When it comes to operating in negative temperatures, forklifts, their manufacturers and users must employ every tool in their collective toolboxes to optimize fleet performance. According to Todd Scott, national account manager for UniCarriers Americas, the central challenge is keeping equipment operators comfortable and committed.
“It’s hard to find people who want to do that work,” he says. “You have to get them to apply, pass a drug test, then hope they want to show up day after day.”
There are only so many ways to help an operator cope with long hours of uncomfortable work in -10ºF to -30ºF environments. A heated cab might be an option for strictly putaway jobs, but those performing order fulfillment tasks by loading cases and boxes can’t make use of a cab because they’re constantly on and off equipment. Heated floor mats and forklift handles only go so far.
“So the ask, especially for large operations, is to design operators out of the equation,” Scott says. “They look at stacker cranes, conveyors, gravity flow, anything that can move product in and out of a freezer without labor.”
Numerous companies are bringing automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) into the market, Scott says, but underneath the sensors and software is a base forklift, and forklift OEMs continue to beef up components’ performance in cold environments. No battery is happy in a freezer 24/7, so some OEMs include a battery heating element while others design equipment so it doesn’t need heaters, and Scott says there are advantages and shortcomings to both.
A refrigerated room 30 to 60 degrees warmer than the adjacent freezer might house opportunity charging stations. Some condensation issues can’t be avoided, Scott says, but they will be less severe than if forklifts go from freezing to ambient temperatures. Lithium-ion and fuel cell alternatives can minimize battery changing and charging.
If possible, it’s ideal to have dedicated equipment for freezer and ambient environments. This is important given that various computers, devices and peripheral technologies mounted to ambient forklifts might not appreciate subzero temperatures. Something as simple as a stripe of blue paint on a forklift can help operators and managers distinguish equipment at a glance.
Telematics can help prevent shortsightedness by harmonizing the objectives of operators, maintenance managers, human resources or other stakeholders. One common goal is to make equipment last longer. Scott says the expected lifespan has increased from five years to seven and upward of 20,000 hours.
“You operate equipment in a freezer and then add the bump and grind over dock plates and that longevity can be a challenge,” he says. “The secondhand market for specialized cooler and freezer equipment is not as robust, so customers want to make forklifts last as long as possible since they know at the end of its life it won’t have much value.”
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