The Origins of Material Handling Equipment

John Geddes
December 7, 2018

The world of material handling moves at the speed of light today; but did you ever wonder how the technology developed. Doing so could involve a history lesson dating back to the Egyptians and use of logs, block and tackle pulleys and an assortment of other basic material handling processes.

However, this is not history class and you’re not here to be bored. Seriously though, material handling has come a long way in the past 100 years and much of it is interrelated.

Many material handling tools used today evolved around the same time in history as one improvement led to another. The pallet is a prime example. Prior to mass production, most items were made as needed and shipped the same way.

As demand and production increased, inventions such as the cardboard box led to improved methods of shipment. The box increased the amount of products a company could ship, but demand still made this mode costly and required another solution.

Enter the pallet.

The pallet and forklift

The modern [wooden] pallet decreased the amount of labor required to ship the same amount of products in boxes. Pallets allowed for multiple boxed on a single platform. This reduced the amount of labor needed from one location to another, but was still very labor-intensive for loading and unloading.

Furthermore, loads could not be too heavy because there was no means other than human power to move from the assembly line to storage or the loading dock. An economical method of moving, loading and unloading pallets was needed.

This ushered in the development of the forklift.

Early forklifts were nothing more than motorized carts. These did allow for easier transportation of products but manual labor was still required to load and unload the carts. Actual lifting of products used more crane-like devices and only allowed for lifting the load a few inches off the ground.

It was not until 1915 that “forks” or skids appeared to lift a pallet, but only a few feet. Finally, the forklift with actual forks became more prevalent in the late 1920s as improved technology such as hydraulics allowed for increased lifting capability. Refinements continue to this day. However, the basic concept has changed little since.

Forklifts allowed for movement of product inside the warehouse and the loading dock. This vehicle saved time and moved product efficiently. However, as companies continued to move into a mass production approach to manufacturing, the need for storage space became critical.

Practically all products and materials were stored at ground level requiring companies to expand warehouses to accommodate the storage space requirements. As expected, the need created new opportunity to develop a new storage method.

Storage

The idea of vertical storage (pallet racks) also appeared in the 1920s. Metal racks made from steel allowed pallet storage of two, three and four levels high, revolutionizing the warehouse. Significant floor space was no longer a critical need for storage.

These early pallet racks paved the way for improved warehouse efficiency and with the development of stronger metals and improved engineering. Racking was mainly a one-size fits all style before.

Then in 1947, Demetrius Comino, invented the Dexion Slotted Angle.

This invention revolutionized racking by making it possible to adjust the shelves thereby accommodating different size loads. More innovations followed that helped in the development of specialized racking including selective, pushback, drive-in, flow racks and others.

These improvements allowed the warehouse to grow with the company with many of today’s racks now reaching several stories high.

Conveyors

The concept of a system to move materials from one location to another has its origins back hundreds of years ago. However, the first real conveying system to gain notoriety dates back to Henry Ford and his use of the conveyor to maximize efficiency on the assembly line.

Before Ford’s assembly line conveyor, automobiles required at least 12 hours to build. The conveyor reduced that time to two and one-half hours, an 80 percent improvement! However, the conveyor systems found in today’s warehouses really became practical once the conveying belts became durable enough to handle the rigorous demands of moving large quantities of products and materials without needing repair or replacement.

New materials such as plastics, synthetic rubber and urethane combined with improved controls allowed conveyors to move products over longer distances without breaking down. Today’s conveyors take these advancements further by reducing energy and improving efficiency through the use of variable frequency drives, computers and technology that aids in sorting.

Many aspects of material handling dovetailed into the other, bringing us to where we are today. A complete material handling system now consists of many components and with the advent of computerized technology, more change is on the way.

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