The shift to ‘greener’ technology is still a growing trend among the airside community around the world, and GSE manufacturers are working hard to keep up with rising demand for non-diesel high lifts and loaders. The pandemic has hindered progress, however
Tim Willett, operations director at materials handling and GSE lessor Rushlift, observes: “The GSE industry has had electric baggage tugs for almost 40 years. The electrification of other items of GSE has been slower; however, you can now purchase many different types of electric battery-powered GSE – conveyer belts, pushback tugs and high loaders to name a few.”
He says Rushlift is seeing more and more demand for the latest electric equipment as the world comes through and out of the pandemic. More recently, hydrogen-powered under-wing loaders have begun to appear.
JBT Aerotech, for instance, is evaluating hydrogen-powered loaders as part of its commitment to finding greener alternatives to diesel. Its product portfolio also boasts a range of electric equipment (including cargo loaders).
There has already been progress with hydrogen-powered tow tractors, such as those developed by Plug Power and MULAG for Hamburg Airport in 2019.
Describing the benefits of using hydrogen for GSE, Plug Power highlights the complete lack of emissions; 45% energy efficiency compared with 20% for diesel; and decreased maintenance costs due to fewer moving parts.
In addition: “Compared to battery-powered electric vehicles, fuel cells offer longer ranges and faster refuelling, with a hydrogen storage system that easily scales without taking up the space charging stations require.”
Cost, however, could be a barrier to the development of this option. A study entitled ‘Development of Business Cases for Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Applications for European Regions and Cities’ commissioned by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking in 2017 points out that “capital expenditures [are] expected to be significantly higher than for equipment powered by diesel and other fuels” and that “[the] business case [is] highly dependent on fuel prices with airport operators requiring a positive return on investment”.
Plus, relevant infrastructure and logistics will be required to support hydrogen-powered equipment – so for now, it would appear that electric-powered lifts and loaders remain the frontrunners in the race to replace diesel units.
For instance, the most recent addition to GSE manufacturer Aviogei’s range of lifts is the electric Thunderlift, which is designed for the boarding and disembarking of passengers with reduced mobility or injured persons on stretchers. It is suitable for all aircraft types with a height threshold between ground level and 5.9m.
Equipped with both solar panels and a lithium battery, the Thunderlift also boasts remote diagnostic control and software updates via FOTA (firmware over the air). “Our R&D department is very sensitive to new industry applications and to the need to improve GSE with new, enabling technologies,” says Aviogei CEO Andrea Cesarini.
As for loaders, Aviogei’s latest models include its TVP 7000 E electric transporter, which is designed for the transport and transfer of ULDs between container or pallet dolly and cargo loader.
The acceleration of the trend for greener high lifts and loaders is supported by the improved affordability of electric options. Cesarini notes that the rising cost of traditional options is making the shift towards electric GSE even more attractive.
“The difference between diesel and electric models has reduced year after year; the cost of thermal engines is increasing while electric battery and electric motor costs are shrinking. The electric operating costs are significantly lower so the initial price gap is recovered in a short time,” he explains.
Willett agrees that the price of electric lifts and loaders is now on a par with diesel-engined units – but only if lead acid batteries are used to power the units. If lithium-ion is selected, end users should expect to pay a premium above internal combustion (IC) engine units.
He observes: “The use of lead acid is still preferred as it offers (in most locations) an affordable battery option that works well if water levels are maintained and if operators (who will always opportunity charge) don’t run them completely flat; this causes huge issues for lead acid batteries.
“Lithium-ion has many advantages and disadvantages. It’s lighter, works well in hot climates and doesn’t mind being placed on charge for short periods. To offset this, the costs are higher, and weight savings aren’t always an advantage for use in a 50-ton pushback tug that needs ballast to work. In addition to this, we still don’t have a recycling infrastructure for lithium-ion units,” Willett points out.
There are other variables that affect the price of electric GSE. For truck-mounted high lifts and ambulifts, this is very much linked to chassis choice, says Robert Powell, vice president, technical services at dnata. He also notes that electric and hydrogen options have yet to reach maturity in some locations, and this has a bearing on price, too.
“Electric loader options are much more mature, and our future purchases are more likely to be electric, where airport infrastructure supports it,” he suggests. “However, the price differential does not seem to be too clear and can vary significantly upon comparison. OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] need to articulate and be visible in cost and TCO [total cost of ownership] variations across their power options.”
Powell remarks that the reach of Far Eastern manufacturers is increasing significantly and that European manufacturers are gaining a greater foothold in the Americas. “The underlying factor that links these is quality,” he points out. “Success is dependent on whether a manufacture can demonstrate a high-quality product, with good service support, at the right price point and delivered on time.”
dnata recently purchased two cabin cleaning high lifts, complete with Prochem Apex carpet cleaning machines, from Mallaghan Engineering. This purchase was part of a range of enhancements to the dnata cabin cleaning service offering at Dubai International Airport, to support the greater focus on hygiene as the world emerges from the pandemic.
“In the financial year 2022-23 we plan to purchase lower deck and maindeck loaders, as part of both our replacement programme and recovery growth,” Powell advises.
In addition to delivering the highest quality possible, sustainability is a priority for manufacturers of high lifts and loaders – hence the focus on developing electric models. Indeed, JBT Aerotech says that going green is no longer a trend: it is “the new norm”.
At Aviogei, says Cesarini: “Our commitment is to support as best we can the transition of the fleet versus greener technologies. We are ready to help industry with conversion programmes based on our technology and services.”
Another priority, naturally, is the safety of passengers, operators and aircraft that interact with GSE, including high lifts and loaders. Aviogei’s global reach requires consideration of specific country regulations in the various markets it serves. All of the company’s vehicles are designed and built in accordance with EU Machinery Directive 2006/42 CE.
“All our GSE comes out of the factory with a full [International Air Transport Association] AHM 913 ‘no-touch’ policy compliant system installed: it is a result of our engineering activities, developed entirely in house and one of the best systems available today for the aviation industry,” Cesarini says.
Furthermore, Aviogei’s R&D department is developing a digital twin simulator based on virtual reality technology for operators’ training and for maintenance management.
Electric-powered units inherently help improve safety on the ramp. They are cleaner than diesel equivalents in terms of on-airport emissions, for a start. In addition, their lower noise levels make for a safer working environment, as staff can communicate with each other more easily.
Electrification also has key advantages for maintenance service providers like Rushlift, with lower equipment down times due to reduced service schedules meaning more availability for airlines’ and handlers’ operations.
In Powell’s view: “With an increased fleet conversion to sustainable technologies, this is a technology change for maintenance technicians, whether insource or outsource. We would like to see OEMs enhance their commissioning and technical training to support technicians in knowledge transfer and updating their technical skills to match.
“In relation to technology, with a plethora of telematics and GSE monitoring systems now available, interfacing these can be troublesome. I would like to see these being able to share data more easily, so that we benefit from consolidated data.”
One of the challenges affecting the high lifts and loaders market – among many others – today is the supply of materials to manufacturers, and of products to customers. High shipping rates, lorry driver shortages, interruptions to the mining of metals and minerals are all placing a strain on the supply chain, and having a knock-on effect on prices. It is likely this will continue during 2022.
“Of course the current shortage of materials and components is a bottleneck for the entire industry, Cesarini says, but: “Aviogei is stocking to avoid any problem to partners and customers in terms of delays in deliveries and price increase.”
Going into more detail, Powell explains: “The immediate impact is on spare parts supply, and we are increasing inventory levels to insulate against operational impact. This is a mitigation we don’t see being readily taken up in suppliers’ inventories to share the risk, which it perhaps should? This also knocks on to production lead times and we are already seeing lead times and prices increase.
“This is not a great time for these impacts to be passed to handlers, and OEMs should plan to avoid this wherever possible through holding long-lead-time components in stock, so that they can respond to customer demand,” Powell adds.
Plus, he feels that handlers should also consider reserving production slots. “Delivery times and agility to supply can often be a deciding factor and, depending on the circumstances or location, this might open up opportunities for providers of quality second-hand equipment,” he posits.
The other challenge to the large-scale electrification of high lifts and loaders (and GSE in general) remains the availability of charging points.
“The move to electric-powered GSE has been slow but steady,” Willett says. “It has been limited by the initial costs and the ability of airports to power electric units – much like electric cars (we are not able to charge at as many sites as petrol stations) – but the work to add more [charging] sites is steadily increasing.”
Once again, supply chain issues are having an impact on the development of charging infrastructure generally, not just in the GSE market. For example, a report from electric vehicle charging consultancy Versinetic published in December 2021 points out that shortages in components are among key factors slowing the roll-out of the infrastructure needed to meet electric vehicle targets.
“While automakers ramped up electric vehicle production in 2021, especially in Europe and North America, both they and charge post manufacturers have disclosed how the worldwide shortage of computer chips has weighed on results and production,” the report says.
“The shortage is primarily a result of coronavirus pandemic-related constraints on supply chains. It could prolong the world’s sluggish transition to electric vehicles if chips remain scarce in the coming months.”
In addition: “Demand for lithium has shot up, so materials scientists are working on two big challenges. One is how to cut down on the metals in batteries that are scarce, expensive or problematic because their mining carries harsh environmental and social costs. Another is to improve battery recycling, so that the valuable metals in spent car batteries can be efficiently reused,” the Versinetic report says.
As these challenges are addressed in the automotives sector, electrification of the airside environment will no doubt benefit in turn.
Clearly, there are bumps in the road ahead. But nonetheless, Willet expects electric-powered GSE, including high lifts and loaders, to dominate the market by 2025 as affordability and charging infrastructure improve.
He also stresses the importance of smarter charging solutions for electric-powered high lifts, loaders and other GSE. By optimising charging, smart chargers reduce charging costs, ensure efficient charging of the battery, and improve batteries’ longevity into the bargain.