All Stories
5 min

New Production Line for Fuel Cells

Forklift trucks that emit water vapor instead of exhaust fumes: No longer just a pipe dream, but now a reality at the Hamburg STILL plant.


Three, two, one. Guests from the press and politics join in the countdown. At 12 o’clock on the dot, the moment arrives. Dr. Melanie Leonhard, Senator for Economics and Innovation of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, and Professor Dr. Klaus Bonhoff, Head of Policy at the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV), together with Dr. Florian Heydenreich, Executive Vice President Sales & Services at STILL EMEA, press the start button to ceremoniously open the first production line for fuel cell systems at the Hamburg STILL plant.

A big round of applause erupts, and rightly so, because KION Group is the very first industrial truck manufacturer to offer its own fuel cell system, making it a real "one-stop shop" for sustainably powered industrial trucks alongside electric motors.

“As a pioneer in the intralogistics industry, we see ourselves as responsible for boldly and consistently driving forward the energy transition,” explains Dr. Florian Heydenreich, Executive Vice President Sales & Services at STILL EMEA.

New Production Line for Environmentally Friendly Drive Technology

Project Manager Sebastian Klemz usually deals with small and micro parts when planning a new production line. But things are rather different when it comes to the fuel cell. Now there are powerful lemon-yellow cranes, capable of lifting a metric ton of weight, hanging from the hall ceiling. Weighing in at 340 kilograms, this 24-volt fuel cell is anything but lightweight. And this red tank in its gray steel housing also looks a little bit like a jet-propelled rocket. But what comes out of the back can be seen, and it even plays a key ecological role. It is with good reason that hydrogen is regarded as an important building block in the energy world of the future.

What Makes Hydrogen So Special

Hydrogen can be produced in a climate-neutral way using electricity generated from renewable energy. It is suitable for industrial applications, heat and power generation, and the mobility and intralogistics sectors. It is 14 times lighter than air, non-toxic, non-corrosive, and non-radioactive. Hydrogen is not susceptible to spontaneous combustion and burns cleanly with a colorless flame. In short, hydrogen is full of energy and can be produced sustainably as green, carbon-neutral hydrogen. As hydrogen is essential for a climate-friendly energy transition in industry and transport, the German government is promoting the entry into the hydrogen economy with the National Hydrogen Strategy 2020.

From Idea to Product

Sebastian Klemz describes himself as an “interface to the design.” In his role as Project Manager in the fuel cell assembly team, he was able to put his process optimization skills to good use. “This fuel cell production line is an unusually large assembly for us. We tend to build steering units or frequency converters that are produced within ten minutes.”

But the significantly larger fuel cell means things take a lot longer. After an initial start-up phase, the brand new fuel cells are set to roll off the production line within a target time of two to two and a half hours. This requires not only trained staff, but also an innovative production line where every box, every shelf, every screwdriver, and, last but not least, the final test unit is positioned in the perfect place.

Employees are already working hard to find ways to further optimize the production line, so that up to 5,000 cells can roll off the conveyor belt when production switches to a multi-shift operation in the next few years.

“We are proud to produce sustainable power units,” says Mechatronics engineer Robert Fouquét.

But there is still rather a long way to go. There are knocking and ringing sounds coming from all corners of the hall. Parts are being worked on, hammered, assembled, and welded—just like any normal production day—while the hydrogen tank for the first official fuel cell leaving the Hamburg plant receives its protective steel housing with the help of the yellow crane. Mechatronics engineer Robert Fouquét not only demonstrates how the fuel cell is assembled, but also talks about how delighted he is to be part of this innovative project. “We are proud to produce sustainable power units,” he explains, shortly before placing the now-assembled cell onto the test stand.

The development of the 48-volt system is already underway, as the existing line is designed to handle this as well as the even more powerful 80-volt systems. These larger systems go hand in hand with considerably more weight, giving the lemon-yellow cranes the opportunity to really show what they are made of.

Fuel Cells for Intralogistics

When we talk about fuel cells, we are referring to what are known as “battery replacement modules” (BRMs) in the field of industrial trucks. A BRM is a closed system and is the equivalent to a battery compartment in shape, size, and weight. The BRM contains all the components required to generate electricity. These include the fuel cells, the hydrogen tank, tank ports, and a small lithium-ion battery, as well as other components. Energy is stored temporarily. This makes it easy to deal with electrical peaks that can occur, for example, when lifting a load.

Climate-Neutral Power Units: Not Just for Particularly Demanding Industries

While hydrogen technology still plays a subordinate role in the world of private vehicles, it already represents a logical addition to the mix of power units available for industrial use, especially in hygiene-critical sectors (e.g., the food and pharmaceutical industries). Technology is also expected to play an important role in the future.

The fuel cell system does not generate any emissions, making it particularly suitable for operation in closed warehouses. In addition, the systems work entirely without the use of toxic acids or other pollutants. This offers a huge advantage over conventional lead-acid batteries, and not just when they are returned to the recycling loop at the end of their product life cycle.

“As a pioneer in the intralogistics industry, we see ourselves as responsible for boldly and consistently driving forward the energy transition,” explains Dr. Florian Heydenreich, Executive President Sales & Services at STILL EMEA. The expansion of green hydrogen technology as an emission-free and resource-saving power unit plays a crucial role in this transition.

In order to provide customers with smaller fleets with an attractive introduction to fuel cell technology, STILL will also be offering a mobile hydrogen filling station and the corresponding fuel cell trucks as a rental solution from the first quarter of 2024.

This development is also welcomed by Valeria Gargiulo, Chief People & Sustainability Officer of KION GROUP AG. “By starting up production of hydrogen propulsion systems, we are responding to the increasing demand from our customers for an emission-free and sustainable power unit that can also be refueled quickly,” explains Valeria Gargiulo, as she highlights the advantages of the fuel cell system. “In addition, our brands now offer customers everything they need from a single source: the forklift truck, the fuel cells, and the associated servicing.”

Pressing the red start button does not mean that the work at the Hamburg plant of KION subsidiary STILL is now done. On the contrary, it’s only just beginning.