The counterbalance of power

4 mins read

There are three major power sources for forklift trucks: diesel, gas and electric. What should you bear in mind when choosing? Hywel Roberts investigates

Forklifts remain one of the most crucial machines in any manufacturing site’s operations. And as such, selecting the correct power source behind the modern workhorse is of huge importance for site managers across the country.

Manufacturing is picking up along with the rest of the UK’s recovery, and the forklift market is growing accordingly. A summer 2015 report by Oxford Economics, commissioned by the British Industrial Truck Association (BITA), predicted that shipments in the UK would increase by 6.8% in the following 12 months, reaching a total of 32,087 units across the country.

Horses for courses

Each power solution has its own strengths and weaknesses. Diesel is still the most durable engine and can be used on rugged ground, but cannot always be used indoors. Batteries need up to 12 hours to charge so electric tucks might not be suitable for 24-hour shift patterns. LPG trucks have traditionally suffered by being perceived as costly to maintain. All this means selecting the right option for your site is far from simple.

It has been getting harder for manufacturing sites to use diesel since the first European regulations on emissions from non-road vehicles were introduced in 1996. It was the first action of a five-stage plan to all but eliminate harmful gases from workplace environments.

The final stage of the regulations will be announced in January 2017, with application due by January 2019. The consequence of these measures will, according to Toyota Material Handling sales, training, product development manager, David Rylance, be an increase of cost that will mean diesel trucks ay cease to be an attractive economic investment.

“By the time the fifth stage is implemented the diesel trucks will simply be too expensive to run,” he explains. “Every time you have new legislation engines have to be changed or adapted, amendments have to be made, and that all adds up. So eventually I think this will mean diesel trucks being forced out of the market.”

One way the suppliers have tried to combat this is through the development of hybrid trucks, which complement diesel engines with an electronic battery– much like the Toyota Prius. This reduces the harmful emissions and brings down fuel costs, but essentially you’re still dealing with a diesel power source.

Phil Ireland, senior product strategy manager, counterbalance solutions at Hyster-Yale Group, sees the efficiencies as helpful but not enough to stem the tide of the fully-electric machines.

“For the foreseeable future the more efficient engines will continue to provide a tough workhorse for the materials handling industry,” he says. “However, currently battery operated trucks have around 60% of the forklift market, a figure that has been rising gradually in recent years from around 50% a decade ago.”

“Battery power has many well-developed advantages and is often favoured by operators for indoor applications and when handling smaller loads. With higher intensity operations and larger loads, internal combustion engine-powered counterbalance forklifts, with diesel or LPG as the two common fuels, are generally preferred. “

The intensity of the operations is key, and until now has been the major weakness of battery trucks. Charging times of up to 12 hours mean they can be out of action for half of the day. But technology is coming that may eradicate these shortcomings.

Craig Johnson, marketing manager at Jungheinrich UK, sees lithium-ion as the solution that will help electric trucks to become viable long-hour machines, and a technology that will secure their long-term future.

“Lithium-ion is the technology set to significantly influence the electric powered forklift market going forward. There is a distinct shift from the traditional lead-acid battery,” he explains.

“Tests show that lithium-ion batteries last at least two to three times longer than lead-acid batteries and when it comes to power, lithium-ion batteries are 10 times more efficient than lead-acid batteries. This allows for far smaller power packs, which has a significant advantage with smaller trucks. A further important point is that lithium-ion batteries are maintenance-free, so no need to top-up with distilled water. “

Toyota’s Rylance confirms that this efficiency will also lead to time savings on battery charging. “Whereas currently you’re looking at eight to 12 hours, with lithium-ion it will be four hours at the very most. It’s too early in the development process to give accurate figures on the trucks’ final cost and savings, but on charging time there’s no doubt it’s a big step forward.”

In January 2016 Yale brought to market the first commercially-available lithium-ion truck. Toyota has been working on prototypes since 2011 and all major players will soon be bringing out their own models in the UK.

Foot on the gas

Despite advances in battery technology, Phil Ireland still sees LPG as the best truck for long-production schedules. “In very intensive applications involving larger loads, modern high efficiency LPG and diesel machines with low emissions are invariably the right choice,” he explains.

Gas trucks operate using a combustion engine rather than a battery, but are powered by liquid gas canisters that produce much less harmful emissions than carbon-heavy diesel.

Hydrogen is to the gas trucks what lithium-ion is to batteries. Although not currently widespread, Ireland sees rapid adoption throughout the industry as the technology develops.

“Until now, a tiny percentage of trucks have been operating on hydrogen, but the expectation is that this will grow steadily,” he says. “Although still in its infancy and with an immature supply infrastructure, hydrogen fuel cells make a compelling case where on-site hydrogen storage can be accommodated or where regular supply can be achieved.”

So the future belongs to the new generation of gas and electric-powered trucks, it would seem. But for the moment there are decisions to be made between the three main power sources. Diesel is still in the game and for heavy-duty, outdoors work there simply isn’t anything on the market that can match it today, as Graham Jones, dealership director at forklift supplier TCM, confirms.

“With anything over about eight tonnes, you’re going to have to look at how you move those goods,” he says. “Sometimes you just need the strength [of diesel].”

But ever-increasing emission targets are pushing diesel out of the market. The hybrid solution will delay this, but it’s little more than a sticking plaster in the long-term.

Gas and electric trucks both have their shortcomings. Although progressive technology looks set to lessen them dramatically over the coming years, site managers making commercial decisions today would still do well not to get carried away with what is soon to be. The best approach for site managers would be to make every commercial decision on the merits of the current options on offer but keep an eye on advances in future technologies.