Lithium-ion batteries are the new kid – motive-power wise – and they are beginning to gain traction in distribution centre operations. The increased focus on speed in omni-channel fulfillment is in part driving the new interest in the technology, which promises faster charging, longer work times, better longevity and lighter weight. All this comes at a cost, of course, and we were curious to see who is making it work.
Read on to get perspective on lithium-ion from a start-up Canadian manufacturer Stromcore, and the implementation experiences from a cold-storage user – Conestoga Cold storage. We’ve also got a technical explanation of li-ion versus new lead-acid Thin-Plate technology, and finally a look at the potential risks of li-ion batteries.
The manufacturer: The end of internal combustion forklifts
While warehousing and distribution has almost entirely converted to electric, many heavy-duty manufacturing operations are sticking with Internal Combustion (IC) trucks because they believe the technology to go green is not yet available. This applies to both the forklift truck design and the battery solution powering it. Fortunately, these concerns can now be addressed if we look at the latest cutting-edge products entering the market today.
Virtually all IC forklift functions can now be substituted with an electric counterpart, but concerns remain around robustness, lifting capacity and cost. In fact, the exact same forklift brands that started off building IC trucks are now finally offering electric versions as well.
It is also generally recognized that the electric forklift will cost around 35 percent less in maintenance, which debunks fears around robustness or durability. Electric versions now exist for forklifts lifting all the way up to 85,000 pounds, the key is to find the right brand for an application.
It is true that selecting the electric version of a forklift will cost more up front, but LP or diesel energy costs far more than grid electricity. The extra up-front cost is typically made up within one to three years, especially in heavy-duty uses. The economics are overwhelming, without even considering the desire to emit less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Next, even if the electric forklift can perform identically or better than an IC version, users are worried that the battery will not be able to keep up with the energy draw between charges. Until recently, this claim would have been entirely valid.
Whereas LP and diesel require a quick refueling stop, lead-acid batteries powering an electric forklift need to be entirely removed from the vehicle and replaced by a fresh battery in a room dedicated entirely to this task. The practice of ‘battery swapping’ has plagued the electric forklift industry with inefficiency and safety hazards.
The underlying cause is that lead-acid batteries cannot charge faster than a 40 percent start rate (2.5 hours for a full charge) so heavy users, who cannot afford to wait around for charging, will opt to swap batteries, or just stick with IC. It is fair to say that most operations buying IC trucks are doing so for the very rational and practical reason that recharging batteries is just much too slow.
Turbo charge into the future
Stromcore’s engineers have designed ‘Turbo’ charging Lithium forklift batteries, promising to phase out IC in sectors with heavy duty needs. These batteries are capable of over 100 percent start rates (under one-hour full charge). As long as operators plug in during their breaks, they will get all the energy they need. They no longer need to waste time driving to the LP tank area, or the diesel pump station. These batteries have already been proven in the heaviest lifting forklifts, from lumberyards to steel mills.
Maxime Vidricaire is chief business officer at Stromcore Energy Inc., a Toronto-based lithium-ion technology developer with a battery line designed for heavy-duty forklifts.