Drive Technology

Gearing up for the future

Lower energy consumption, no battery changes and smart additional functions – lithium-ion batteries offer a whole host of advantages for electric forklift trucks. Yet the market is still reacting somewhat hesitantly. But change is on its way and the KION Group is ready.

"This used to take longer," says Pascal Lepage, his decisive voice audible over the whirring and humming of the refrigerated warehouse. To emphasise what he is saying, he points his finger and briefly looks over to the loading dock before his gaze returns to the three hand pallet trucks that are currently stacking pallets. "A lorry arrives here every half an hour – and the trucks have to be fully charged." One of the hand pallet trucks extends its forks to pick up a pallet of vanilla desserts. "We can't charge lead-acid batteries here in the refrigerated warehouse," says Lepage, with a slight nod towards the charging station. He doesn't elaborate further on this last statement but it's self-explanatory: the precisely timed operations that take place here are only possible thanks to lithium-ion technology.

Outside the warehouse, the low-rise buildings of the La Sablonnière factory contrast with the colourful brick buildings of the region, roughly hewn by the winds of Normandy. The nearest town, Le Molay-Littry, is situated on the edge of a nature conservation area and at midday, the place is empty. Brick buildings, gnarled coastal vegetation, long country roads – at first sight there is nothing to indicate that this is a place where the technology of the future is being put into practice. And even the three trucks that represent this innovative technology look somewhat inconspicuous: dark-red painted Fenwick hand pallet trucks, dwarfed by the high storage bays where boxes of dairy products are stacked.

Just a few minutes more to charge

Lepage is the works manager at this factory where dairy products, desserts and cheeses are manufactured by the French food company Danone. The company has five factories in France of which La Sablonnière is the smallest. From here, products are exported all over Europe. That is why lorries arrive in half-hourly intervals and also why the warehouse is cooled to refrigeration temperature. "Batteries had to be changed in a separate room," explains Lepage. Lead-acid batteries release gases that are not compatible with food storage. The cold temperature was also a problem. "But this is not an issue for the lithium-ion batteries – at most they take a few minutes longer to charge at low temperatures.“

It is every works manager's dream: a drive technology offering consistent performance, high efficiency and low energy consumption. A battery that is easy to charge, and can also just be topped up every now and then. It is the answer to a whole series of questions that customers have been asking for decades. And, as Joachim Tödter explains, it is because "the customer wants to drive. He doesn't want to fill up with fuel, change the battery or wait a long time for a battery to charge." Tödter is the head of the technology and innovation department at the KION Group. Since joining STILL in 1992, he has worked in various roles in research and preliminary development. "I get a great sense of satisfaction from new things," he says. "New methods, new ideas, that is what drives me. I had always wanted to play a part in shaping the future."

In the large production hall at STILL in Hamburg, Tödter is looking at two silver-painted hand pallet trucks, also powered by lithium-ion technology. For years he has listened to the needs of the customers. What's more, 2019 will see new restrictions on emissions, which will make the use of electric forklift trucks even more attractive. Up to now, electric forklifts have mainly been powered by lead-acid batteries. Scientists have been researching alternatives for decades, but for a long-time no one managed to produce something that met the challenges of everyday use. Not the sodium-sulphur battery nor the zinc-air battery. "Ultimately, it is always the market that decides whether or not an innovation is successful," says Tödter. It has been clear for a number of years now that lithium-ion batteries have all the necessary requirements to make it.

"Battery technologies of the future will alter how trucks are used"

This type of battery already dominates in a number of electronic devices. These days, for example, no-one changes lead-acid batteries in their cameras any more. The automotive sector is also working industriously on developing the technology. "Battery technologies of the future will dramatically alter how trucks are used," predicts Tödter. "We can operate trucks for longer, and we could even completely redesign them in terms of ergonomics. A lithium-ion battery can, in theory, take any form."

That said, many customers are still hesitant. Partly because they do not have the infrastructure to exploit the advantages. If you want to simultaneously plug ten trucks into a charging station during the breakfast break in a large factory, you require a suitably powerful electricity supply. What's more, the KION Group knows that customers are reluctant to have single trucks converted. If they're going to do it, they want to convert the whole fleet at the same time. Pallet trucks and tugger trains are already available with the new technology, and this will be extended to counterbalance trucks in 2016. The counterbalance truck category is also currently in development. "This requires specialised engineering expertise," says Harald Will. "No-one has yet introduced anything like this on the market." There is no shortage of engineering expertise at the brand companies STILL and Linde, which look back on a long history of innovation.

Specific advantages for a third of customers

Based at his office in Aschaffenburg, Linde's core plant, Will is in charge of the newly created product development unit at the KION Group. While Joachim Tödter keeps an eye on emerging technologies to anticipate potential benefits for the logistics sector, Harald Will is concerned with the start of the actual product process. In the early nineties, Will developed a truck with a tilting driver’s cab and a combined axle for Linde. Today, he too is turning his attention to drive technologies. "It has been clear for five years now that lithium-ion technology is coming out on top," he says.

Innovations such as these typically require a great amount of investment at the outset. And many companies tend to look more closely at the purchasing costs rather than the whole product lifecycle. "We also know that around a third of our customers would already benefit from specific advantages today," says Will. "Only they don't all believe it yet." Despite the initial cost of purchase being higher at the moment, lithium-ion batteries pay off in the long run because there is no need to buy replacement batteries and overall energy consumption is reduced. Lead-acid batteries have an efficiency level of around only 60 per cent – a third of the power that is fed in is lost because it is transformed, for example, into heat. In comparison, lithium-ion batteries have an efficiency level of 90 per cent. "You are effectively saving a lot of energy," says Will.

The intelligent battery

And yet, we have not yet factored in the truly innovative advantages of such batteries for customers: a lithium-ion battery can show exactly how much energy it has left. That is why industrial trucks manufactured by the KION Group have a standard interface which allows the battery to communicate with the truck. "If the battery charge starts to run low, the truck can, for example, automatically cut back so that it is still able to complete the required shift," says Will. "The lithium-ion battery is intelligent". A real advantage, particularly in the context of Intralogistics 4.0 where trucks, pallets and workers in the factory of the future are communicating with each other and constantly exchanging data. As it is, the automated factory needs trucks that are continuously in operation and only out for short breaks. With lithium-ion technology, this is all possible.

The precision timing required at La Sablonnière in Normandy is one of the main reasons for using this technology – not only at the loading bay for the lorries but also for the link between production and warehouse where a tugger train drives backward and forward, powered by a lithium-ion battery. "It needs to be working for fifteen minutes exactly every hour," describes Lepage. In between, the truck stops off now and again at the charging station. When you compare electric-powered trucks to electric cars, the manageable dimensions of a factory site do indeed offer an invaluable advantage: electric cars have to wait until charging points are widely available while a charging station for the trucks can be centrally positioned within the factory.

In the late afternoon, the works manager at the small Danone factory is standing in the warehouse, which is noticeably quieter. The hand pallet trucks are plugged in. For them, heavy-duty operations resume the following morning. In the meantime, a single counterbalance truck is operating between the racks, sorting pallets of soft cheeses, chocolate desserts and caramel puddings. The factory of course communicates regularly with the other Danone plants in France. "I have already told my colleagues that they need to embrace this technology of tomorrow," says Lepage smiling. He himself has made this hundred-year-old factory with its traditional brick buildings fit for the future.