Self-driving forklifts, blockchain technology, ergonomic designs, virtual reality and lithium-ion batteries are all components of today’s material handling equipment. But, it’s these machine’s ability to handle multiple SKUs at a faster pace that make them ideal for tomorrow’s ever-changing environment.

This special report uncovers the trends and innovation driving the future of lift trucks and battery chargers.

Technology trends drive industry forward

Recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) are revolutionizing the way warehouses operate.

“For many warehouse executives, AI is an important technology to consider because it will allow for the automation of tasks within the warehouse,” says Jim Gaskell, director of global technology and business development for Crown Equipment Corp., New Bremen, Ohio. “One type of AI called machine learning explores ways to enable computer programs to improve their output based on learning from data inputs. Consider how this could be applied to equipment utilization. The input data would be available data that could impact equipment requirements.”

Another trend set to impact supply chains is blockchain technology.

“Given the ease with which blockchain can be updated and the security it offers, imagine how useful this could be for traceability initiatives that require record of each step a product takes in the supply chain?” says Shelley Bell, industry marketing manager for Yale Materials Handling Corp., Greenville, N.C.

Other trends include operations management programs that drive efficiency at every level.

“Focusing on efficiency targets for vehicle power systems and power sources will enable significant gains,” says Lynda Stephens, senior manager, information solutions, EnerSys, Reading, Pa. “All of this will be made possible by integrating the Internet of Things (IoT) with electric vehicle, battery and charger analytics and reporting technologies under development today.”

And, as e-commerce continues to grow, cold storage warehouses are building up, not out, to maximize space of existing buildings, according to Susan Comfort, product manager, narrow aisle products, The Raymond Corp., Greene, N.Y.

“Trucks like the high-capacity reach fork are ideal for tall cold storage and freezer applications, allowing pallet storage from 8-10 levels for potentially 25% more storage in warehouses,” she adds. “And, some trucks with lithium-ion battery solutions have power packs that include integrated heaters for superior cold storage needs and thermal controls that reduce the risk of damage caused by environmental extremes.”

Safety first

Ergonomics, operator fatigue, labor shortage and undesirable working conditions are all factors impacting the future of forklifts. That’s why lift truck manufacturers are reinventing the way their employees operate.

For example, Yale’s Smart Operator Sensing System takes ergonomics to a whole new “level,” as it does not require floor pedals in a stand-up lift truck. Easy on/off access, low step height and spacious suspended floor help to reduce operator fatigue.

“Companies that monitor utilization by specific truck and driver typically achieve greater profitability in the long run,” says Bell. “Investing time and resources to properly educate, track and train lift truck operators on appropriate safe operating procedures can benefit the entire operation.”

To achieve worker safety, Raymond developed the Raymond virtual reality (VR) simulator, a supplemental educational tool that helps new and experienced operators learn and practice forklift operating skills on an actual truck in a secure, warehouse environment.

“With a VR educational tool, operators can become more comfortable with all aspects of lift truck operation—from learning the controls to knowing how to navigate emergency scenarios,” says Comfort.

Crown also introduced a number of technology enhancements to improve forklift safety. For starters, Crown’s OnTrac Anti-Slip Traction Control on its narrow aisle reach trucks uses the forklift’s on-board control system to determine whether the truck is losing traction. The system reduces plugging, braking and tire spin during acceleration, resulting in shorter stopping distances and longer tire life. Also, the Entry Bar Safety Switch at the compartment opening on Crown’s stand-up and counterbalance reach trucks slows the truck to a stop and sounds an alarm if operators attempt to drive the truck with part of their foot resting on the ledge.

Also, events like National Forklift Safety Day, hosted by the Industrial Truck Association, Washington, D.C., offer lift truck manufacturers the opportunity to educate customers, policymakers and administrators on best practices and the importance of proper training.

Lithium-ion leads the way

While the first non-rechargeable lithium battery became available in the early 1970s, according to Battery University, sponsored by Cadex Electronics, Inc., Canada, it wasn’t until recently that lithium-ion batteries became an attractive alternative to lead-acid ones.

In fact, fuel cell electric mobility is this year’s No. 1 key trend, having grown in importance from its No. 5 ranking in 2016, according to a study conducted by KPMG, the Netherlands. Overall electric mobility is ranked extremely high, holding three of the Top 4 ranks.

KION Linde MT12

KION North America’s new MT12 model is powered by a lithium-ion battery, and offers up to 3 hours of use.

“Lithium-ion batteries offer an attractive alternative for several reasons. First, the enclosure is entirely sealed, so the cold takes a longer time to affect the internals. Within the enclosure, the modules are individually heated for maximum energy efficiency, and during charging, the battery will naturally warm up and this heat is retained in the system. Unlike lead-acid batteries, li-ion batteries can safely be fast-charged in the cold and even in freezers,” says Don Nasca, senior business development manager, industrial electronic vehicle power solutions for Delta Electronics (Americas) Ltd., Fremont, Calif. “All in all, li-ion batteries allow operators to run in the freezing cold without any drop in performance. This will be particularly critical as online grocery delivery services continue to grow in prevalence.”

UniCarriers PD diesel forklift

UniCarriers Americas launched the PD Series Internal Combustion diesel forklift, which features full suspension seats with adjustable lumbar, multi-function LCD/LED display, fuel saver mode, ground speed control, operator presence system and standard memory tilt steering.

Automation ignites innovation

The lift truck industry experienced a host of new equipment innovations over the past year.

For instance, KION North America Corp., Summerville, S.C., released three new Linde electric pallet trucks delivering load capacities of 2,600-4,500 pounds. The MT12 model, for instance, was specially designed for low-hour applications in production lines, warehouses or goods transport sectors. Powered by a lithium-ion battery, this electric pallet truck offers up to 3 hours of use. Meanwhile, the MT15 model is a productive solution for short distance transfer duties. Equipped with a maintenance-free gel battery, it features automatic discharge protection, which cuts the lift function when the battery reaches the 80% discharge level.

“The future will include lithium-ion battery technology, trucks that will be linked real-time with warehouse management systems for order processing, including weighing devices, biometric operator access, real-time operator monitoring and ‘no contact’ charging systems,” says Bob Hasenstab, general product manager for KION.

Delta 1.5kW On-board Charger

Delta debuted the 1.5kW onboard charger, which offers a compact, rugged design suitable for charging batteries in industrial electric vehicles, even in the harshest environments.

Seegrid, Pittsburgh, Pa., rolled out a number of new features on its lift trucks. For example, when two trucks meet at an intersection, the Intersection Manager tool allows the truck with the higher priority task to cross the intersection first. The new Queues feature identifies a vehicle’s next available job and dispatches it to execute the next task. Integrated barcode scanners allow customers to direct the movement of materials, scan each payload, understand the load type and dispatch the vehicle to its next destination. And, Caution Tape prevents vehicles from traveling down certain segments of the route network.

“The future of the industry is focused on this continual improvement over time, which will lead to greater efficiency and productivity,” says Jeff Christensen, vice president of product. “All of our customers want a deeper knowledge and understanding of their supply chain, and because Seegrid’s vehicles gather data as they work, companies are able to monitor and analyze their throughput and performance and change and improve their processes accordingly.”

EnerSys NexSys Battery

EnerSys expanded its Nexsys Battery Thin Plate Pure Lead (TPPL) line to include configurations that can fast-charge in just under an hour and stay charged up to 16 hours.

For its part, Raymond introduced the Raymond High-Capacity Reach-Fork truck, which integrates telematics capabilities to increase efficiency. It comes equipped with a new Vantage Point camera with a high dynamic range image sensor and iWAREHOUSE Evolution, which includes all truck data from truck speed to battery state of charge.

The Raymond Model 8720 second-level order picker with elevated hydraulic platform provides 47 inches of elevated height, increasing access to pick slots on the second, and in some cases, third load beam levels.

And, the Raymond Model 8410 pallet truck with second-level pick steps offers three heavy-duty, non-slip steps—accessible from either side of the truck—that lead to a picking platform for easy access to second-level load beams.

“With today’s e-commerce demands, the need to move more product faster is critical,” adds Comfort. “Because of this industry need, pallet sizes are getting taller, and in turn, loads are becoming heavier. This shift to taller pallets and heavier loads also plays a big part in reducing transportation costs.”

Meanwhile, Crown introduced a new 2-stage TL mast, commonly referred to as a “Truckers Mast,” for its Crown FC 5200 Series counterbalance forklifts and the pneumatic and cushion tire models of the Crown C-5 Series industrial forklifts. This new shorter mast is ideal for use in warehouse dock work and cross-docking applications.

Crown also debuted a new, versatile charger stand that offers multiple configuration options for its line of modular V-Force industrial battery chargers. The stand features a heavy duty steel frame construction and securely anchors to the floor, holding the charger safely in place.

Furthermore, Crown’s Battery Health Monitor is installed on the battery and captures data that is relayed to Crown’s InfoLink system via a Bluetooth connection. It helps associate battery performance data with a specific lift truck and/or operator, and “positions forklift owners to manage batteries as assets, while driving operator accountability and improved battery troubleshooting that will enable better battery management practices,” according to Scott Barrett, motive power product manager.

EnerSys expanded its Nexsys Battery Thin Plate Pure Lead (TPPL) line to include configurations that can fast-charge in just under an hour and be charged for up to 16 hours, enabling a broad range of long-life opportunity charging options for Class I, II and III applications, including high-capacity lift trucks. EnerSys also utilizes what it calls Zero Touch technology, that together with comprehensive battery operations management programs, dramatically simplifies battery use and maintenance.

“Gone are the days of just ordering a battery and charger that go with the truck you specify,” says Stephens. “Today, you can make significant gains by addressing the true heart of your operation—the power source that moves the products you make or distribute.”

Delta Electronics launched a 30kW wireless battery charging system, which can charge a 600Ahr-48V battery in just 60 minutes, making it ideal for large and complex vehicles, such as scissor lifts, forklifts, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and more. Delta also debuted its 720W and 1.5kW onboard chargers, which offer compact, rugged designs suitable for charging batteries in industrial electric vehicles, even in the harshest environments.

And, UniCarriers Americas, Marengo, Ill., launched the PD Series Internal Combustion diesel forklift, which features full suspension seats with adjustable lumbar, multi-function LCD/LED display, fuel saver mode, ground speed control, operator presence system and standard memory tilt steering.

Finally, Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America, Inc. (MCFA), Houston, Texas, introduced a new 36-volt option to its Jungheinrich EFG 213-220 and 316k-320 3- and 4-wheel counterbalanced trucks.

The future

Standalone solutions like voice control, sensors, lights and cameras will all be integrated into one seamless, interconnected platform, says Mark Porwit, director, corporate planning, strategic planning, product management and program management for UniCarriers.

“The market is expecting that more than 50% of lift trucks will be using robotics, automation and AGVs within 5 years,” he adds. “We’ll start to see batteries work more efficiently, and the size of the charging stations will be reduced over time and will charge batteries at a quicker rate.”

Yale Smart Operator Sensing

Yale’s Smart Operator Sensing System features easy on/off access, low step height and spacious suspended floor help to reduce operator fatigue.

Likewise, the trend to convert internal combustion (IC) technology to alternating current (AC) technology is growing.

“Today, more than 60% of the trucks in the market are electric. At some point, we will just keep IC trucks for those applications where you cannot use electric trucks, and the rest will be electric,” says Antonio Serrano, commercial marketing specialist for MCFA. “Government regulations are pushing to reduce emissions. I will not be surprised if in a few more years we match the Italian market where more than 95% of the trucks are electric.”

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