Lithium-ion Technology: The Next Generation of Forklift Efficiency

As environmental concerns and fluctuating oil prices continue to push consumers toward alternatives to traditional internal combustion (IC) engines, forklift operations have increasingly looked toward electric vehicle solutions over the last decade

As environmental concerns and fluctuating oil prices continue to push consumers toward alternatives to traditional internal combustion (IC) engines, forklift operations have increasingly looked toward electric vehicle solutions over the last decade.
Lead acid batteries have been a capable solution for years, and they continue to dominate the market today. It is estimated that lead acid batteries power 90 percent of electric forklifts in operation.

But a new player has emerged on the scene in recent years and is revolutionizing the way some companies do business. Lithium-ion battery (LiB) technology represents the next generation of forklift efficiency, and experts say that LiB market share in electric forklifts will grow significantly over the next five years.

Does Lithium-Ion Technology Make Sense For Every Customer?

While LiB technology offers unique benefits, experts admit they don’t always make sense for every customer. Each battery manufacturer is different in how it determines whether LiB is a good fit for a specific customer.

Flux Power installs its own telematics on the forklifts, the batteries, and the chargers to help. The company conducted a survey with a small Costco distribution center that had eight units and was operating at about a shift and a half. After testing LiBs on the fleet, Flux recommended they stay with lead acid.

“It didn’t make sense for them to spend $20K for a big battery for some of their stand-up units,” said Tod Kilgore, Flux Power’s Director of Sales. “The lead acid out right now is very good technology, but there’s a time and a place for it. The same is true with lithium. If you’ve got smaller fleets and a single shift, you don’t go with lithium.”

The reason lithium-ion doesn’t make sense for every customer today is simple – the high upfront cost and the high variability in return on investment. LiBs are more expensive than lead acid batteries, and they’re best used in high-throughput applications, experts say.

Exploring the Target Market for LiB: More Than Just Cold Storage

There are quite a few applications where lithium-ion makes sense – but some are garnering more attention of battery manufacturers than others.

The cold storage industry is the most obvious because of lithium’s ability to perform in a wide range of temperatures and environments.

“In cold storage, lead acid batteries don’t perform that well,” said Dr. Jeremy Dang, Electrovaya’s Director of Business and Project Development. “The impedance and impact on capacity is a killer for them.”

Lithium-ion batteries, however, can be manufactured with heaters installed to thrive such conditions. Nearly all of Electrovaya’s batteries, for example, come with an ingress protection (IP) rating of IP65, meaning the battery’s internal components are protected from water and condensation, as well as in temperatures as low as minus-35 degrees Celsius.

Cold storage makes sense for LiBs, but the applicability of lithium-ion is much broader than just one industry, says Samer ElShafei, Navitas’ Vice President for Commercial and Industrial Sales.

“It’s really associated with how much energy is being used,” he said. “It has great application and returns in the cold storage industry, but the applicability is much broader than cold storage.”

Another area where LiBs are a good fit are for third-party logistics companies.

“It’s the nature of the business,” said Electrovaya’s Dang. “They are moving goods all the time, so they may require heavy-duty, high-capacity batteries, something lead acid won’t necessarily be able to handle.”

The Transition to LiB: ‘A Culture Change’

Most companies have been using lead acid batteries for many years, so the decision to transition to a new technology isn’t always easy – and the transition itself isn’t always seamless.

Perhaps the top factor for customers considering the transition?

“Obviously the cost,” says Navitas’ ElShafei. “For the new technology, it is more costly up front. If the customer is able to look at the investment from a total cost of ownership, then that helps out with lithium rather than just the upfront price.”

If a customer determines LiB makes sense for their application after analyzing the total cost of ownership, there are still several things to consider in preparation for the transition. Adopting LiB requires significant training, reconfiguring of facilities, and more.

For example, forklift operators need to be trained on lithium – especially if they are unfamiliar with opportunity charging. With LiB powered forklifts, operators are asked to plug the batteries into a charger every time the forklift is not in use – even if it’s just for a short break.

“This is not something that they’re used to. So, in the first two months, operators were not plugging in their batteries, and batteries were too drained for the next shift,” says Electrovaya’s Dang. “It took two months to fully train them, show them that it’s very important to plug in during any break, whether it’s a five-minutes or 30 minutes. In that time, even though it doesn’t seem like much, the battery will recover a lot of energy.”

But experts agreed: Retraining and rethinking facility layouts are not deterring customers from shifting to LiB.
“Our customers are understanding, they’re quite progressive. The number one factor is cost,” says Electrovaya’s Dang. “Not everyone can afford or has the budget to buy lithium, especially for a smaller operation. But for someone like Amazon or WalMart, a 24/7 distribution center, the return on investment is clear, and they have the budget to afford the initial high capital investment.”

The Future of LiB

While the adoption of lithium-ion technology is growing, it still represents a rather small percentage of the material handling industry. Experts expect that to change over the next five years.
“Technology takes a long time to develop,” said Navitas’ ElShafei. “With LiB, the technology is here now, and what’s going to happen in the next five years is the availability, the scale, and the distribution of the product will all increase and improve.”

Electrovaya’s Dang expects the price of lithium-ion technology to continue to drop as scale increases.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and how much penetration this can get into other markets,” says Dang. “It’s human nature for us to discover and optimize. The price we’re offering material handling customers today has significantly dropped since 2017.”

Battery manufacturers are thinking far beyond traditional forklifts when it comes to the future of LiBs. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), Ground Support vehicles, public transit buses, and delivery vehicles are just a few areas where experts say LiB technology could be adopted.

“We’re all investing heavily in this market space to be part of the incremental market share conversion from lead to lithium, and from IC to electric,” said Navitas’ ElShafei. “Lithium offers the performance of propane with the benefits of electric – what customer doesn’t want that?”

This blog was written by Justin Albers for Material Handling 247