In today’s e-commerce boom, there are warehouses around the world housing hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of products. Warehouse workers scramble to organize, package and ship products to help meet e-tailers’ demanding deadlines. How do you think Amazon delivers stuff to people within 24 hours?
And, in every warehouse, there are fleets of vital, easily overlooked machines that help make all this productivity possible – forklifts. Traditionally for indoor warehouse applications, lead-acid batteries and liquified petroleum fuel (LPG) provided the energy source for forklifts.
But Lionel E. Selwood, Jr., wants to improve forklift battery technology.
“It’s not clean. It’s very grungy. It’s very old technology,” said Selwood, chief operating officer of Romeo Power Technology, an energy technology company making advanced batteries for the automotive, material handling and energy storage industries.
He and his colleagues believe lithium-ion battery technology is a cleaner, more efficient alternative. For him, there’s never been a better time to get involved in the forklift business. In 2017, North American forklift sales set a record at more than a quarter million units, with electric forklifts accounting for 64 percent of that number, according to a 2018 article by Material Handling & Logistics.
The forklift battery of the future
In September 2018, Romeo introduced its 48V Thunder Maxx lithium-ion forklift battery.
“Moving to cleaner energy solutions includes using newer technologies like electrification and lithium batteries to displace fossil fuel engines, Selwood said. “It’s a better solution than gasoline, especially where you need continuous uptime from a fleet management standpoint.”
Lithium-ion batteries require less maintenance and eliminate the hazardous watering and time-consuming battery equalization charging required by lead-acid batteries.
Romeo engaged with UL to test the Thunder Maxx against UL Standard 2580, which evaluates battery systems for use in on-road or off-road electric vehicles. This Standard addresses lithium-ion electric vehicle battery systems, along with other battery chemistries.
Maurice Johnson, a business development engineer at UL, helps develop requirements for energy power technology products and he helps conduct evaluations on those products.
“Essentially, we’re looking at safety concerns that lithium-ion batteries present when used in industrial truck applications,” Johnson said. “There are a number of safety issues that need to be considered because of the amount of energy that these lithium-ion batteries contain.”
In its laboratories, UL put the Thunder Maxx to the test. They conducted mechanical and environmental tests to evaluate the build and robustness of the product. Additionally, electrical tests assessed whether the battery could withstand current delivery and voltage reception under both normal and abnormal conditions.
Safety is non-negotiable
According to Selwood, safety at Romeo Power is non-negotiable. To help ensure the company designs and develops the safest products, Romeo Power conducts preliminary testing in their own state-of-the-art lab.
“We have expertise in terms of safety,” Selwood said. “But we asked ourselves, ‘who are the organizations we can collaborate with to make us better by keeping us informed about national and global safety, and who can keep us in line as an organization in the lithium-ion technology arena, from a safety and performance standpoint?’ I knew UL was the one.”
Third-party compliance is critical for the industry as a whole. By showing compliance with established regulations and standards, new products or emerging technologies can potentially gain faster market access.
“It’s important to show that these requirements, which have been identified as critical compliance criteria in the U.S. and Canada, are achievable by companies committed to safety,” Johnson said.
Thunder Maxx is an example of what’s to come in the forklift/industrial truck industry. In years past, Selwood believed that uncertainty about lithium-ion battery technology made some people reluctant to embrace it. He and his colleagues, however, are determined to break that mental barrier because they believe lithium-ion’s benefits outweigh its concerns. Additionally, for companies looking to benefit from lithium-ion technology, UL certification shows that a product had been designed, tested and validated for safety.
Design changes, such as electronic circuitry to control charge-discharge, increased the lithium-ion battery cell’s durability. And lithium-ion batteries’ high energy density, performance and charging cycles can make lithium-ion solutions more attractive overall to the industry.
For example, fleet owners typically need at least three industrial lead-acid batteries per forklift to do a day’s work. When one runs out of juice they have to stop to swap it out, a difficult and time-consuming feat that creates a lot of downtime. But when they switch to a lithium-ion battery, it goes in once and never leaves the forklift thanks to quick charging during normal work breaks. They achieve 100 percent fleet availability with fewer batteries and less related equipment (chargers, etc.).
“Moving forward, I think there will be a more rapid adoption of lithium-ion electric technology within the industry,” Selwood said. “We’re throwing the door open to having real, in-depth conversations about how to help manufacturers electrify their fleets and achieve an overall, better total cost advantage.”