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The innovation challenge of going electrical

28/06/2018

In the early 1900s Henry Ford revolutionalised transportation with the Model T and declaimed his undying words “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Over a century later, we are on the verge of another major technical disruption. Interestingly, the way of approaching electrification of industrial vehicles seems to hold many similarities with Mr. Ford’s words.

AUTHOR: PETER SÖDERBERG

The change from diesel-fueled engines to fully electric drivelines is without doubt the largest change I have witnessed during my 4 decades in automotive-related industries. As in many other industrial load-handling facilities, ports and terminals are looking at a whole new generation of vehicles.

I see immense upsides to this trend:
• reduced CO2 emissions from replacing diesel engines with sustainably produced electricity,
• reduced noise pollution which will have a positive impact on working environments and surrounding cities,
• lower maintenance costs and total cost of ownership as the amount of wearing parts will dramatically decrease, as well as
• supporting the automation of vehicles and processes.

But what will it take to maximize these benefits? What will the change mean for us – and the whole industry?

Innovating faster horses

Currently, I find the discussion around electrifying vehicles often portraying the same mindset Henry Ford described in his quote. It seems common to look at an existing vehicle or machine, focusing research and development efforts on finding a way to replace a diesel-fueled component with an electrically powered one. The result then is the same vehicle with a potentially upgraded power source. A faster horse.

In my opinion, this will enable capturing only a fraction of the benefits electric power sources could potentially offer. As vehicles, machines and processes go electrical, it provides an excellent opportunity to start from scratch and rethink the whole design. Without some of the restrictions of conventional engines (and with the requirements of electric power), we should really strive to optimise everything from the perspective of maximal efficiency, ease of maintenance, eco-efficiency and safety. This cannot be fully done, if we change 10 percent of a machine, while 90 percent remains optimised according to features of a conventional engine.

Technical disruption is also a competence disruption

Innovating is seldom a one-man show anymore, and the upcoming change will also have a significant impact on our way of working. For example, component providers have traditionally been our main group within suppliers. It is quite possible that in the future our industry will be more and more partnering with technology developers instead. Collaboration across the industry also seems inevitable, as companies seek efficiency benefits from standardising new ways of working that are made possible with electric drivelines.

In addition to how companies and the whole industry innovates and collaborates, going electric will also challenge companies to develop new skills internally. A gradual change from diesel engines to electric will likely take place over the coming years. This means that companies need to maintain their conventional equipment, while at the same time they have to develop competences for electric equipment. For example, Kalmar will provide an electric version of their full product line already by 2021, which means we are and will be doing a lot of work to ensure we have the best expertise to produce and maintain both types of equipment.

What are your thoughts?

How do you think the change from conventional power sources to electric will impact the industry? What are the key drivers in transforming the whole cargo flow value chain towards a more sustainable future?

Let’s make sure that we capture the full potential of the upcoming change by innovating with open eyes and preparing to face the changes it will bring to our way of working. Join the discussion below or in social media with the hashtag #smarterbettertogether.

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