TOKYO – Toyota Industries, in parallel and conjunction with Toyota, is advancing into fuel cells.
The company, a core member of the Toyota keiretsu, or conglomerate, supplies components for the Mirai, the automaker’s fuel-cell car, and makes stacks and components for its own fuel-cell-powered forklifts. Later this year, it will begin field tests of a fuel-cell-powered airport tugger.
Not widely known outside the auto industry, Toyota Industries is the world’s largest manufacturer of forklifts with an estimated 25% share of a global market estimated (by Toyota Industries) at 1.5 million units.
Its lineup includes both battery and combustion-engine types.
The company developed a fuel-cell forklift prototype in 2004, then in 2016 brought its first unit to market. So far it has delivered 160 units to airports, seaports and factories including Chubu and Kansai international airports serving greater Nagoya and Osaka, the port of Yokohama and two Toyota auto plants.
In the U.S., its technology has drawn interest from automated warehouse operators including Amazon and Cisco.
Toyota Industries plans to triple sales of fuel-cell forklifts, and a small number of airport tuggers, to 500 units in 2020, then to 10,000 by 2030.
Koji Yoshikawa (below, left), senior manager of Toyota Industries’ fuel-cell industrial vehicle project, admits cost remains the biggest obstacle to increasing sales. Nevertheless, he believes fuel cells offer significant operational advantages over battery power and even greater clean-air benefits over internal combustion.
“It takes three minutes to refuel one, the same time as a gasoline- or diesel-powered forklift, which compares to six to eight hours for a battery-powered unit,” Yoshikawa tells Wards.
This, of course, is not practical for 24-hour warehouse operations and effectively means each forklift needs three battery packs, one to power the forklift and two replacement units to be recharged during the shift.
Yoshikawa notes most electric forklifts still use lead-acid batteries because lithium-ion chemistries, which contain four times more energy, are too expensive. Average battery life is four years, he says.
Meanwhile, Toyota Industries’ focus on fuel-cell forklifts gives a glimpse into Toyota’s fuel-cell program and the next-generation Mirai due out in 2020 or 2021.
The cells are the same, according to Yoshikawa, although stack structures are different. The Mirai stack incorporates 370 cells; Toyota Industries’ forklift, 82.
Whether there will be any changes in cell numbers when Toyota opens a new fuel-cell manufacturing plant next year is not clear, but Toyota Industries has committed to using Toyota cells – again – for its next-generation stack.
Neither company offers details about expected improvements in cell design or performance other than the automaker’s general target: to reduce stack size and fuel-cell system cost 30% and 50%, respectively, from 2015 levels.
Toyota Industries’ current fuel-cell module measures 36 ins. (91 cm) long, 32 ins. (81 cm) wide and 22 ins. (56 cm) tall, which is virtually the same size as the battery module.
Toyota manufactures cells for the Mirai, the Toyota Industries forklift and a recently launched bus at its Honsha plant in Toyota City. The automaker then assembles the Mirai and bus stacks on a small line – about 12 units per day – at the plant.
The new plant will increase capacity to 120 stacks per day, or 30,000 annually.
Toyota Industries assembles stacks for its fuel-cell forklift – including key components such as the anode, cathode, proton-exchange membrane and separator – at its Takahama plant.
It also supplies the air compressor, hydrogen circulation pump and inverter for the Mirai.
Yoshikawa declines to comment about future plans, although he notes the supplier makes the fuel-cell electronic control unit and DC/DC converter for its forklift. This may be relevant because Toyota Industries makes DC/DC converters for Toyota hybrid cars, and thus could be a candidate for the new Mirai.
Coinciding with Toyota Industries’ joint development activities with Toyota, the company is evaluating various fueling technologies as a participant in several national demonstration projects. Included are compressed hydrogen gas made from solar, wind and geothermal power, as well as liquid hydrogen.