Electric forklifts keeping pace with e-commerce warehousing demands

Online shopping – or e-commerce – has taken the retail industry by storm, with some sources predicting that by 2040, almost 95% of all shopping will be at least in part facilitated by e-commerce. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has also resulted in fewer visits to brick-and-mortar shops, with many large retailers managing to effectively capitalise on a change in consumer demand by shifting most of their operations online.

As consumer spending habits are changing, so too is the way suppliers and manufacturers deal with this growth. In particular, the rise of e-commerce is changing the way warehouses are designed and operated.

The ever-shifting retail landscape is keeping managers of traditional forms of warehouses on their toes. Today speed is the name of the game – consumers can review, compare, and purchase items faster than ever, with the expectation of delivery without delay.

To accomplish this race against time, warehouses now look much different than they have in the past. E-commerce requires businesses to not only stock a larger selection of items but also have additional space available for the technology and equipment facilitating the various high-speed processes taking place.

Warehouses today need premises large enough to accommodate goods, employees, as well as the automated equipment carrying out certain processes. They also require much taller interiors to allow for higher stacking of merchandise.

Experts predict that e-commerce will increase the size of the global forklift market, and electric lifting and carrying machines specifically will help retailers and logistics specialists meet carbon-neutrality goals. With forklifts fitted with internal combustion engines no longer being allowed in closed warehouses, electric forklifts, especially those using lithium-ion batteries, are becoming more dominant.

Until about a decade ago, old generation forklifts that used diesel or gas driven engines were popular. Over the past few years, Toyota Material Handling, a division of CFAO Equipment SA that sells forklifts and related solutions, has seen a steady increase in demand for battery-operated equipment as businesses strive to reduce their carbon footprint.

Stephen Mostert, National Technical Manager for CFAO Equipment SA, says the company understands that in material handling, especially in the e-commerce sector, time is money.

“With our Toyota forklifts powered by lithium-ion batteries, downtime is significantly reduced. These machines can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days in the year, perfectly meeting the needs of e-commerce outlets,” says Mostert.

“Unlike lead-acid batteries that emit fumes, the lithium-ion battery has zero emission. Lithium-ion batteries require less time to charge than their lead-acid counterparts, which also have to rest before they can be used again. Thus, your fleet will benefit from increased productivity. Since lithium-ion batteries maintain a higher, more stable voltage over the course of a shift, you will also experience higher forklift performance which can translate to increased output,” says Mostert.

The size of a forklift is also key to operational efficiency. Whereas forklifts with internal combustion engines were bulky, their electric counterparts are more compact and contribute to the goal of maximising operational space within a company's warehouse or distribution centre.

Mostert says that since a forklift operator’s office is the truck’s cabin where he spends at least eight hours a day, it is essential that every aspect of the cab’s design is considered if the operator is going to be kept comfortable and productive throughout the working day.

“Worker discomfort is reduced by placing greater emphasis on ergonomics and this has a positive impact on efficiency and productivity. At Toyota Material Handling we’ve been focussing on how ergonomic design can boost driver comfort. All controls are within easy reach. By keeping the operator at the centre of our design thinking, Toyota Material Handling offers truck drivers the best possible driving experience,” says Mostert.

With the timely delivery of goods during peak shopping seasons such as Easter, Black Friday and the year-end festive season being crucial, it is imperative that the wheels of forklifts do not stop turning.

“In the event a machine must go into the workshop for urgent maintenance, downtime is kept to no longer than 24 hours. We have a centralised parts distribution system and technicians are available all day and night. Since the movement of merchandise is faster during peak seasons, short-term rental machines are also put on site to maintain uptime,” says Mostert.

“It is also important that machines are regularly serviced as this will ensure that a machine does not suffer downtime. Hence, we advocate for predictive servicing to ensure electric forklifts operate optimally and achieve the highest possible operating hours. After all, prevention is better than cure,” says Mostert.

Looking to the future, he says forklifts are becoming more and more automated, with features such as automatic obstacle detection.