The fork truck, which later evolved into the forklift, has been in use for over 80 years. No one is quite certain who first invented the fork truck, but the Clark Company is usually credited with inventing it in 1917. This gasoline powered prototype device quickly caught on, and today, there are more than a million forklifts in use in warehouses across the world. But these original fork trucks were quite different from what warehouse workers are using today. Many of the original forklift parts have been upgraded or eliminated as technology has advanced.
The Earliest Fork Trucks
The earliest type of fork trucks was the hand truck. It used two wheels and was very similar to today’s dollies. This device used cast iron wheels and wrought iron axles. Their main advantage was that they allowed heavy loads to be moved without being picked up and placed on a four-wheeled handcart. Dock workers no longer risked hurting their backs lifting these types of objects.
In 1887, one of the earliest types of fork trucks was built. It could lift its loaded platform a few inches off the ground, but it was very weak and wasn’t widely available. A steel version of this type of lift truck appeared in 1909, and it did become commercially available. However, it wasn’t a proper lift truck.
That appeared in 1917 when Clark introduced what they called the Tructractor, the first type of seated counterbalanced vehicle for use in warehouses and factories. Clark originally had no plan on manufacturing these vehicles for others to use—they simply saw a need for the Tructractor in their axle plant. However, when visitors to the plant saw it, they asked to buy the vehicles, and Clark began mass producing them. While it was a basic design, and it certainly influenced forklift technology.
Making Fork Trucks More Powerful
Fork trucks quickly began changing and becoming more powerful. In 1920, hydraulic forklift parts were added to the vehicles to make lifting loads easier. Electronics were slowly incorporated into fork trucks, especially those that made use of small mounted cranes to lift loads onto the truck bed. Early fork trucks were fairly slow also, but over time more powerful engines were added to give them a little more speed and hauling power.
The Addition of the Vertical Lifting Cantilever
The first vertical lifting cantilever, or mast, was introduced in 1923. Engineers at Yale University created an electric truck that could lift the forks and their load up via the mast. It made use of a ratchet and pinion system to do this. This is often considered to be the first true forklift, and it revolutionized the way things were stored. However, there was still one major issue that prevented the Yale forklift from becoming incredibly popular: some pallets were either too large or too small for it to pick up.
That problem was solved during the late 1930s, when pallet size was standardized. This, in turn, led to the standardization of forklift fork size, length, and spacing. Now the forklift went mainstream. World War II saw the vehicle become even more in-demand since the military needed a fast, efficient way of moving large quantities of items onto ships and cargo planes. The forklift was the answer.
Advancements in Forklift Technology
Since then, there have been a number of advances and changes in forklift technology. In order to protect operators, backrests were added to the masts to help keep loads from falling backwards. A cage was also placed around the driver to add more protection. Forklifts are better balanced today, which has also helped reduce the number of forklift accidents.
One of the biggest advancements has been in forklift power sources. While early lift trucks and forklifts ran exclusively on gasoline, today, many are electric vehicles. Forklift batteries can now provide enough power to run for hours, while the electric forklift motor is strong enough to lift very heavy loads. These forklifts are much safer to use in enclosed areas because they give off no emissions. They’re much more environmentally friendly, which is a must for companies trying to reduce their carbon footprints.
Forklifts have also integrated computer systems into the operator’s seat. These systems tie into the warehouse’s or company’s inventory control system and allow operators to scan barcodes or read RFID chips. This has made inventory much easier to manage, resulting in a much more efficient system in which very few pallets are lost or placed in the wrong area.
But that’s not all. Changes in ergonomics have made it more comfortable for forklift operators to work for longer periods of time. Smaller body designs have resulted in forklifts that no longer need a large amount of space to operate, which means storage facilities can have narrow aisles, which in turn means they can store more pallets. A number of forklift manufacturers even offer customization, letting businesses chose which options they need for their forklifts.
As technology changes, forklifts will continue to adapt, becoming more powerful, safer, and more efficient.