Digitization and Electrification driving next wave of Material Handling Designs

Growth in Material Handling in recent years has been tremendous – driven in a significant part by the continued growth of eCommerce, which has continued to gain an even greater share of the warehouse and industrial segment.

According to commercial broker Cushman & Wakefield, eCommerce firms accounted for 28.2% of industrial absorption (taking over vacant spaces) from 2016-2019. In 2020 and 2021, that spiked to approximately 40%.

Notably, those figures excluded third-party logistics firms, which themselves support a wide variety of online retailers – which means eCommerce trends are continuing to drive the needs of the industry – most notably with electrification and digitization.

Fast-Charging Battery Designs Tilt the Field

While electric lift trucks have made up a significant portion of the market for decades, the continued growth and maturity of new battery technologies – such as lithium-ion – has created a massive shift in how they can be utilized in the material handling segment.

Electric forklifts - while tending to be more expensive to purchase than gas-powered models – have delivered up to 75% lower operating costs. But that earlier generation of battery-powered forklifts – generally powered by lead-acid battery packs – had challenges which are not ideal for material handling applications.

The first related to charging time. When fully drained, lead-acid batteries generally required 8 hours of charging time plus 8 hours of cooling time, meaning that the battery pack was only available for use for 1 shift per day. Batteries needed to be swapped out, watered, and maintained – activities which took away valuable floor space from the core business purpose.

Fast-charging approaches, while potentially possible in some cases, impacted the warranty of the batteries themselves. Compared to propane-powered forklifts – where the only thing needed to keep the machine running was to swap on a new tank – these challenges represented a significant barrier to adoption.

However, lithium-ion battery systems with fast-charging capabilities have changed this equation by unlocking usable opportunity charging strategies. While lithium-ion battery designs are the most frequently cited, continued evolutions and new designs in battery chemistry – such as lithium iron phosphate – continue to add momentum to this trend.

Because lithium-ion forklifts can charge quickly, employees can give their machine a partial charge during meetings, breaks, etc., meaning that one vehicle may be used to cover all three shifts without the need for a battery pack replacement or swap-out.

While charging stations need to be positioned in useful locations in the building, the area(s) formally reserved for battery pack charging/cooling/maintenance can now be repurposed for more productive means.


The ongoing evolution of the supply chain – as it continually becomes more and more digital – has also had an impact on material handling equipment as it operates within a distribution center or other industrial facility.

As the distribution center environment becomes more and more digitized and automated, forklifts and other material handling equipment OEMs are being pushed to replace analog signals with digital outputs via protocols such as CANOpen or SEA J1939.

Sensata Technologies 1These new digital signals are the first step in delivering that data to the cloud, where it can be read, sent to a telematics/cloud platform, and used for further evaluation upstream.

Those protocols are now handling data from a variety of internal sensors, such as information on fork positioning and mast heights, mast tilt, and even load capacity. In addition to those machine factors, the CAN bus is also managing information on equipment health and potential preventive maintenance steps which may be required in the near future.

With that information, managers can schedule any required maintenance for the most opportune times and avoid downtime that impacts regular production flow.

A full digital transformation in a distribution center or other material handling facility is something which will take years or decades to fully implement. But as with any long-term transformation, the critical first step is making the foundational decisions that will set the stage for what future processes will look like.

These trends of electrification and digitization are also not occurring in a vacuum – they must be viewed in concert with the other trends impacting the material handling industry.

Telematics requires digital signals and data to effectively provide full fleet information on a single pane of glass. Autonomy and radar sensing feed off of those digital signals as well as the beacons and other signals present in the warehouse environment.

Taken as a whole, the material handling ecosystem is continuing to move toward a safer, more connected – and more autonomous – world.