The Forefront Of Fuel Cell Technology

Through its long-standing commitment to the environment and corporate sustainability initiatives, UNFI researches and identifies sustainable technologies for use in its facilities, including solar panels for the roofs of its distribution centers and energy-efficient lighting.

United Natural Foods (UNFI) is the largest wholesale distributor of natural, organic and specialty foods and related products in the United States. In addition to 28 distribution centers in the U.S. and Canada, UNFI provides value-added services to its customers, including marketing and promotional materials, merchandising, category management and store support services. UNFI could not continually exceed customer expectations without the assistance of its lift truck fleet, which the company uses to move product efficiently through its distribution centers as part of its material handling operations.

Through its long-standing commitment to the environment and corporate sustainability initiatives, UNFI researches and identifies sustainable technologies for use in its facilities, including solar panels for the roofs of its distribution centers and energy-efficient lighting. During the past three yeas, the company has examined ways to reduce its energy consumption, which led it to investigate a new power source for its lift trucks — hydrogen fuel cells. UNFI was interested in the technology as an energy-efficient alternative to the lead-acid batteries that traditionally power the company’s lift trucks.

UNFI is a nationwide customer of The Raymond Corporation, so it was only natural that Tom Dziki, chief human resources and sustainability officer at UNFI, turned to Raymond and Abel Womack, Inc., its authorized Raymond Sales and Service Center for more than 10 years, for an education on hydrogen fuel cell technology.

By working together, the companies identified UNFI’s Sarasota, Fla., facility as an ideal site to begin using hydrogen fuel cell-powered lift trucks, and all of UNFI’s Raymond trucks in Sarasota were converted to hydrogen fuel cell technology on June 25, 2010. The project required extensive planning and coordination between UNFI, Raymond, Abel Womack and Raymond Handling Consultants, the authorized Raymond Sales & Service Center responsible for serving UNFI’s facility in Sarasota.

Embracing new technology

In 2007, UNFI asked Abel Womack for more information about hydrogen fuel cell technology. UNFI was aware that Raymond had been researching the technology at its headquarters in Greene, N.Y. Representatives from Abel Womack encouraged Dziki and other UNFI personnel to attend a hydrogen fuel cell seminar Raymond was sponsoring at an industry trade show for them to learn more about the technology.

At the time, UNFI decided to wait for further testing to ensure the viability of the fuel cell technology. As time went on, UNFI continued to work with Raymond for updates on advancements in hydrogen fuel cells. UNFI also began to meet with hydrogen fuel cell manufacturers, and asked Raymond and Abel Womack to consult in the decision-making process about which manufacturer to work with, and how the technology could be implemented.

Representatives from Abel Womack met with UNFI to discuss Raymond’s experience with fuel cells and to participate in meetings with hydrogen fuel cell manufacturers to help UNFI identify the most appropriate vendor with whom to work. UNFI selected Plug Power as its manufacturer of choice.

“Raymond tests a variety of fuel cells in its equipment to make sure they provide the necessary performance and power requirements,” Dziki says. “When we spoke to the people who were doing the testing at Raymond, I felt very comfortable with the solutions we selected because we knew Plug Power and Raymond had worked together to be sure the lift trucks and the fuel cells would perform the way we needed them to.”

Putting theory into practice

As the project came closer to becoming a reality, the next step was to decide how and where the technology should be implemented. With the assistance of Abel Womack, UNFI reviewed its fleet of lift trucks to determine whether it should convert select trucks in an existing facility to hydrogen fuel cells, or take advantage of a planned new distribution center with all the trucks powered by the new technology.

The Sarasota distribution center, newly opened in 2007, quickly became the location of choice to have all its Raymond lift trucks converted to fuel cell power. Not only did it have enough equipment to justify the hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure, but it had a solid local service center in Raymond Handling Consultants. Making the decision even easier for UNFI was the receptiveness of Florida to helping to fund sustainable initiatives for businesses in the state.

“Florida is at the cutting edge of funding renewable energy initiatives,” Dziki says. “It really helped us to make the return on investment compelling so we could go ahead with the project.”

Making it work

The Raymond lift trucks in UNFI’s Sarasota facility consisted of Model 7400 Reach-Fork® trucks, Model 5500 orderpickers, Model 4200 stand-up counterbalanced lift trucks and Model 8400 end rider pallet trucks. Considerations needed to be made for the differences between lead-acid batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, including the size of the battery compartment; how the technology would withstand the temperatures of the Sarasota facility’s freezer, cooler and dry storage areas; and whether the fuel cell-powered lift trucks would perform to the same level as their battery-powered counterparts.

On electric lift trucks, battery compartments are designed specifically to accommodate the size and weight of batteries. Fuel cells are larger than lead-acid batteries, so Raymond engineers needed to ensure that the fuel cells would fit in the battery compartments and maintain the required counterweight for each truck.

Significant changes needed to be made to the orderpickers to create a larger battery compartment to accommodate the fuel cell. As a result, Raymond engineered the industry’s first hydrogen fuel cell-compatible orderpicker, which features a specially built 21-inch battery box to accommodate a hydrogen fuel cell.

Another consideration was how the hydrogen fuel cells would withstand multiple shifts in the colder temperatures of the facility’s freezer, cooler and dry storage areas. Raymond conducted extensive testing of the hydrogen fuel cell in cold temperatures at its Greene facility to ensure performance would not be affected. Raymond also conducted extensive testing on the hydrogen fuel cell-powered lift truck models included in UNFI’s fleet to ensure the performance would be as good, if not better, than battery-powered trucks.

Feedback from operators at the UNFI Sarasota facility has been very positive. Raymond’s research shows that, as a lead-acid battery is used over the course of a shift, the voltage drops and lift truck performance goes down. With hydrogen fuel cells, voltage delivered by the fuel cell remains constant until the fuel is depleted.

Mike Garstka, operations manager at UNFI, says operators are seeing 10 to 12 hours of continuous use on the pallet trucks.

“That’s a significant improvement compared with the five to seven hours of use we were seeing with the batteries,” Garstka adds.

Productivity also has increased because of the short time it takes to refuel the lift trucks, compared with changing a battery. In a high-use lift truck, lead-acid batteries typically only last one shift, and the batteries normally take one shift to charge and another to cool down. It also can take up to 20 minutes to remove and replace a battery.

In contrast, hydrogen fuel cells rapidly refuel in a couple of minutes, and a facility can install multiple fuel stations that feed from a central tank.

“Our pallet truck operators are ecstatic they only need to fuel one time at the beginning of their shift,” Garstka says.

The trucks also are performing well in cooler temperatures. UNFI has fueling stations on both the cool dock and the dry dock, so the equipment can be kept at its ambient temperature. Hydrogen fuel cells emit water as a byproduct, which UNFI captures using a hose at the refueling stations, and the water is kept in a tank so it can be reused for other purposes.

Support at every level

Once Sarasota was chosen as the location for the hydrogen fuel cell project, Abel Womack worked closely with Raymond Handling Consultants to provide an additional level of service and customer support.

Raymond Handling Consultants took delivery of the new equipment and examined it to ensure the fuel cells fit into the battery compartments and the equipment met UNFI’s specifications. Raymond Handling Consultants’ top priority was to make UNFI’s transition to the new equipment as seamless as possible.

“Not only were they changing to newer trucks, but also changing their power source,” said Kevin Polomsky, service manager with Raymond Handling Consultants. “We had everything staged at our facility prior to delivering it to the customer, and that helped us to ensure UNFI didn’t experience any downtime as we brought in the new equipment and phased out the old.”

This seamless transition was the result of several meetings prior to the rollout of the new equipment to provide Raymond Handling Consultants with the information it needed to install the new equipment in a manner that would limit interruptions to UNFI’s processes. Raymond Handling Consultants’ personnel also underwent extensive training with Plug Power on how to install and maintain the fuel cells.      

Positive results

Since the installation of the hydrogen fuel cell-powered trucks and refueling infrastructure, UNFI has been pleased with the results it has seen.

“We know what our labor and productivity was before we installed the hydrogen fuel cells,” Dziki says. “We anticipate increased productivity because the trucks will be running with a full charge the entire shift, and the reduced amount of time spent refueling. We plan to track the changes over time to help us evaluate the return on our investment for possible future installations in other facilities.”

UNFI also is pleased with the support provided by Raymond, Abel Womack and Raymond Handling Consultants during the planning and execution of this project.

“We couldn’t have done this without Raymond’s partnership,” Dziki says. “Raymond has been at the forefront of new technologies, and is really a thought leader in hydrogen fuel technology.”