as energy costs rise.
“Workflows are central to material handling … direction, flow, quantity, speed of goods through a facility—they are all important,” he explains. “[Customers] are looking at all of that with fresh eyes: How much energy is being consumed? What’s the best sequence of workflows from a power-consumption basis?”
Battery management systems (BMS) also help by continuously monitoring batteries in the warehouse. These electronic devices monitor and regulate the charging and discharging of batteries, tracking factors such as battery type, voltage, temperature, capacity, state of charge, power consumption, and remaining operating time. And increasingly, such systems are tied in with forklift telematics, which collect and analyze interactions between the fork truck and the battery, generating data that can help users adjust workflows and operating conditions to improve efficiency and reduce costs.
“[The data could reveal] where charger placement might be advantageous, for example,” Pedriana explains. “Or, if we’re running [equipment] at peak hours, can we reduce costs by changing when we operate trucks? There are so many tools people can use to really drive down their operating costs.”
In addition to rising costs, other market developments are complicating warehouse leaders’ efforts to manage their energy needs—particularly, longer leadtimes for new or replacement equipment, according to Trevor Bonifas, general manager of sales, motive power, for material handling equipment manufacturer Crown Equipment. E-commerce and other trends have boosted the volume flowing in and out of warehouses over the past two years, and many warehouse managers are taking the opportunity to add equipment or upgrade to new, energy-efficient systems to handle that volume. Supply chain disruptions and materials shortages mean they could wait a year or more for that new equipment—and in the interim, they have to figure out how to address both current and future demands for power.
“[Customers are telling us], ‘I need to get something new today, but I need something that will work with my equipment that will be replaced a year or two from now,’” Bonifas explains.
He offers an example: If a customer replaces a charger or charging system to boost equipment performance today, that customer wants to make sure that whatever charger it buys will work with any new equipment that arrives in a year. Bonifas says he spends a lot of time figuring out how to best address that problem.
“Ultimately, we go in and talk about how they are using power today, how they expect to use it tomorrow, and we put a device on the equipment to see what they are consuming and what solutions make the most sense today or a year from now,” he says.
That could mean a new charger, an entirely new truck, or even a replacement piece or part that will make the equipment more efficient. For customers using lead-acid batteries today but who plan to switch to Li-ion in a year or two, Crown Equipment offers a flexible solution designed to address both needs—a charger that can charge both types of equipment with the switch of a DC cable and connector.
“Across the entire industry, leadtimes are at historically long levels because of the growth in demand [for new forklifts],” he says. “We have the ability to put in a lead-acid charging solution that has the capability to switch to lithium when the equipment comes in. … That allows some flexibility for those customers who need something today, but say ‘What do I do a year from now?’”
Customers’ growing interest in these and other energy-saving solutions is a sign of the times—and a concern Bonifas and other industry professionals say is here to stay for those on the warehouse floor.
“With the rise in costs, for anything, it comes with a thirst for more data and knowledge,” Bonifas says. “Customers are saying, ‘I’m paying more for this, so I want to make sure I’m getting what’s right.’”