Nearly 60 percent of American forklift users rely on counterbalance trucks to meet the bulk of their material handling needs. Even more than 60 percent of the forklifts in North America run on electricity. (Both statistics date to 2014, the last year the Industrial Truck Association has compiled so far).
But times are changing for electric counterbalance forklifts. New motive power technologies are on the horizon. Here are a few developing power sources that may power the industrial trucks of the future — but how will they work for counterbalance forklifts in particular?
Lithium-ion batteries are driving progress in the personal electronics field, but that doesn’t translate into great benefits for counterbalance forklifts. Other industries love li-ion because the battery packs are incredibly light. As their name implies, though, counterbalance lift trucks depend on the weight of lead-acid batteries for stability.
Until a forklift manufacturer comes along with an efficient design that doesn’t pair counterbalance weight with motive power, li-ion won’t take off in the field.
Like lithium-ion, hydrogen fuel cells are gaining lots of attention as a source of motive power for forklifts. Fuel cells don’t experience a voltage drop during extended service the way some batteries do. They also don’t require charging, cooling intervals, or equalization charges.
What fuel cells do need is an entirely new infrastructure. Essentially, fuel cell adopters have to install a “gas station” on site to pump hydrogen into their trucks; that’s an expensive and — if it’s not done right — even a dangerous proposition.
The technology behind lead-acid batteries isn’t standing still as these newer power sources evolve. New features like computerized control systems can keep lead-acid batteries running longer and more efficiently.
Meanwhile, manufacturers continue to roll out new iterations of lead-acid batteries with longer run-times, greater capacity, and simpler maintenance intervals. Just a few of these advances include integrated supercapacitors, carbon electrodes, and micro-structured lead.
Proponents of newer power sources often point to elimination of battery rooms as a benefit to lithium-ion or fuel cell technologies. This position discounts the leaps in technology that have occurred in the battery room, as well.
Today’s Operator-Aboard Battery Extractors can complete change-outs in as few as 2-3 minutes, easily rivaling the time it takes to refill a hydrogen fuel tank.
Meanwhile, battery fleet management tools like Fleet Tracker help to ensure efficient battery rotation and strict adherence to maintenance requirements. With proper treatment, even older forklift batteries can provide efficiency and reliability that’s on par with newer technologies, at a greatly reduced price.
The future of power for counterbalance forklifts depends on possibly the most defining trait of the industry’s material handling work-horse: Counterbalance lift trucks require weight to provide the counterbalance.
Lead-acid batteries are the only technology that provide reliable motive power AND necessary ballast without inefficient design tweaks. You could always add a 1,000-pound weight to a hydrogen fuel cell, of course — but why waste space with components that literally don’t do anything but sit there?
Today, based on the requirements of counterbalance forklifts, lead-acid batteries remain the dominant source of motive power for electric forklifts.
Andel, Tom. “5 Realities about the Future of Forklift Energy.” MHLNews. Penton, 2 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 July 2016.
“Economics of Fuel Cell Solutions for Material Handling.” Ballard. Ballard Power Systems, Inc., Oct. 2010. PDF. 28 July 2016.
“Market Intelligence.” IndTrk. Industrial Truck Association, 2015. Web. 28 July 2016
Medwin, Steve. “Fuel Cells and Electric Forklift Trucks.” Energy. United States Department of Energy, 14 June 2011. PDF. 28 July 2016.