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Food logistics specialist switches to lithium-ion to boost uptime

05 February 2018

The drive to reduce downtime led to Fowler Welch’s decision to switch its 170 forklift fleet to lithium-ion powered models. Head of procurement David Lowe tells HSS editor Simon Duddy how they arrived at the decision.

Fowler Welch is one of the UK’s biggest names in food logistics and it has taken on the UK’s first major fleet of lithium-ion powered forklifts. 

Head of procurement David Lowe has long experience in food logistics, in a number of roles across operations and accounting, and says battery frustrations were the key factor driving the change.

“Uptime and availability for our operation is absolutely key. We've got over 800 trailers and we don’t want any of them idle because the forklifts are down. 

“We wanted something that would take battery issues out of discussions. Every meeting was about batteries - not about the forklifts or how well we were operating as a whole - it was about how long batteries were expected to last, topping issues etc.

“The impact on us was downtime and its associated costs.”

David began to explore ways to rectify this, considering lead-acid, waterless, PosiCharge (a US solution), as well as lithium-ion.

“We went to nine different manufacturers and asked them to tender on a variety of solutions,” explains David.

“The tender was extremely aggressive but once we got into lithium-ion, we felt it was the right solution. Plus several forklift manufacturers wanted to be first in the door in the UK for this kind of operation.”

Fowler Welch went for Linde in the end, which was the incumbent forklift supplier, well-liked by operators for ten years, which gave them an advantage.

David says: “We measured and compared the lithium-ion trucks from different brands and they performed similarly. This helped give us confidence that lithium-ion was a good step forward. We knew we were getting increased energy efficiency and length of use. 

“On the trial, we were getting up to 2 days operational use on 1.5 hours charge.

“We need 4-6 hours out of the charge, because that covers our peak time from say 10 at night till four in the morning. That's when we need all of the forklifts operating.”

“Reliability is the number one priority. Lead acid batteries become less efficient over time and there is always a risk approaching the end of the contract. You wonder, are batteries going to get us through? Rather than lasting four hours might batteries only last three? With lithium-ion, we don’t anticipate going into year five of the contract worrying if the batteries will last. ”

Staggered

Fowler Welch also now needs fewer charging stations. Before it used 22 pallet truck chargers at the Spalding site, for example, and it now has 12, with only seven needing to be deployed (at time of writing). 

While a lead-acid charge takes 5-6 hours, lithium-ion is charged in one and a half hours, and if opportunity charged should not need that long.

The forklifts are on staggered breaks to help organise full availability for peak hours without creating spikes in electricity demand.

The trucks

Fowler Welch’s Spalding, Washington, Heywood, Teynham and Hilsea sites will all be served by the new fleet of Lithium-Ion equipment, featuring 174 Linde trucks. Of those, 170 are lithium-ion battery powered, while four are LPG trucks.

Among the equipment deployed is R14 and R16 reach trucks, T25 pallet trucks, and an R25 truck on trial in Heywood.

Spalding went live first in September 2017, with Washington and Heywood following by February and Teynham and Hilsea due to be up and running by June.

David explains: “We've got varied volumes throughout the day, so we have people starting at different times. This means we've automatically got staggered charging opportunities.

“We should have a 27% reduction in CO2 emissions because of this switch, with an overall reduction in power usage.”

David estimates this equates to a saving of approximately £50,000 a year across the fleet. Other benefits include labour savings because battery changing is eliminated, as well as the removal of safety issues, costs and potential downtime due to battery changing. 

Software complement

With the Linde Connect fleet management system in play at Fowler Welch, the food logistics specialist can precisely monitor the performance of the new trucks.  

“The telematics means we will see how often trucks are used, when they've been used, how many are being used at one time, etc. I think it will enable us to potentially reduce equipment in five years’ time for our next order,” says David.

“Also, with lithium-ion, the battery requires no maintenance, so availability should be increased. Again, this should impact positively on the number we need.”

Fowler Welch is cautious in its approach. It has taken on extra trucks (on lower hours) to reduce the need to take on short term hire trucks. At present, there isn’t much of a short term hire pool of lithium-ion powered forklifts.

That said, the 3PL still has lead-acid infrastructure in place, so could make use of lead-acid powered trucks if necessary. Lead-acid will be phased out over time.

David predicts the UK forklift market will shift decisively to lithium-ion in time.

He says: “I would imagine the lead acid market will significantly reduce. Forklift manufacturers are bringing the technology into the UK more, and sites such as this will pave the way. In addition, the longer lifespan of lithium ion batteries - 10 years at least - means forklift manufacturers have got a valuable asset at the end of a five year contract. I can see trucks being used in short term rental fleets in the second five year spell, and batteries being used in energy storage devices after that.”

Layout

Fowler Welch has not changed the battery charger layout, as it still wants to use the battery charging room. But lithium-ion gives the firm the option of converting the room to storage space and using distributed charging points.

David explains: “In the long run, it should free up space. Interestingly, from an operator’s point of view the biggest difference is telling them to opportunity charge, where with lead-acid, you tell them not to charge the battery until it is flat. That mindset is the biggest change but it has been met with positivity.  Not to mention the removal of the awkward battery changing process.

“At our Heywood facility, we will put chargers near the canteen area, so operators can charge trucks while they have their break. We also may have chargers close to doors.”

Fleet safety

The Linde Connect fleet management system is also helping Fowler Welch up its safety game. 

David says: “There is more advanced telematics with the new trucks. Historically, we've had PIN number start-up, now operators have their own driver card, containing info on them and their training. Operators electronically key in and answer questions on safety before driving the truck. If the truck's not safe to drive, it will shut you out and any issues are recorded.”

There are pedestrians in the picking environment at Fowler Welch and the company uses Blue Light technology to reduce the risk of collisions.

The trucks can also be speed-limited. 

“This can be specific to a driver, so if you've got a new person ‘on the nursery slopes’ you can limit them to say six kilometres an hour. You can increase it when they build competence. Equally, you could have slower speeds in certain areas for specific trucks, say where there is a lot pickers.”

Feedback from operators has been positive, with operators praising in particular the increased manoeuvrability of the pallet trucks, because of the smaller size of the battery.

Fowler Welch was also reassured by Linde on potential performance issues with the new batteries. There were concerns that if the charge on lithium-ion batteries drop to 0% it would damage the battery, or that fully charged trucks rolling down a slope would overcharge. 

“We visited Linde in Germany and they gave us confidence and guarantees that this would not be an issue,” says David

This is an interesting investment from Fowler Welch and it will be fascinating to see if other busy 3PLs also make the switch over the coming years in a bid to battle forklift downtime.

 
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