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The Decline Of IC Trucks

Internal combustion (IC) forklifts have been a dominant force in the lift truck market for decades. However, recent trends have some in the industry wondering whether IC trucks will continue to have such a large market share, or if they are going the way of the gasoline-powered forklift.

In the article, “Lift Truck Industry On The Road To Recovery,” Jeff Rufener, president of the Industrial Truck Association (ITA), writes, “The shift to electric products from internal combustion lift trucks that has occurred over the last several years is typical of recessionary periods. However, it has never been so pronounced, with electrics moving from roughly 55 percent of orders in 2006 to nearly 70 percent in 2009.” The 2009 ITA member company poll predicted that IC forklifts will never again account for more than 40 percent of the total volume.

Why has the industry begun to adopt electrics so heavily? In the material handling industry, as with nearly every industry, there has been an increased emphasis on green technology.  “The generation of leaders coming up behind is are much more environmentally conscious than the current generation of decision makers,” says Mark Milovich, president of Lift Atlanta (Decatur, GA). “They care about things like used oils and caustic emissions.”

Comparable Performance

The shift to electrics in the industry cannot be entirely attributed to a green philosophy. Jeff Long, vice president of sales and service at EnerSys, says, “People are moving to electrics because the productivity on those trucks is better than it has ever been. Performance on electrics is almost equivalent to IC trucks now.” Milovich agrees, saying, “Electric truck performance is right along with an IC truck now, particularly with 80-volt trucks. People are interested in converting to electric from IC because they get longer run time and can use the electrics in a typical outdoor IC application.”

More Economical

Electric trucks come with a higher upfront cost than most internal combustion trucks. However, Milovich argues that over the life of the truck, electrics are actually cheaper to own. “The customer has to understand that by buying a battery, they are buying five years’ worth of fuel up front. It would be like buying five years of diesel fuel at the same time,” says Milovich. “With the increase in fuel prices, it is more economical for many customers to recharge a battery than to fill up a fuel tank.” Electrics traditionally require less maintenance than IC trucks as well. “An electric truck does not have preventative maintenance as often and the maintenance isn’t as detailed,” Milovich notes. “Distributors don’t have to worry about disposing of hazardous materials like antifreeze and oil. Those costs get passed down to the end-user.”

Will Electrics Ever Replace ICs?

As electrics continue to improve, will they ever fully replace ICs? “Electric market share will never get to 100 percent,” says Long. “The 80-volt electrics are pretty strong workhorses, but I don’t think you’ll see big electric trucks that can handle applications like the big IC pneumatic trucks at shipyards or lumberyards.” Long also notes that it is typical to see electrics gain more market share during recessions. “The IC Truck user is a smaller user and in the down economy they weren’t buying. If you go to a big food chain they are using electrics. When the economy is down, people are still buying food. The typical IC user is a smaller fleet size user than somebody who uses electrics. People who are buying IC trucks are stepping up now and buying them because the economy is coming back.” Milovich agrees with Long that electric trucks will never reach 100 percent market share. “I don’t think IC trucks will ever truly go away,” he says. “There may be a time, like gasoline trucks now, where only a handful of manufacturers produce them.”

What do readers think? Will IC trucks ever regain the market share that they once held? Are electrics going to be the dominant force going forward? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

To read more about the breakdown of forklift power sources in the industry and see what kind of trucks end-users prefer, read the 3rd Quarter issue of The MHEDA Journal.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association