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The Revolution of the Material Handling Industry: Improving the Efficiency of Electrical Material Handling Vehicles

The North American material handling industry – the sector of the economy concerned with the movement, protection, storage and control of materials and products throughout manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, consumption and disposal – is quickly shifting from the conventional petroleum-based equipment to the cleaner, more sustainable electrical-based equipment.

“The desire and interest for electrical material handling vehicles [EMVs], such as electrical forklifts and automatic guided vehicles, is growing substantially,” says Seokgi Lee, an assistant professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering. He explains that the main driver for this change “is the lowered operation costs and reduced fueling by EMVs. Since restraining excessive energy consumption and limiting greenhouse gas emissions is required by most of today’s logistics companies, implementing a variety of affordable energy-saving and environmentally friendly operation strategies, such as EMVs, is an important priority.”

To make the implementation of EMVs more economically attractive, a facility using EMVs must charge EMVs during off-peak load hours, curtailing the peak power load and thus reducing the facility’s energy bills. Peak load hours describe a period in which electrical power is expected to be provided for a sustained period at a significantly higher-than-average supply level.

“Such a simple but redoubtable operational rule can be achieved by accurately predicting power loads and planning battery-charging schedules accordingly, while also considering the complicated order of picking-up and putting-away activities,” explains Lee.

Although the technological evolution for smart material handling has been progressing steadily, there are few models and techniques available for understanding the dynamics of such distribution systems and, more importantly, gaining insight into their operational and energy performance. Lee received a grant from the Toyota Material Handling North America (TMHNA) University Research Program (a sponsored research program created to drive the next generation of technology for the material handling industry) to address these issues by developing a real-time EMV control framework combined with a power load forecasting system.

To do so, the research project will be divided into two parts: the development of a novel electricity load forecasting model at the warehouse-facility level and the development of a unified control framework that shares information between systems of EMV operation and power load forecasting.

“The unified control framework will – in a real-time manner – autonomously control the number of EMVs needed to improve efficiency and the charging schedules, considering both warehouse operational and energy performance,” Lee says.

Ultimately, the control framework will enhance energy and operational efficiency of EMV operations in terms of cost and time, providing an incentive to switch to a more sustainable energy system by greatly reducing the costs of switching from petroleum-based equipment to cleaner electrical equipment.

The research project is officially titled “A Unified Dynamic Control Framework for Energy-Aware Electrical Vehicle Operations.”

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