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Since the first lift truck was introduced nearly a century ago, forklifts have spread to virtually every warehouse and industrial plant in the world of any size. The thought of having a forklift free factory or warehouse in a developed country is almost unheard of. So why are we hearing stories about a forklift free future for the material handling world?
A recent article in the material handling trade journal, Inbound Logistics, asks this very question. A casual reading of the article can give the impression that forklifts are going to be abandoned altogether for faster technologically advanced carts and dollies. When Ford’s material planning and logistics superintendent Steve Orr announced his plan to dispense with forklifts at Ford Motor Company, he stood alone in his opinion that his new strategy would improve productivity. Undeterred, he forged ahead and was proven right.
The article goes on to explain the rationale behind the forklift free work environment. When compared to the carts and dollies, they are slow. Forklifts are also seen by some as holdovers from the days when factories kept huge stocks of parts and materials on hand in pallet racks. With the switch to lean manufacturing, it is now considered more advantageous to keep just what you need on hand.
This theory extends to the materials you transfer to the production floor. Forklifts are logistically most productive when they carry a larger load. Carts and dollies, on the other hand, can quickly carry smaller amounts of materials on an as-needed basis.
Are We Headed for a Forklift Free Future?
There’s an inescapable logic to the argument that in some work environments, modern carts and dollies would be more efficient than forklifts, but as the article progresses, the limitations of using carts and dollies become apparent. What it boils down to is that they are great for transporting smaller loads, but forklifts are still needed for heavier, bulkier loads.
The article also doesn’t address the time-tested practices of using hand trucks and/or hoppers for moving smaller loads of materials, either. Forklift accessories like hoppers are perfect for small to medium sized enterprises that can’t afford to retrofit every time a new materials handling fad comes along. They still need their forklifts, but they also need material handling equipment for moving small parts, odd-shaped materials and other materials that aren’t stacked on pallets. The perfect solution for most is an inexpensive forklift attachment like a hopper.
The day may come when forklifts will become redundant, but it won’t be any time soon. Forklift manufacturers are constantly refining their forklift designs to meet current and future needs. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that the Narrow Aisle forklift was invented and not long after that Very Narrow Aisle (VNA) forklifts that can go just about anywhere came on the market. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but as long as there are forklifts, there will also be forklift accessories that stretch a lift truck’s ability far beyond the limitations of the forks.