Mercedes-Benz has been saying for some time now the fuel cell vehicles are coming, and while eyes are on that potential a few years hence, the company is actually investing heavily now in fuel cells for more ordinary purposes in its own operations.

In June of last year, the company opened the world’s first dedicated fuel cell stack facility in Canada, and just today, it was announced it has ordered 123 additional hydrogen-based GenDrive fuel cell units to power forklift trucks for its new material handling fleet at its logistics hub now under construction in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

These fuel cell modules are drop-in units to replace lead-acid batteries and add to 72 GenDrive fuel cells purchased last July for the lift truck fleet at its Tuscaloosa vehicle assembly plant.

Mercedes-Benz began construction earlier this year on the $70 million, 900,000 square-foot state-of-the-art warehouse and it will be proximal to its already operational assembly plant.

So, being already convinced fuel cells are viable for its own needs, Mercedes-Benz is adding to its fuel-cell fork trucks and these will be an integral part of the automaker’s streamlining of its logistics operations.

According to the fuel cell supplier, Plug Power, the massive facility will support M-B’s receiving, handling and sequencing of parts for M-Class and GL-Class SUVs and R-Class crossover vehicles currently in production, as well as for the successor generation of the current C-Class for the North American market beginning in 2014.

It is expected that the new GenDrive-powered forklift fleet will be operational by the fourth quarter of 2013 and a few advantages were touted for the decision to skip right over more advanced batteries that might also have been used, but were not.

Plug Power says the fuel cells are more efficient and cost-effective and provide clean energy for warehouse and distribution operations.

Fuel cells eliminate the possibility of lead and acid contamination in the workplace, and eliminate the need for battery storage and re-charging rooms in the new logistics hub, says the company.

Compact refueling stations will be available in several locations within the facility, with hydrogen provided by Air Products.

Fuel cells take only minutes to re-fuel, and can keep lift trucks running at constant speed, unlike lead-acid batteries which cause vehicles to slow as their charge runs down.

“The Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa has experienced first-hand the value of GenDrive fuel cells to operate its forklift fleet,” said Andy Marsh, CEO of Plug Power. “Success with their initial implementation has led Mercedes to broaden their commitment to sustainable energy by ordering even more GenDrive units to power the fleet in their new logistics center.”

About 240 semi trucks per day are expected to come and go at the M-B logistics center which will be as large as the current vehicle assembly plant.

The GenDrive hydrogen fuel cell-powered lift trucks will handle approximately 2.9 million automotive parts per day.

By the time fuel cell cars such as an F-Cell hatch possibly as soon as 2014, and a sedan in 2017 are launched, Mercedes-Benz will have been more than familiar with relying itself on fuel cell technology.