Sustainability and your lift truck

Yale's Bill Pfleger helps put the lofty concept into perspective.

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When gas prices doubled between 2002 and 2005, sales of large SUVs plummeted and were replaced with the likes of the Toyota Prius. Similarly, when the Great Recession barreled through the materials handling industry, companies scrutinized cost centers once assumed to be fixed aspects of doing business and found a number of operational efficiencies. But even as the economy takes a turn for the better, best practices in operational sustainability are becoming ingrained in business cultures; the industry won’t be going back to the inefficient SUV approach any time soon.

The practice of lift truck fleet management is a prime example. Once content to manage a fleet with redundant units and batteries, loose maintenance schedules and as much labor as it took to get the job done, many businesses have adopted a much more disciplined approach. I recently spoke with Bill Pfleger, president of Yale Distribution for Yale Materials Handling, about the notion of sustainability in fleet management. Based on what he’s hearing from customers, the idea is here to stay.

“Initially it was a buzzword as opposed to any true understanding of what sustainability meant,” Pfleger says. “More and more companies are now adding sustainability as a key element to their business focus. We’re seeing a higher level of commitment.”

Whether centered around managing a carbon footprint or pursuing continuous improvement, sustainability is a fairly broad concept, encompassing everything from fuel efficiency to the landfill impact of manufacturing each component of a lift truck.

“We get bid requests that ask for detailed information regarding Yale’s position on sustainability,” Pfleger says. “We’re asked to send information about what our factories are doing in terms of sustainability. Customers want to see a demonstrated, active role in reducing the carbon footprint. This includes more efficiency in elements as basic as controllers and wiring harnesses.”

Engineers for lift truck manufacturers are therefore working to reduce the amount of energy the lift truck uses, improving the efficiency per kWh of battery charge or the fuel consumption of internal combustion (IC) units in line with standards like Tier IV emissions requirements. Lift truck engines can now capture and re-burn fuel from the exhaust, or are developed around alternative fuel sources like abundant compressed natural gas and diesel. Pfleger says the fact that both IC and electric lift trucks can now achieve virtually identical performance characteristics gives a customer the flexibility to select the most beneficial fuel source for their operation.

There are also a growing number of both standard and supplemental products that can provide data about the lift truck’s usage. This enables fleet owners to quantify their advances in sustainability. “There is absolutely no question that customers want to see the reality,” Pfleger says. “If they have made a commitment up front to a true sustainable approach, they are looking to break even at least, and anything beyond that is an added bonus.”

In addition to granular reporting capabilities, a modern lift truck’s electronic “brain” understands the fuel needs based on required performance, Pfleger says, for instance allowing an IC unit to burn only as much fuel as is needed at any given moment. For electric trucks, regenerative braking can use the momentum of the truck to put energy back into battery while also putting less strain on brakes and further reducing maintenance costs.

“Sustainability by definition is what we are doing to utilize resources that can be regenerated as opposed to absolute consumption of fossil fuels,” Pfleger says. “The first step is to go out and evaluate the fleet, either by yourself or with the help of dealer. Be sure that your 1970s truck is not only still operational but as efficient and productive as it could be.” Pfleger also advises fleet owners to look for opportunities for improvement relative to the cost of acquisition. For instance, if a brand new lift truck doesn’t make sense, it might be possible to replace an old lift truck with a used one for an incremental improvement.

“Thinking about sustainability is still in its infancy,” Pfleger says, “The more you know, the more you don’t know because the industry is still changing. But now is as good a time as any to start thinking about it.”


About the Author

Josh Bond, Contributing Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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