Not Your Father’s Forklift

Traditional forklift in a distribution center.What comes to mind when I say the word forklift? Maybe, it is a big hunk of metal on wheels picking up a load and moving it from one location to another. Perhaps it is a noisy and smelly contraption found in a warehouse. According to, a forklift is “a small vehicle with two power-operated prongs at the front that can be slid under heavy loads and then raised for moving and stacking materials in warehouses, shipping depots, etc.”

This definition likely will change in the not-so-distant future.

Manufacturers working on the next generation forklift have listened to management and users. The result of this listening will be forklifts capable of doing today’s work with the added benefits of intelligent and efficient operation.

Originally, the idea of forklifts was to move a heavy load from one location to another faster than moving that load using a lot of manpower. This concept worked well for years but as automation and technology increased and expanded to the warehouse/distribution center, the need for a machine to move heavy loads intelligently increased. So what will that forklift of the not-so-distant future look like?

The forklifts coming soon will probably look similar to those currently in use aside from a few aesthetic changes. The difference is in the features and capabilities. To understand, compare today’s operation with what is coming.

An operator using a typical forklift of today, starts the shift by making sure there is enough fuel to accomplish tasks and checking the vehicle for mechanical issues. Then, the operator gets the assignment and starts work.

During the shift, the operator may travel to all parts of the distribution center multiple times picking loads and delivering to shipping, receiving or back into stock. Misplaced product, operator error and incorrect orders can add to the number of trips, decreasing efficiency.

Occasional damage from misplaced forks, aggressive driving practices by operators and other safety issues are part of the good, bad and ugly of today’s forklifts. It also has an impact on the company’s bottom line. Fortunately, these problems soon will disappear.

The next generation forklift not only will provide the brawn required but also do so using intelligence-based software in real time. This means supervisors can access necessary information and be proactive in addressing potential issues.

Imagine the impact of knowing (in real time) forklifts in one sector are idle due to low activity while another sector’s forklifts are beyond capacity and diverting them to help with the increased activity. Better still, how much more efficient would forklift operators be if an onboard navigation system helped select the best route for picking and putaway orders? It is no longer a matter of moving one pallet from one location to another. Picking in most warehouses require multiple SKUs of a similar item (translation: multiple stops) and delivering it to shipping.

The forklift has finally become part of the growing technical sophistication in the warehouse/distribution center. Onboard computers and software will be the norm in the next generation forklift to improve efficiency. However, these forklifts will provide far more information, such as identifying safety problems and provide real-time data/video of hazardous situations. More than that, the future forklift will tell operators and supervisors of mechanical issues before it becomes a problem.

Your father’s forklift may have been a vehicle designed to move the tough jobs. Tomorrow’s forklift will go beyond brute strength by adding the intelligence to keep your warehouse humming with efficiency. You can learn more on the manufacturers developing the next generation forklifts and equipment by checking out the Industrial Truck Association.

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