Lift Trucks -- The New Decisions

Will it be internal combustion, electric (DC or AC?), and what is the wireless strategy?

When Shankar Basu began his career in the lift truck industry 30 years ago the buying process was different, if not simpler. "Since then all the rules of thumb have changed, notes Basu, now president and CEO for Toyota Material Handling Inc. U.S.A. (He is also director of Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing at the Columbus, Ind., lift truck plant.) "Lift truck production, once 70% powered by internal combustion engines and 30% by electric drive systems, is now 57% electric and the internal combustion powered sector continues to decline." Electric trucks haven't stayed the same either. Today, AC drives are rapidly overtaking DC technology as users seek the lower cost of operation from the inherently simpler AC drive approach. "With fewer parts -- no brushes or contactors -- AC drives can greatly reduce maintenance costs." Monitoring those wear points on DC designs is also an issue since access is often impeded by the motor's location. Basu estimates the maintenance costs of trucks with AC drives to be half that of units equipped with internal combustion engines. The addition of regenerative braking (and coasting) is another productivity factor. Basu says the feature, on a per-shift basis, can increase power availability by as much as 7%. "That's enough to keep a truck productive during an entire eight-hour shift." Basu anticipates a growing role for wireless technology with lift trucks. "In addition to telling the driver what to move, wireless systems can facilitate fleet management -- capturing maintenance and performance data." Wireless fleet management is now being installed at Toyota's automobile and engine manufacturing plant at Georgetown, Ky. Using wireless equipment from I.D. Systems, Toyota's fleet utilization goals include compliance with safety regulations, preventive maintenance scheduling, real-time notification of emergency repairs and automatic software-based battery rotation management, says Rick Noe who allocates material handling equipment to plant processes. While the automaker, with its large material handling fleet, manages its own material handling operations, Basu says some other large organizations are beginning to consider outsourcing the function. The net effect for equipment makers, he says, will be increased pressure to compete on product durability and parts and service availability. For any truck buyer, he offers the following advice: "start by considering that acquisition cost accounts for only 10% - 15% of the total cost of ownership. Operating and maintenance costs account for the rest."

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