“Many customers could already benefit from Li-ion technology”
Harald Will, Head of Product Development of KION Group, talks about the practical advantages of using Li-ion battery technology.
Mr Will, where is the development of battery technology for industrial trucks heading?
It has been clear for several years now that Li-ion batteries will take over in the foreseeable future. Incidentally, that also applies to other sectors. Increasing numbers of bicycles, motorbikes and electrical devices are using this technology. Its importance is generally increasing. However, its widespread use in our sector is still a thing of the future.
Why are you backing this technology?
There are a lot of arguments in its favour. Let’s look at a practical example. Conventional lead-acid batteries have an efficiency of only 63%. Therefore, one third of the electrical charge simply goes to waste. The efficiency of Li-ion batteries, on the other hand, is 90%. That means the energy of each charging cycle is used much more efficiently. Furthermore, Li-ion batteries can be recharged much more often without them losing capacity. Frequent intermediate charging even prolongs their life cycle.
How important is the development of Industry 4.0 in this field?
If we want to automate logistics, we will need industrial trucks whose availability can be precisely planned and that can operate for a long time on one battery charge. That is only possible with Li-ion technology, because it enables us to know exactly to the minute how long a battery will keep going. As a result, we can also have general control of charging cycles and vehicle deployments across the entire company. Incidentally, that also reduces personnel costs. In contrast, the charge of a lead-acid battery can only be determined very roughly. Under certain circumstances, therefore, an employee may have to change the battery every four hours. Inflexible working procedures of this kind are hardly compatible with intelligent Industry 4.0 processes.
How will vehicles change?
In the future there will be vehicles designed exclusively for use with Li-ion technology. That isn’t the case at the moment. Then, for example, we will be able to improve the field of view and ergonomics of many vehicles, because the battery will take up less space or can be distributed around the vehicle in a new arrangement. On the other hand, new opportunities will be opened up by communication between the vehicle electronics and the intelligent Li-ion battery. This will make it possible to automatically reduce performance when the charge gets weaker. In this state a vehicle will be able to continue working for much longer without recharging.
When will this technology be generally available?
We have already been using the technology since the beginning of 2015. In the medium term we will offer all vehicle types with Li-ion technology, but we are doing this in stages. The rollout with our first vehicles in the warehouse technology sector already started; the first counterbalanced trucks follow in 2016.
How do you expect the market to develop in the immediate future?
Customers are now already showing great interest, but the higher procurement costs are currently still holding back this market development. Frequently, however, this technology would make immediate economic sense: we estimate that a third of customers could now already benefit from its advantages. There is therefore no question that this technology will assert itself on the market – and that could possibly happen very fast.
Some further advantages of Li-ion technology are illustrated by this case study of their use at the ‘La Sablonnière’ facility of the French food processing concern Danone in Normandy. One of the main reasons for their use there is their ‘connectivity’: The material handling vehicles are equipped with an interface that enables communication between the battery and the forklift. When the charge level gets lower, the vehicle automatically reduces its performance level and completes its assigned shift without having to stop for top-up recharging. Similarly important is the very precisely measurable residual charge level of the Li-ion battery. For example, one of the material handling routes serving the Danone facility operates for exactly 15 minutes of every hour. In the waiting time between routes, the vehicle stops briefly at a recharging station – a perfect exploitation of time and resources.