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The forklift – an industry icon looking to the future

In a special focus on forklifts, we explore the history and evolution of these hard-working machines – and investigate what role traditional forklifts can play in tomorrow’s industrial world.

Forklifts have been an icon of industry for almost a century. Like every great machine, they improved efficiency and safety beyond measure, and revolutionised the laborious and pain-staking work of lifting and moving goods from A to B.

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The history of this humble machine has two prongs.

First, came the development of basic lifting machines in the late 19th Century as a new generation of industrialists looked to mechanise a job originally done with hoists, by exhausted human operators. 

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The next part of the forklift story starts during the First World War. With so many working age men away in battle, industry needed to find new ways to be productive. As a result, the use of lift trucks increased enormously and in the years that followed, key innovations transformed the forklift’s place in the world forever. 

The introduction of universal sizes for pallets was a significant moment, because it gave rise to the ‘fork’ style equipment we all recognise today. When the Second World War took hold, the two-pronged forklift was instrumental in war efforts as a tool for loading ammunition, food, and other supplies onto vehicles. 

Post-war, as economies and societies rebuilt, demand for forklifts increased. Over the following decades, they grew in efficiency, safety, and importance, and became an asset that industrial workplaces worldwide simply couldn’t live without.

Forklifts at the forefront

In the modern world, forklifts are an important artery in the operations of industrial businesses, making the job of loading and unloading materials – and transporting goods – fast and efficient. 

They move bricks and mortar around construction sites, keep shipping port operations afloat, and even contribute to a better planet at recycling centres. But, arguably, forklifts are at their most indispensable in warehousing, where businesses need to load and unload pallets of goods, and transport goods from delivery vehicles. All things considered, forklifts play an essential role in keeping operations moving, ensuring orders are fulfilled on time, and customers are satisfied.  

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Evolution of the forklift’s power train

Whatever the size, load capacity or job requirement of a forklift, it needs to meet the unique challenges presented by material handling. The stop-start nature of a forklift’s workload places particular demands on the engine and requires a power solution that combines power delivery and response to get the job done. 

Since the birth of the forklift, diesel-powered internal combustion engines – and more recently LPG-powered units – have provided the reliable and robust power forklifts require. Diesel continues to be the dominant choice for machines with high load capacities, as well as those required for outdoor operations or destined for use in remote or extreme locations. 

That said, innovation and emerging technologies are changing the face of forklift power and providing an increasing amount of choice for forklift buyers. 

Stringent environmental standards, combined with rising fuel costs, have encouraged greener technologies to be incorporated into forklifts. Battery-powered trucks are one of the most prominent segments in the market and continue to gain traction, with benefits including lower lifetime costs, emission-free operations, and reduced noise and vibration. 

While technology continues to evolve, many electric-powered forklifts remain unsuitable for work outdoors, create unwanted downtime due to extended charging times, and are ill-suited to high-load, high-capacity jobs. 

This leaves the door open for different power sources to grab their piece of a global market set to reach a valuation in excess of $55bn in 20211. These include hybrids that combine the best of electric and internal combustion technology along with fuel cell forklifts that use hydrogen as their main power source.

The view from the agriculture sector

The steady switch from internal combustion engines to electric and hybrid power trains is repeated across other sectors. In agriculture, batteries are giving diesel a run for its money as the power source of choice on smaller, more auxiliary equipment, such as agricultural machine handlers.

For the energy-intensive, everyday jobs that these machines carry out, electrification can bring advantages in terms of fuel consumption, reduced maintenance, and less noise.  

When operations are scaled up, diesel engines continue to power the majority of modern farming equipment, not least because they offer high levels of power and torque relative to their weight and volume, which is necessary for staying productive when you’re planting, cultivating or harvesting.

Where do forklifts fit into this new landscape?

While automation has begun to replace the traditional role of forklift and driver in some areas of big logistics, many machines will continue to benefit from diesel power trains, or interim technologies such as hybrid, before they go fully electric and autonomous. 

The job of automating warehousing – and other sites where forklifts are put to work – requires significant capital investment and is likely to provide the best return on investment (ROI) at large-scale facilities. Faced with this reality, many warehouses across the world will continue to depend on conventional, human-driven forklifts as an efficient and affordable way to keep business moving, and customers happy, for years to come. 


1. Persistence Market Research: Global market study on forklift trucks

2. Forbes: The warehousing building boom myth

3. Supply Chain Dive: Amazon says fulfillment, logistics expansion will help it return to 1-day delivery

4. Knight Frank. The Intelligence Lab: How will rising online sales volumes impact on demand for distribution and logistics space

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