With the current trade show season currently suspended thanks to COVID-19, I’m already feeling nostalgic. One of the advantages of attending a trade show is getting up close to the latest technologies – oftentimes getting the scoop before they have been commercially released.
Case in point, EnerSys®, demonstrated a wireless battery charging system for industrial vehicles this March at MODEX 2020. The company also exhibited its latest generation of NexSys® power solutions, including NexSys® PURE batteries, featuring proprietary Thin Plate Pure Lead (TPPL) technology, and its upcoming NexSys® iON batteries, designed with advanced Lithium-ion (Li-ion) technology.
Wireless Forklift Battery Charging
So what was the biggest draw at the EnerSys® booth? Hands down, it was the wireless charging demo. “Wireless charging was the absolute Number One interest item,” reported Harold Vanasse, Senior Director of Marketing, Motive Power Americas at EnerSys.
Wireless battery charging systems can free up valuable floor space by eliminating the need for dedicated charging rooms and offer another labor-free solution as operators will not be required to manually plug or unplug batteries. A combination of fewer touches, the elimination of wear and tear, and better space utilization offer a compelling business case for many applications.
Wireless charging is as simple as parking over a floor charging pad or next to a wall-mounted unit. To start, EnerSys is initially working with autonomous vehicles such as AGVs. With precise navigation capabilities to line up over the pad, it seems like a natural fit. “We don’t have to worry about lining up at all because it’s programmed in so that’s the area we’re actually working on right now,” Vanasse said. “With some OEMs, we’re starting with AGVs because it is the easiest thing to do.”
The system will also work for human-guided vehicles to let them know if they aren’t quite lined up correctly.
After wireless charging, the greatest area of interest was around maintenance-free products. Flooded lead-acid battery technology has worked well for more than 85 years, but times are changing. Fast charging has emerged as an option over the past 20 years to help eliminate battery changes, and now maintenance-free batteries have also become an important part of the conversation.
With warehouses under more throughput pressure than ever, managers are increasingly looking to eliminate non-core activities and optimize uptime across their operations – including for forklift batteries. The opportunity to get rid of battery maintenance and charging makes more sense than ever before.
Lithium-Ion or Lead Acid?
Vanasse does not see the question of choosing between lead-acid batteries and lithium-ion as coming down to simply one or the other. NexSys® PURE batteries and NexSys® iON batteries both offer a similar user experience in that they are not being washed, watered or taken out of the truck for maintenance. “There is no question, he said,” that lithium is a more expensive technology than TPPL, but it can provide the best value for heavy-duty applications where you need to have higher charge rates and more capacity.
“We’ve seen a shift in operations in which warehouse and distribution centers are looking for hybrid solutions that use both lithium-ion and lead acid technologies to achieve optimal power performance,” Vanasse said. “It will all depend on the application and power demand of the vehicle, but both chemistries provide user-friendly ways to cut operating expenses and minimize downtime while maintaining long-lasting productivity. Our virtually maintenance-free NexSys batteries give operators dependable choices that deliver a lower total cost of ownership.”
Lithium-ion offers extremely quick charging capability. “In the battery world, we tend to look at the charge rates through a method that we call the C rate,” Vanasse explained. “If I say 1C, it means I can charge the battery to bring it back to 100% capacity in one hour. 2C means I can bring it back to twice its capacity in the hour, or I can fully charge it in 30 minutes. When you start looking at things like that for lithium, you can get into the 2C or 3C range with the right charging and power infrastructure. We have to remember that lithium is theoretically capable of charging as high as 9C, but for that to happen in material handling operations we will need to see further advances in the power infrastructure.”
Over his two decades in the business, Vanasse has seen the market share between electric trucks and internal combustion units flip. He has seen electric grow from 35 to 40% of the market to 60 to 65%. In Europe, the electric truck share is around 85%. At the same time, increasingly sophisticated operators are looking at the total cost of ownership versus purchase cost across all aspects of their operations. Solutions that minimize lift truck downtime and maintenance – such as lithium-ion and TPPL battery technologies, should continue to gain momentum in the years ahead.