Press

Pallet trucks look to the future

22 May 2017

This humble piece of material handling equipment is getting more sophisticated in terms of design, technology, and applications. What will they do next? By Toby Gooley

Walk into any warehouse, distribution center, retail stockroom, grocery store, or transportation operation and you're sure to see pallet jacks and pallet trucks. These ubiquitous pieces of equipment are typically used for moving pallets over long distances as well as into and out of trailers and low-level storage. They include manual versions—essentially a pull handle and forks on wheels—and electric-powered walk-behind trucks ("walkies") and operator-aboard walkie/riders.

These warehouse stalwarts have been undergoing a transformation. While manual pallet jacks haven't changed significantly, powered pallet trucks—the primary focus of this article—have far more capabilities than they did just a few years ago. (Although the terms are often used interchangeably and with many variants, this article generally uses "pallet jack" for those that are driven manually and "pallet trucks" for powered types.) According to the manufacturers we polled, there are many more improvements to come. Here's an overview of how they've changed and what they might be like in the future.

NEW DESIGNS FOR NEW PLACES

As pallet truck applications and demands change, so must the equipment's design and capabilities. For example, because a grocery operation nowadays may run 20 hours a day, seven days a week, pallet trucks and jacks must be designed to reliably work longer in harsh environments such as cold storage, says Susan Rice, product manager, pallet trucks and stackers, for The Raymond Corp. With more customers using this type of equipment on delivery trucks, Raymond has moved to the IP65 standard of ingress protection against dust and water. "This allows [end users] to take the equipment on the street and work in rain or snow—that was unheard of 10 years ago," she says.

Pallet trucks overall have been getting smaller and lighter, with lower capacities, says Bill Pedriana, director of sales and marketing at Big Lift LLC, maker of Big Joe forklifts. In large part, that's because the growth of e-commerce, just-in-time delivery, and direct-to-store delivery (DSD) requires more drivers to maneuver pallets through commercial doorways, in retail backrooms, and in truck trailers. Those changing needs prompted his company five years ago to introduce a 3,000-pound-capacity electric pallet truck with the same size and shape as a manual pallet jack. According to Pedriana, the E30 was the first electric that could go wherever a manual could. Demand is so strong, he adds, that it has become the company's all-time best-seller.

The popularity of direct-to-store delivery not only creates a need for maneuverability in small spaces but also places a premium on stability, says David McNeill, manager of product strategy for warehouse products at Yale Materials Handling Corp. It's increasingly common for pallet trucks to carry loads over doorjambs, parking lots, and curbs, he notes. As an example of equipment that was designed with such tight quarters and bumpy terrain in mind, he cites Yale's MPB045VG motorized hand truck, with its six-inch battery box, stability casters, load-retention strap, and moveable load backrest for multiple pallets.

Although they're typically used for floor-level handling, pallet trucks are exploring new territory off the ground, too. Second-level order pickers—rider pallet trucks that can elevate operators to a height of about 32 to 38 inches, as shown in the photo at right—are starting to migrate from Europe to North America. According to Rice, few companies here are using them so far, but interest in this type of equipment is "phenomenal," particularly among companies that don't have enough floor space for all of their stock-keeping units (SKUs). Because second-level pickers allow operators to quickly access both the first and second level of storage with the same piece of equipment, users can add SKUs without slowing operations or having to expand the facility. Currently, European equipment designed for comparatively light duty is available here, Rice says, but Raymond will introduce a heavier-duty second-level picker designed for and built in North America in 2017.

HOT TECHNOLOGY ON BOARD

Technology is helping pallet trucks work harder, smarter, and faster in applications old and new. For example, new materials are improving strength and durability without increasing the weight of the truck itself. Rice mentions thermo elastomers (essentially rubberized plastic), ductile iron (made by infusing magnesium into steel), and high-strength low-alloy (HSLA) aluminum. All are more flexible and resilient than the traditional low-carbon steel but weigh much less.

A promising but still developing advancement is the adoption of alternative energy sources such as hydrogen fuel cells and lithium-ion batteries, says Mark Koffarnus, director of national accounts for Hyster Co. Fuel cells are gaining momentum as the fueling options and infrastructure catch up to the fuel cell technology itself, he says, while lithium-ion batteries are making headway, in part because they offer "a very attractive economic return on investment." The lithium-ion pack on Hyster's W45ZHD walkie, for example, has a lifespan of five-plus years, lasting up to five times longer than traditional battery solutions, he says.

McNeill believes lithium-ion batteries are well suited for DSD operations. For one thing, they can be opportunity-charged from a standard 120V outlet, whether in the trailer while en route or at a delivery site. For another, they are smaller and lighter than lead-acid batteries, making them a good fit for pallet trucks that must maneuver in tight spaces like delivery trailers, store aisles, and doorways, he says.

Martin Brenneman, electric product planning specialist at Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc., reports that Toyota is seeing the most interest in lithium-ion among customers using smaller pallet trucks, and several are using this type of battery in 4,500-pound-capacity equipment. But they are still limited to certain specialized applications, as not all customers would realize a favorable return on investment, he says. That could soon change: Several of our sources predicted that in the next one to three years, the price of lithium-ion batteries will come down enough to make them more widely accepted for pallet trucks.

Onboard technology is helping pallet trucks become complex machines with an array of sophisticated capabilities. Just a few examples cited by the experts we contacted include technology that automatically slows the unit during cornering for better control and load stability, software that forces pallet trucks to travel with elevated forks, and onboard diagnostics and displays that provide feedback on truck and battery performance directly to the operator. Another example: Toyota offers an operator keypad that allows up to 10 unique operator logins. Each operator login can have its own maximum speed and acceleration settings, customizing the pallet truck for operators with different skill levels or for different operating areas within a facility.

Telematics solutions, which wirelessly send data and instructions to and from lift trucks, are incorporating electric pallet trucks into the industrial Internet of Things. Just as the technology has done for fleets of larger forklifts, telematics systems such as Raymond's iWarehouse, Yale Vision, Hyster's Tracker, and others are opening up a trove of previously unavailable data about pallet trucks. For example, Crown Equipment Corp.'s InfoLink, which is available on all of its electric pallet trucks, "provides customers with information to make better business decisions and improve the bottom line, particularly around asset utilization, safety, and productivity," says Steve Harshbarger, the company's marketing product manager.

Pallet trucks are also pioneers in the robotics revolution. Crown's semiautomated QuickPick Remote, controlled by a wireless signal transmitted from a special glove, follows alongside an operator, eliminating the need to step on and off and boosting picking productivity. Raymond's Courier, Yale's "Driven by Balyo," Linde's T-Matic, and a number of other robotic pallet trucks go even further, functioning like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and moving around the warehouse independently to pick up and drop off pallets. They use a variety of technologies—lasers, vision guidance systems, GPS, or other methods, depending on the manufacturer—to map and navigate their environment.

An interesting question is whether the growing sophistication of pallet truck design and technology has had an appreciable impact on the equipment's price, reliability, and maintenance costs. Both Pedriana and Rice say modern pallet trucks' initial price, maintenance costs, and lifespan have been relatively consistent with those seen in recent years. They also suggest that the equipment's added utility, value, and operational costs savings are the most important metrics. Others have a different take. McNeill's opinion is that, generally speaking, an increase in capability will mean an increase in initial product cost. "However, thanks to reduced maintenance needs and other operating expenses, the end user ultimately receives a more cost-effective solution over the life of the product," he says.

One feature was cited more than any other as having had a beneficial impact on maintenance costs and productivity: the introduction of three-phase AC motor technology in pallet trucks. AC motor and controller technology, combined with the proper industrial batteries, helps manage the energy used and provides controlled acceleration when operators are moving materials throughout a warehouse, says Perry Ardito, general manager of warehouse products at MCFA, which provides Mitsubishi, Cat, and Jungheinrich lift trucks in North America. Such an increase in efficiency often results in longer operating times that can be extended with different battery options, he explains. And because the AC drive motor has no carbon brushes, it reduces the need for maintenance, ensuring significant long-term reduction in downtime for routine service and maintenance.

A number of other features and enhancements have led to increased durability and reduced cost per hour of operation. Koffarnus of Hyster highlights design improvements for rough surfaces and environments, as well as to undercarriages, drive trains, controllers, ergonomics, and automated solutions. Others we consulted mentioned tougher materials and hardware, and better protection against the elements.

Toyota's Brenneman sums it up this way: "The good news for pallet truck owners is that technology pays off in terms of the cost of operation, maintenance, and productivity." In fact, he adds, the lifespan of modern pallet trucks is "generally as good as or better than the 'built like a tank' pallet trucks of yesteryear."

A LOOK INTO THE FUTURE

Manufacturers have found many ways to make pallet trucks more efficient, more cost effective, and appropriate for a wider range of applications. But they're not done yet. When asked how the pallet trucks of the future will differ from those on the market today, experts contacted for this article had the following predictions:

  • There will be more customization, and more product solutions will be linked to specific problems, says Rice. She gives the example of Raymond's Pick2Pallet product, which uses different-colored LED lights mounted on a pallet truck's double-length forks to direct batch picks to the correct pallet. The solution, which interfaces with the customer's warehouse management software and voice-directed picking system, originally was developed for a grocery customer who wanted to batch pick but found the picking error rate to be too high. Customers using the solution have reduced placement errors by up to 25 percent. 
     
  • Ergonomics and safety will guide many future design decisions, says Pedriana. Manufacturers are focusing on pallet trucks in light of the trend toward empowering workers with more tools to make their jobs easier and safer, he says. That includes providing more information and direction to the operator, making controls simpler and more intuitive, and enhancing safety and ergonomics through auto-assist features. "They see opportunities to drive a reduction in injuries and employee turnover ... by getting people away from manual equipment," he explains. Changing views on ergonomics—focusing not on the impact of a specific activity but on the cumulative effects of warehouse work over time—will reinforce the focus on equipment design as a means to reduce fatigue and physical stress.
     
  • As technology continues to evolve, walkie pallet trucks will continue to become more energy efficient, says Ardito of MCFA. In addition, some features that are designed to increase operator comfort and protection, currently available as options, will eventually become standard. 
     
  • "Integration" will become an important word, says Hyster's Koffarnus. He foresees pallet trucks with integrated energy solutions (for example, onboard chargers), which could dramatically change their profile. He also sees pallet trucks being integrated into automated solutions at a minimal cost, with savings coming from driverless operation.

Despite all those futuristic forecasts, there's still a place for the manual pallet jack in today's warehouses and DCs. They're appropriate for moving lightweight, compact loads over short distances; they're simple to operate; and they're safest for use by new and temporary workers. They don't require batteries, charging, or maintenance, and there's always that low, low price—about $200 to $500 per unit.

Furthermore says Harshbarger of Crown, proven equipment that still has a purpose should be viewed as "smart and functional, not old-fashioned." As material handling demands evolve and change, the equipment, of course, must change along with them, he says. Ultimately, though, the focus should be on end-user satisfaction and operational efficiency. "If operators have the right equipment to safely, reliably, and efficiently do their work," he says, "the age of the design is not significant."