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Fuel cell technology gives power to warehouses

Written by Robert Leonberger of Barloworld Handling and Gagan Singh of Oorja Protonics In 1519, Ponce de León traveled to what is now Florida in...

Freddie Pierce
|Jun 30|magazine13 min read

Written by Robert Leonberger of Barloworld Handling and Gagan Singh of Oorja Protonics

In 1519, Ponce de León traveled to what is now Florida in his search the Fountain of Youth.  His goal was to discover this mystical fountain that would restore one’s youth. Today, maintenance managers and facility managers all over the U.S. share this same exploration spirit in their attempt to discover the magical formula to increase productivity and save money as it relates to their material handling equipment. 

In any warehouse or manufacturing facility around the world, if you were to sit the facility manager down and ask him or her as it relates to his material handling equipment, what are areas that cost them the most money, what would he/she say? If these men and women truly have their finger on the pulse of their organization, they would tell you the labor cost from changing batteries and the electricity used charging those batteries were there two biggest expenses (excluding the purchase of new material handling equipment). 

So the question then is how much money could your organization save if you were able to cut the battery inventory by 66 percent without affecting productivity? Most companies attempt this by deploying either a fast charge or an opportunity charger set up. Both of these technologies have really come on strong in the past several years and both have their draw backs.  Opportunity chargers are a great “tween” charger between regular SCR chargers and Fast Chargers but in most 24 hour and seven-day-a-week applications, Opportunity Chargers are unable to keep up with the demand and are unable to reduce the labor expense of swapping batteries. With a fast charge set up, there is a substantial upfront infrastructure investment. 

The average battery for a class III walkie-rider range from $3,100 to $3,500 per battery (includes a single point watering system & blinky LED system).  A normal SCR charger cost approximately $2,250. For the purpose of an example, we will use a typical 24 hour and 365-day-per-year application at a cold storage facility using 50 walkie-riders

The total number of batteries required to sustain this amount of productivity is 150 batteries. The capital investment tied up just in standard batteries alone is $495,000. On average, this facility has to change batteries three times per day per truck to keep up with the demand currently on the forklifts. That is 150 swaps per day and 54,750 swaps per year! The labor cost to swap out the batteries based on a 20 minute battery swap performed by the operator is $461,725. The amount of maintenance required per year on those 150 batteries is roughly $40,500. 

The cost of electricity to charge those 150 batteries each year is $117,028.  In this example, if we had to replace approximately 5 percent of those batteries due to normal battery wear/tear and failure, the approximate cost would be $26,400. 

So what if you were able to reduce $1,275,653 by 66 percent without losing any of your productivity? What if you were able to gain an additional 15 percent productivity per operator per day? That would be like adding an additional six days of work for each operator. What would you be willing to do to save almost $1 million out of your capital expense and operating budget?

This is not a fairy tale or a search for the Holy Grail. This type of technology exists today and can be immediately deployed in your facility without any infrastructure changes. 

The technology I am speaking of is the use of fuel cells in your facility.  Fuel cell systems have proven to be an economically viable solution for a wide variety of applications.  Today, there are many different types of fuel cells on the open commercial market. The one highlighted here is the Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC). A DMFC system can generate electricity quietly and efficiently without any toxic emissions generated while the fuel cell is in operation. DMFC fuel cells have the potential to effectively lower the total logistics and operating cost when deployed in today’s warehouse setting. They require minimal refueling due to the high efficiency of the DMFC power plants which results in less fuel needed per kilowatt hour of electricity. 

DMFC fuel cell systems ensure constant power delivery and performance, eliminating the reduction in voltage output that occurs as batteries discharges. Ultimately, this will result in an increased battery life by helping the battery maintain a continuous state of charge, prevents deep discharge and does not allow the battery to overheat.