While diesel and LPG-powered forklifts are being eschewed for environmental reasons there is a perception that logistics operators lack a full understanding of lithium-ion power, and also some are reluctant to abandon diesel owing to performance/working environment issues, despite the fact that advances in battery and charger technologies now make the performance of electrics the equal of diesel in all weathers. To help clear the air, therefore, those considering a change of forklifts would do well to partner with a leading forklift producer who has all or most motive power options in its stable.

Undoubtedly, lithium-ion (Li) is hogging the limelight, while currently less attention is paid to hydrogen fuel cells, partly because of the need to justify the latter’s initial costs through 24/7 operations and the tricky nature of hydrogen fuel storage. But this initial cost barrier is likely to fall as take up numbers rise, making them more attractive than Li, and there is no lack of enthusiasm from lift truck producers like Toyota (the biggest) to pin its colours on hydrogen. The same could be said for Li (currently initially 3-4 times more costly than lead-acid) as prices could fall enough by 2022 to match lead-acid, says Jungheinrich’s Dr Brzoska.

Meanwhile, however, how can you be sure that a switch from, say, diesel or LPG will pay off within an acceptable time based on being tailored to your own special needs? Software is available from the likes of BYD, who offer lithium ironphosphate, that allows trials of the new batteries to analyse the cost metrics of diesel versus lithium. This would show how much of a lower total cost of ownership can be achieved relative to diesel. Such simulation in a real working environment is critical, given that each warehouse operation is almost unique.

Little is heard of another, longproven electric technology, namely nickel-cadmium, which can be regenerated and has a lot of similar properties to Li, says battery producer, Hoppecke. Its price point is much more cost effective than Li. Lithium is not always the answer, and this highlights the need to avoid picking up off-the-shelf solutions from OEMs, unless they offer all battery type solutions, because OEMs are truck specialists, not battery specialists. Every application is different, so all of the buyer’s needs must be considered.

Despite the inroads made by new battery technologies, lead-acid still remains the dominant electric motive power. Many SMEs, which may only use one or two trucks for one-shift operations, would not see the economics add up for Li or lithium iron-phosphate. Lead-acid is also increasing its cost appeal through advances in battery technology, chargers and management systems. If, however, the claims by the Li camp of their batteries falling in price to match lead-acid by 2022 are realized then lead-acid will lose its crown.

The key reasons often cited for shifting over from fossil-fuelled trucks to electric are environmental concerns, particularly relating to health and the quality of the working environment, but there seems to be a curious attitude among some that the environmental reason is unconvincing, and that it is the external social reputation that is the deciding factor. This purblind view does not, is seems, take into account how climate change will seriously clobber global logistics costs, in which transport emissions play a large role.

BILL REDMOND

Features Editor