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The future of the forklift

09 March 2021

We asked key suppliers about the future of the forklift and got responses covering automation, lithium-ion, contract flexibility, and much else besides.

A FAST moving logistics segment means new and increasing demands are being placed on the industry’s workhorse - the forklift. 

Toyota Material Handling UK commercial director Jon Buckley

“As UK PLC recovers from Covid-19 and begins to realise the changes needed to re-state our place as an independent trading nation post-Brexit, there is real potential for sustainable growth within the Material Handling sector.

Today Toyota offers standard and driverless trucks which look like augmented standard pieces of MHE, tomorrow we will offer digitally controlled horizontal pallet drones and high lifting four-way stacker drones which will bristle with sensors and will look and behave very differently from traditional forklifts. 

“They will be simply built to order and uploaded with relevant site data including electronic mapping from a digital twin before or automatically upon arrival at a site. Such machines would essentially work ‘out of the box’ as soon as they are delivered.

To be clear this doesn’t mean a drift to the removal of humans from logistics, but it will certainly mean that where a simple repetitive task that adds little value can be easily automated, they will be considered for automation, thereby releasing the humans to other value-adding work

“Logistics efficiency and safety of equipment are always vitally important, but more and more buyers are prioritising energy and data systems as key buying decisions and working with Toyota to help them decide if lithium-ion or more traditional power sources offer the best mid-term investment and, in some circumstances, if more exotic fuels such as hydrogen cell-powered fuelled MHE should be a consideration for the long term.

“Likewise, more customers than ever are choosing Toyota I_Site telemetry to control access. In addition, Toyota already has T-Stream engineer management software which has the capability to handled remote machine diagnostics and pre-emptive service interventions."

Mike Jones of Red Diamond Distribution (RDD), exclusive UK distributors of Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks

“There will be continued growth in the use of automated equipment to maximise storage density and remove operators and other costs in distribution centres and larger storage facilities. At the same time we believe there will be continued demand for conventional materials handling equipment across many sectors where environments, loads, etc. cannot be standardised.

“In addition, we are already seeing new technology which will make operating safer, easier and more productive. Examples include remote diagnostics and intuitive/intelligent operating systems that automatically adapt performance characteristics to the driving style of each individual operator.

“We feel we will also see an acceptance that electric forklift trucks are not only cleaner and cheaper to run than IC engine equivalents, but can actually outperform them in almost any application and environment, with electrics available in much higher capacities.

“The growth in lithium-ion will free designers to re-imagine the shape and configuration of materials handling equipment and see customers reappraising their applications to eliminate traditional charging bays and adopting total power packages.”

Gino Van der Auwera, dealer development manager Europe, Hyundai Construction Equipment Europe

“For buyers, required specifications may change during the period of a rental contract. A more robust flexibility clause will be of great importance to enable the fleet buyer to change a part of the fleet without liabilities.

“IC forklifts will become even more clean and environmental friendly as we move on to stage V engines. There will definitely be a shift in the market from conventional IC trucks to electric powered trucks using new Li-ion technology and even hydrogen power. A greater move from LPG towards electric trucks can be expected because diesel trucks are mainly used outdoors whereas LPG trucks are not necessarily.”

Andy Kellett, Calor

“To meet the increasing focus on the climate change questions and global CO2 reduction targets, companies will still be looking to shift to sustainably sourced power. Whilst using an electric fleet is often seen as the solution, it’s not the only one. 

“The initial CAPEX needed to switch to an electric fleet can be a barrier. Having forklifts with enough torque to lift and move heavy products and materials, or to operate outdoors are all important questions.

“With no need for daily charging of vehicles, or costly changes in infrastructure, Calor’s BioLPG, offers businesses a credible alternative to diesel and electric forklift fleets.”

Jason Reynolds, Baumann Sideloaders

“With a big shift to eComm, we will see more automation / storage and retrieval systems In our sector which will result in a decline in warehouse equipment such as reach trucks.

“With the high cost and complexity of Stage 5 engines and with red diesel use being abolished in most sectors next year this will accelerate the decline of diesel powered forklifts in the 1.5t to 8t ranges where electric trucks are common already.

“Total cost of ownership is more important than ever. The cost of running a modern diesel truck has risen substantially, for example, larger engine machines require adblue, and red diesel is going in April 2022. When you compare these to the costs to recharge and maintain an electric equivalent machine the TCO is significantly lower, even if the upfront purchase cost is slightly more.”

Ron Farr, warehouse solutions manager, Yale

“We see automation as an affordable solution. You do not have to have a big fleet of trucks, just one or two that operates a repetitive task. They do not have to be integrated into a big WMS either, they can be stand alone. 

“Advancements in technology mean companies can now integrate automation into their existing operations with ease. The Yale solution allows a truck to be installed by being driven manually around the warehouse, so it can automatically scan the environment to create its own map. The Yale robotic trucks have dual mode capability, allowing operators to use the trucks manually when needed. Robotics can liberate employees to conduct tasks that humans do best. Having robots working alongside humans leverages the strengths of both to make repetitive tasks and more complex.”

John Maguire, managing director of Narrow Aisle

“Lift truck specifiers from many of the UK’s leading retailers, manufacturers and third party logistics specialists are now more than ever taking the long view when it comes to specifying their materials handling fleet.

“Once the sums have been done, lithium-ion-powered trucks are increasingly seen to offer the best long-term value proposition, scoring highly in performance, truck availability and low maintenance, as well as emissions, workplace noise, and longer and more productive shifts.”

Simon Manasseh, UK sales, EP Equipment Europe

“Internal combustion engines will be replaced by lithium-ion battery power. The cost of engines to meet emission regulations, the end of the red diesel tax advantages and customers needing to decarbonise all make the cost to run internal combustion engines significantly higher. EP Equipment has answered this with the EFL range of counterbalance trucks, which are based on previous diesel models, now powered by lithium ion batteries.

“We’ll see a growth in automation and robots in warehouses, an area EP has invested heavily in – to bring affordable robots to the market in 2022.

“It is difficult to predict what will happen in the next five years and manufacturers will need to be agile, move fast and be innovators. the use of data to optimise fleet utilisation is already with us and pay per hour is becoming increasingly of interest.”

Johannes Mayer, co-founder and managing director, Wiferion

“More and more forklifts will perform their transport tasks autonomously In this context, energy supply will become a key technology. This is because fully automated 24/7 continuous operation is only possible with an efficient and easy-to-implement fully automatic energy supply. This is why new charging technologies such as wireless charging will form the new standard for energy supply. 

“The interaction of powerful lithium-ion batteries and automated charging processes such as our in-process charging approach will further increase the performance of the trucks.

“Our charging unit is connected to the battery via a CAN interface. In this way, all data regarding the energy level, operating times, and vehicle states are recorded in real time. This allows Industry 4.0 applications such as condition monitoring or predictive maintenance to be realised and efficient energy and fleet management to be implemented.”

Mike Barton MILT, managing director, B&B Attachments                                                                               

“For many years, the UK has been the market leader in contract hire and I believe this will continue. I see the UK returning to the levels we saw at the end of 2019 in 2023 and growing thereafter.

“Fleet buyers will want to see better utilisation of their trucks when using attachments. Changing attachments on lift trucks used to require an engineer, now operators can make that change. This makes it easier for one truck to have a choice of two, three, or four attachments.”

David Goss, technical director, UK Material Handling Association

“Business models that rely on cross border mobility, such as specialist hire fleets and the second-hand market, will be impacted by Brexit. These are particularly important to our sector, and will affect the nation’s ability to invest in and renew the fleet. This renewal will be essential to meet our long-term climate goals.

“Market conditions are ideal for an acceleration in the upsurge of automated forklifts over the next five years. Early adopters require reassurance that equipment is not only safe, but also that it meets regulatory obligations. A key enabler is the development of standards, such as the recently published International Standard on driverless industrial trucks and AGVs, which will provide certainty on the working environment and controls necessary to ensure safe operation.

“While the automotive sector thinks of battery/electric vehicles as the future, for the material handling industry they have been a reality for decades. Currently, there is no single battery chemistry that is ideal for every application. While the demand for lithium-ion will undoubtable grow, the humble lead-acid battery will be with us for many years to come.

“There are sound practical reasons for choosing internal combustion engine (ICE) trucks in many applications and this is unlikely to change over the medium term.”