Tech Update: Not Your Daddy's Lift Truck

May 1, 2009
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From new-age power packs to advanced data-acquisition packages, technology is reshaping the workhorses of material handling.


Better management of people and equipment is occurring in the  lift truck segment of material handling. Source: The Raymond Corp.


Vehicle management systems have progressed from simple safety-compliance devices to sophisticated forklift-management tools. Source: Crown Equipment Corp

Alternative fuels may power America’s future, but they already are powering America’s forklifts.

Hydrogen fuel cells transitioned in March from curiosity to mainstream material handling with the opening of Central Grocers Inc.’s 934,490-sq.-ft. refrigerated warehouse in Joliet, IL. All 220 Yale lift trucks and pallet movers are powered by fuel cells from Plug Power Inc., which collaborated with Air Products Inc. to develop the liquid-hydrogen storage system and indoor fueling dispensers. By eliminating the need for a charging and battery-changing infrastructure, Central Grocers expects to lower operational costs, free up floor space and reduce the warehouse’s carbon footprint.

Whether fuel cells emerge as the power source of choice or another alternative energy powers tomorrow’s material-handling machinery, the Central Grocers warehouse underscores the technological innovation occurring. Lift trucks and their drivers traditionally were viewed as costly necessities best managed by minimizing the personal injuries and property damage associated with their activities. That is changing, thanks to tools that boost productivity and improve efficiency. 

From the time food and beverage products are palletized and moved into the supply chain, they may hitch a lift-truck ride 14 times or more (see related story below). Value isn’t added, and product quality can be lost along the way. “It’s low tech, generally,” sums up April Jones, a vice president with Temple, TX-based Materials Transportation Co., which supplies battery management and racking systems. “As long as enough product gets out the door, not too much attention gets paid.”

That attitude is fading, however, as companies recognize the cost savings possible from alternative power sources and vehicle management systems (VMS). Corporate interest in carbon-footprint reduction accounts for some of the shift, but productivity gains prompt CFOs to write the checks to pay for the new tools. The economic advantages of fast-charge, AC-power lift trucks were established in an Electric Power Research Institute study published in 2004, and based on analysis conducted at Del Monte Foods (see “Fast-charged material handling,” Food Engineering, June 2007). Opportunity charging also is part of the mix in eliminating the downtime and cost of battery charging and changing, and other power options are coming into play.

“DC technology is on its way out,” pronounces Mark Hoch, food industry manager for Hyster Co., Greenville, NC. Likewise, days are numbered for internal combustion engines, which currently power half of America’s forklifts. Fuel cells may some day be common, though AC batteries will be the big gainers in the near term. For these power sources, there’s a shift from the conventional battery charging process to fast charging in 24/7 operations, and another shift to opportunity charging” in less intense work environments, says Hoch. The 15-20 minutes spent changing batteries is eliminated in either case, as is the cost and space for a battery room.

“Fast-charge technology has been there awhile, but it’s taken some time for the battery manufacturers to buy into it,” notes Martin Boyd, national product planning manager for Toyota Material Handling USA Inc. Concerns that the heat generated from charging would damage batteries and shorten service life have been disproved, and fleet managers are becoming comfortable with the technology. Charger suppliers also are shifting toward alliances with lift truck manufacturers, scrapping earlier efforts to work with battery manufacturers. Instead of two or three batteries per truck, fast- and opportunity-charging result in one battery per truck, which puts a crimp into battery sales.

One of the first examples of the new alliances occurred last fall when Irvine, CA-based Toyota began selling the Posi-Charge system from AeroVironment through its dealer network. Toyota also is dabbling in other forms of alternative power, including a hybrid electric/internal combustion system introduced in January.

Re-engineering of the vehicles is required before new power sources can be used. DC battery packs act as a counterweight when a load is lifted. “How do we deliver the same capacity with a hydrogen fuel cell that weighs much less?” asks Hyster’s Hoch. “That’s something our engineers are working on.”

Recharging fuel cells at Central Grocers’ DC will take less than two minutes. Toyota’s Boyd suggests fuel cells are only an interim step to hydrogen-powered lift trucks, which already are being field-tested. “Infrastructure plays a very big role for fast charging and fuel cells,” he notes. “A new warehouse is absolute heaven for them.” Investment costs are falling as deployment occurs at large warehouses, leading Boyd to proclaim, “The future is right now.”


Workplace safety improved when Premium Waters installed an AS/RS in its Douglas, GA, plant, but the hard savings came from fewer forklifts. Source: Westfalia Technologies Inc.

Machine smarts

Controls and sensor technology that lead to better fleet performance are beginning to live up to their early promise. The movement away from point-to-point wiring and toward controller-area network (CAN) architecture is helping deployment, as are more stringent OSHA guidelines for truck operations.

VMS packages with wireless networks to monitor, track and control lift-truck activities debuted in the mid-1990s. The early systems had limited functionality and often generated too much data and not enough actionable information. VMS was “a Fortune 500 accessory,” allows Lou Micheletto, national manager-warehouse products for Greenville, NC-based Yale Materials Handling Corp. “Telemetry is still in its infancy as far as being usable on the truck, but the technology ultimately will be useful in minimizing machine failures and ensuring regulatory compliance.”

Accidents and other impact events are a major issue, and collision control was the original target of VMS. “We see millions of dollars of damage at our customers’ sites, and even fork-lift deaths,” says Ken Ehrman, president and COO of I.D. Systems Inc., Hackensack, NJ. He likens the ability to recreate crash events with today’s VMS sensors and controls to airplanes’ black boxes. But early versions delivered more frustration than assistance. Crossing a railroad track or other uneven surface was enough to shut down a truck. “It was almost like a pinball tilt,” he says.

Reliability has improved while costs have declined. “Theoretically, you could put a sensor into a brake system and have the system order replacement pads and schedule maintenance before any grinding occurs,” says Yale’s Micheletto. Beverage companies in particular are deploying VMS because driver compensation is based on the number of picks they make in a shift. That encourages run-to-failure driving habits unless electronic oversight is in place.

Lift-truck battery rooms are unloved by many: for CFOs, they are a cost; for plant managers, they take up valuable space; and for environmentalists, they are toxin-filled containers of landfill contamination. Source: Materials Transportation Co.

Safety inspections prior to operating a lift truck have been an OSHA requirement for a decade. Despite the rule, lift-truck accidents remained the second leading cause of worker fatalities. Two years ago, OSHA mandated proper operator training, a requirement VMS helps meet. Because lift-truck keys routinely are left in the ignition, RF readers or other devices to identify and verify drivers’ training level help ensure only qualified operators use the equipment, Ehrman points out. “If there’s an accident with an untrained driver, the liability increases dramatically.”

VMS moves from an insurance policy to a material-movement optimization tool when both machine and operator performance are monitored. Based on data collected from 20,000 vehicle installations, Ehrman calculates trucks typically are in motion only two hours during an eight-hour shift, and only one hour is spent moving a load. How much productivity can be improved depends on how closely the VMS can be integrated with the truck’s computer and how many sensors are installed (I.D. Systems deploys up to 20 per vehicle).

Truck manufacturers are offering their own VMS packages. The Raymond Corp., Greene, NY, developed a suite of fleet optimization tools in partnership with ShockWatch, an impact-detection specialist that provides the wireless data network. Open CAN architecture lets Raymond integrate Shockwatch’s sensors and software into the Raymond controls, explains Alan Marder, director-technology solutions.

Six modules can be incorporated in Raymond’s iWarehouse suite, from driver verification control to a fleet management tool. The most distinctive module, says Marder, is iControl, which enables remote control of a truck’s maximum speed and other operating parameters. “Collisions are one of the major issues in lift-truck management,” he says. “With our controls, we can adjust the speed of the trucks and prevent unqualified or unlicensed people from jumping in and crashing.”

New Bremen, OH-based Crown Equipment Corp. offers similar capabilities under its Insite umbrella. Inspection checklists, truck and fleet operating parameters and optimization tools are bundled with the truck controls. “We do the programming, install the module on the truck and make sure the data are usable,” says Maria Schwieterman, marketing product manager at Crown, which specializes in electric lift trucks. “Data can be overwhelming. These tools were developed to turn data into information and knowledge that companies can use.”

“Wireless data acquisition and electronic record keeping are very powerful tools that are attracting increasing interest,” agrees Toyota’s Boyd. Coupled with the growing use of AC technology and the emergence of clean energy-sources, they will help manufacturers optimize material-handling performance while also addressing chronic problems associated with lift trucks.

For more information:
Maria Schwieterman, Crown Equipment Corp., 419-629-2311
Mark Hoch, Hyster Co., 252-758-4978, mark.hoch@hyster.com
Ken Ehrman, I.D. Systems Inc., 201-996-9000
April Jones, Materials Transportation Co., 254-298-2943, a.jones@mtcworldwide.com
Alan Marder, the Raymond Corp., 807-656-2311
Bob Whetstine, ReInvision Product Solutions, 803-984-7617, bwhetstine@compactserv.com
Martin Boyd, Toyota Material Handling USA Inc., 949-223-7792
John Hinchey, Westfalia Technologies Inc., 717-764-1115
Lou Micheletto, Yale Materials Handling Corp., 252-830-5377. aylmiche@yale.com

Do-no-harm fork pads

Rubber bumpers, shipping pads, foam rubber: if there’s a material available that can be attached to a lift truck’s forks, someone has lashed it on in hopes of preventing damage to finished goods. Upholstery used in the cockpits of fighter jets is the latest solution to the problem.

Christened Fork Knox by its inventor, Bob Whetstine, fork pads are getting their first industrial test at a 92-year-old cannery operated by Truitt Brothers Inc. “An older facility forces lots of movement, and fork lifts move cans anywhere from six to 14 times before we put a label on them,” says Sue Root, operations manager at the Salem, OR, plant. The expectation of the pilot, organized by the Northwest Food Processors Association Innovation Productivity Center, is that the system will take a dent out of damaged goods.

Whetstine developed the pads three years ago for a major home-improvement retailer to cut $17 million in losses from sheet rock damaged in transit. The Six Sigma group that oversaw the bumper project was disbanded, and further development languished until Whetstine purchased the rights to his invention and launched Atlanta-based ReInvision Product Solutions to distribute it.

An inveterate tinkerer and manufacturing professional, Whetstine drew on his experience managing a fleet of 50 forklifts in devising a pad that slides on metal guides mounted to a truck’s vertical forks. Stationary pads typically are affixed to the base of the vertical plane. “Why would I want to protect the pallet,” he rhetorically asks. “It’s the product that makes money, not the pallet.”

The pad itself is a closed cell material that doubles as a flotation device for jet fighters. “It doesn’t wick up moisture,” he explains, and is skinned over with flexible plastic to retain the original shape. He expects the pads to last about two years in the cannery, after which new pads can be mounted on the guides.

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