Forklifts: Productivity Is the New Normal

Strong R&D efforts are taking place to build the next generation of engine technology, but competition from electric forklifts has heated up, narrowing the advantage propane forklifts have held over electric models.

 Businesses more than ever want to increase productivity, and technology that shows the productivity of forklifts is a current trend in the materials handling industry. Brian Feehan, president of the Industrial Truck Association (ITA), noticed that and other trends in March while attending ProMat, a major materials handling conference that took place in Chicago.

“Productivity is the new normal,” said Feehan, who is a former vice president of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). He joined ITA as president in 2011. “People want to make sure that efficiency is accounted for in what they’re doing in the workplace.”

That is the case for electric (class 1, 2, and 3) and internal combustion forklifts that run on propane, gasoline, diesel fuel, or compressed natural gas (class 4 and 5). The advantage that propane forklifts have held over electric models has narrowed in recent years as electric forklifts have made various product improvements.

Feehan talked about an interview he gave to BPN in 2011 right after the announcement that he would be joining ITA as president. At that time, he said he planned to work to ensure propane maintains its share of the lift truck market. His efforts in that area continue, and he said “industry efforts to support the market for propane would be bolstered by offering strong products and maintaining a committed presence in the marketplace.” He believes PERC took a step in the right direction recently when it proposed an initiative to provide $2 million in funding for forklift propane engine development. Under the funding proposal, which the council approved at its April meeting, Power Solutions International (Wood Dale, Ill.) will develop and commercialize an advanced propane engine that will help fill a gap created as a major engine supplier is expected to stop producing a popular engine model at the end of the year.

Feehan noted that the PERC project should go a long way toward ensuring the longevity of propane in the forklift market. Additional product R&D to compete in the heavier capacities at the top of class 5, an area in which diesel-fueled forklifts have been more predominant, could also support propane’s position in the market.

“Clearly, product availability to ensure your current market position or to create new opportunities is a program worth strong consideration.”

Feehan and the ITA communicate regularly with PERC. R&D efforts in the areas of filtration and fuel quality are of mutual interest and he hopes a meeting can take place this year between some ITA members and PERC to discuss and review these initiatives, which he feels are important.

Communication with PERC helps ITA keep abreast of other relevant propane industry developments such as increased fuel supply from shale. Updates on propane product availability, new sources of supply, ongoing work throughout the distribution stream, and other developments in the propane industry help forklift manufacturers stay current on issues.

“We want to be sure the forklift manufacturers have the most current and relevant information available when talking about fuel supply and quality. It can have an impact in many areas,” Feehan explained.

He noted additional trends that pose a challenge to the propane forklift industry, such as changes that have occurred over time in the size of distribution centers. Changes such as narrower aisle widths and increases in building height have had an impact on how forklift products have evolved in recent years. Forklift manufacturers have to design their product offerings to recognize the changes in work environments and the need for increased work productivity.

During his visit to the ProMat show in Chicago, he got a first-hand look at some of the improvements in electric forklifts. Battery technology continues to improve, especially in class 1, which includes electric-powered rider units. Those products are now able to run longer shifts between charges and feature increased lifting capacities. In addition, electric forklifts, once considered an indoor-only application, are now usable in all types of environments, on different grades, and in all types of weather.

For internal combustion or electric forklifts, Feehan is excited for the overall future of the lift truck industry. With strong sales in 2013 and 2014, the overall lift truck market is looking for another strong year in 2015. The industry sold more than 200,000 class 1 to 5 lift trucks last year.

While in Chicago, Feehan noticed a trend of more automation taking place, including robotics in manufacturing and automation in material handling, along with a significant presence of new technology offerings, including data management systems for the fleet, the forklift, and the operator. Forklift manufacturers are providing lift truck users with more detailed data on the productivity and efficiency of the products in a continuing effort to help the customer become more efficient than ever.

“Customers want to know data and facts on productivity, downtime, operator performance, safety, and how the product performs in terms of fuel use or battery charge. There is an awful lot of data that can be received by the customer from the products themselves. That is a trend that has been around, but it seems like it’s growing.”

Propane has opportunities for growth in the lift truck market. In addition to developing products such as the PERC product with Power Solutions International, the propane industry should continue with its traditional methods of seeking more market share.

“Look at where the markets are, how big is that market today, what’s the annual volume, how are those markets dominated, what are the applications, who are the major manufacturers in those marketplaces, what type of relationship do you have with them, and how can you work with them to maintain or expand your share,” Feehan advised.    —Daryl Lubinsky