Intralogistics sector looks to benefit from megatrends

At a conference organized by the Association of German Engineers (VDI), the industrial truck sector gathered together to discuss the future. Drive technology was a key topic, as were connectivity, automation, and safety. The overall feeling was one of great optimism.

“Today’s customers are interested in performance, not in the underlying technology,” said Stefan Prokosch, Head of Product Management Counterbalance Trucks at Linde Material Handling, at the 19th Industrial Truck Conference in September, organized by the Association of German Engineers (VDI) in Baden-Baden, Germany. He called on the sector to adapt accordingly: “We need to be more closely integrated with customers, better understand their processes, and still be willing to learn – so that every day we can do a little better.”

Every two years, manufacturers, researchers, suppliers, and customers meet for two days at the VDI’s conference for the material handling and intralogistics industry. This industry gathering provides an opportunity to present new products and services and discuss new trends. “You compare notes, without revealing any trade secrets, of course,” is how Heiner Sternstein, Head of Industrial Trucks Development at Linde MH and conference chair, describes it: “And it’s always useful for the manufacturers to get feedback from the operators.”

A lithium-ion future

Powertrains and drive technology were a hot topic at the conference. Ottmar Neuf, Director of Development Engines at the KION Group, for example, asked whether diesel still had a future in forklift trucks. “Yes, for now”, he said, “but mainly in traditionally heavy-duty applications and in countries with less stringent emissions standards. But at the same time, major advances have been made in lithium-ion batteries, and they are now a serious alternative, even in heavy-duty trucks for transporting large loads.”

Joachim Hirth, who works in Innovation & Technology at Linde MH, gave a detailed talk on the various types of lithium-ion battery and the prospects for improving on these. In the trade-off triangle between energy output, safety, and longevity, developers have so far always had to make concessions in at least one area. But Hirth says that research is already beginning to offer solutions: “Many of these innovations are still in the very early stages of development, but we will start to see others in use in the next five years.”

A mix of drive systems

Unlike alternatives such as lead-acid batteries, lithium-ion batteries do not need to be replaced, which is one of the main reasons why they are receiving so much attention at present. Hirth and his team at Linde have worked out that “if the trucks are charged smartly, they can already easily be used in a two- or three-shift operation.”

“We too want to eliminate the need for battery changes,” said Matthias Kromm, a technical planner at Daimler AG, offering a user perspective. In June 2015, Kromm’s plant in Düsseldorf began a long-term trial of fuel-cell trucks, including from Linde. “They are still in operation, it’s working well,” reported Kromm, who was particularly taken with how quickly and safely the fuel cells could be refueled, and the fewer number of work steps that are involved compared with the changing or charging of batteries. Industry experts believe that, going forward, there will continue to be a mix of drive technologies to meet various requirements, though the trend may shift towards innovative technologies such as lithium-ion and fuel cells.

Automation, connectivity, and drive technologies – the extent to which these future-focused topics overlap and interact came up time and again during the conference. It’s no surprise that many of these innovations play a role in wider global megatrends, as Prokosch identified in his future-focused talk. He said that urbanization, globalization, and greater mobility mean that even now – and not just in the warehouses of tomorrow – it is possible to process increasingly large volumes of goods at much faster speeds and in smaller and smaller package sizes. “In many areas we are well on the way to fully automated warehouses,” said Prokosch, who went on to offer the following summary: “Our industry, more than most others, is reaping the benefits of all these trends.”

Connecting expertise

Sebastian Erdmann, Head of Digital Solutions at STILL, also demonstrated how connectivity can be used in practice, having teamed up with Roman Cunis, Head of IT Service Development at ServiceXpert, to create a system for truck diagnostics. “Previously, when the visiting technician wasn’t able to solve the problem right there and then, it cost valuable time,” said Erdmann. “And purely remote diagnostics, in which defects in forklifts and other trucks are analyzed via the web, are not ideal either because there is no technician present at the customer site to help. But with cooperative diagnostics, a technician can connect in real time with external experts. Being able to connect and share expertise is the only way forward.”

It became clear during the conference that there is plenty of potential for innovation. “Even if the market is sometimes cautious when it comes to innovation – someone has to kick things off,” said conference chair Heiner Sternstein from Linde. “You want to be in a position in ten years’ time where you can look back at successful ideas and think: that was the right step to take at the right time.”

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