The Forklift: Everything You Need To Know

August 19, 2020

The Forklift

A forklift may not come to mind right away when you think about construction equipment. However, much like a scissor lift or telehandler, they are powerful lifting and moving machines that can help transport materials both inside and out. 

What Is a Forklift?

A forklift is also called a lift truck, jitney, forklift truck, and fork truck. A forklift is a primarily industrial vehicle that uses a two-pronged forked front attachment to lift materials. Often, that material is on a wooden platform or pallet. 

The forks are often used to move products and materials that are on a pallet or other platform. A forklift has the capability to lift material up and down. Unlike other machines that can be fitted with a forked attachment – such as a telehandler – the forklift is beneficial for projects that require a lot of material-moving.

What Is a Forklift Used For?

There are many different kinds of forklifts and they all have their own uses and advantages. 

In general, a forklift is used for lifting, moving, and transporting materials. 

What are Forklifts Used for In Construction?

In construction, industrial forklifts are used to move material across sites and distances. On construction sites, bricks and wood as well as tile and other interior construction materials are often delivered on pallets. They are easy to ship when packaged together. When they are delivered on-site, a forklift can help move them to where they are needed. 

Because heavy-duty machines such as telehandlers and even front loaders can be fitted with fork attachments, you don’t often see actual forklifts on construction sites. The telehandler in particular is a great material mover because it can lift both up and out, allowing for easy transportation of materials to different levels of a project. 

Forklifts in Warehouses

One of the main images that may come to mind when you hear the word “forklift” could be this: 

The reason forklifts are so helpful for warehouses is that they allow the storage of bulk products, still packaged for shipping. For this reason, the forklift is actually twice as relevant in the construction industry. They are used to move and load materials to get them ready to move to a construction site. Although they may not be seen as much on actual sites, they are still very valuable to the industry to keep up efficiency and productivity. 

The History of the Forklift

The forklift is just about as old as the Statue of Liberty and dates back to 1887. The very first version of the forklift was known as a lift truck. But the forklift actually didn’t come first – the pallet did. 

The pallet – or a skid as it’s sometimes called – is tied to the industrialization of the United States and was used to stack and move goods and materials. The very first forklift was created to move these pallets to help keep up with the demand of the industrial era. The first lift truck could only lift a pallet off the ground by a few inches. It was a clumsy version of the powerful machines we have today. 

The forklift started becoming more popular and powerful as the years passed. In the first decade of the 1900s, the Pennsylvania Railroad invented a platform truck to help move luggage on and off of their trains. The use and demand of the forklift really kicked into overdrive in 1914 when the First World War began. 

The Forklift in World War I

With much of the labour force off in Europe fighting in the war, interest in the forklift peeked. A powered machine that could help move large quantities of material all at once was a blessing. At the time, many goods such as weapons, clothing and food were packaged to be shipped and needed to be loaded onto trucks and trains. Warehouses themselves didn’t have the same level of manpower, since most of the workforce was overseas. Forklifts began to be seen in factories and shipping houses. 

In 1920, two companies – the Towmotor Company and the Yale and Towne Manufacturing Company, entered the fork truck market in the US. 

Towmotor Company

Towmotor was founded by Lester M Sears in 1919 after he developed a gas-powered tractor with forklift capabilities. They developed the first industrial forklift in 1933 and continued on to develop new models of forklift ranging from 1,500 – 15,000 lbs. On November 10, 1965, Towmotor was acquired by Caterpillar Tractor Company. 

Yale & Towne Manufacturing

Yale & Towne was established in the late 1800’s by Linus Yale Jr and Henry Towne in Stamford Connecticut. The company originally made locks. The first forklift was produced by this company in 1920 and the name of the company changed to Yale and Towne Manufacturing. The forklift at this time was a battery-powered low-lift platform truck.

The company soon went on to develop light-lift platforms. Yale & Towne was the first company to develop a lifting truck with tilting forks.  Today, Yale Materials handling Corporation has a large range of electric and engine-powered material handling machines.

Continued Development of the Forklift

The real game-changer for forklifts was the invention of the hydraulic-powered lift system. With this technological advancement, the machines could lift more, higher.  As the industrialization of the world continued, a standard pallet size became common. This one-size-fits-all standard made the development and application of forklifts much easier. 

Just like in WWI, the Second World War spurred forklift use and pushed for more efficient storing methods of materials in warehouses. Some say that it was the second World War that really established the standard we now use for storing materials – including the use of forklifts in almost every warehouse and storage facility around the world. 

Since then, most upgrades to the machine have been about comfort, maximizing lifting capacity, and reducing emissions. Today’s forklift often has fuel cell technology, ergonomic cab designs, and even runs off electric power. 

The U.S. Army Medical Department used forklifts to move medical supplies during WWII. Note that it’s actually a woman operating the forklift.  Image borrowed from Research Gate.

Different kinds of Forklifts

There are many different kinds of forklifts, including counterbalance forklifts, side loaders, industrial and warehouse forklifts. There are also cushion and pneumatic tires and rough terrain forklifts.

Popular Makes and Models

There are a few different popular makes and models of forklifts. 

Hyster

Founded in 1929 during the Great Depression, Hyster grew from a logging equipment manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest. One of the company’s trucks used a hoist to help loggers lift and move equipment. They took this idea of only needing one employee too much a bunch of material and ran with it. 

The reputation of the company was solidified during WWII when Hyster equipment was used by both the American and British armies to help move materials and goods. Since then, the brand has grown around the world and is now recognized as a standard name for forklifts. 

Yale

As explained above, Yale started off as a lock company back in the late 1800s. Their first forklift was built in 1920 and they continued to focus on this market moving forward. The company now builds a large range of forklifts, from 3,500 lbs all the way up to 35,000 lbs. Their forklifts are created for a number of jobs, including construction projects, farmwork, and dock and warehouse needs.

JCB

Joseph Cyril Bamford established JCB in 1945 and has been pioneering the idea of the telehandler since 1977. Today JCB is one of the world’s top equipment manufacturers with over 2,000 dealer locations in over 150 countries.

JCB focuses on two main kinds of forklift: the teletruk industrial forklift and the rough terrain forklift. Their teletruk is like a combination of a telehandler, skid steer and forklift. It allows that outward reach that is unique to the telehandler while mimicking the cab of a skid steer or regular forklift. The wheels also look just like a regular warehouse forklift. This innovative design is a sign of how diverse machinery and construction equipment really can be. JCB has even released a new electric model of the teletruck!

A JCB electric Teletruk model. Image borrowed from World Cargo News.

The Versatility of the Forklift

While you may only picture a forklift in a warehouse, the forklift actually has many connections to the construction industry. Whether it’s loading supplies to be shipped to a construction site or stacking timber, bricks or other materials, the industry relies heavily on these machines. Without the ability to receive large orders of materials and have everything they need to actually build projects, a construction site would not be nearly as efficient. Whether it’s thanks to the pallet or an outcome of the first World War, it’s clear today that our industrial and commercial world would not exist without the forklift. 

Interested in renting a forklift?

Search and view available forklifts near you from the suppliers you know and trust. 

Kevin Forestell

Kevin Forestell is CEO of DOZR and one of the co-founders. Kevin first got started as an entrepreneur when he founded Forestell Landscaping right after graduating from University. His love and passion for the industry and desire to help solve an equipment problem that contractors faced every day is what brought the founding team to start DOZR. Kevin is proud of the level of efficiency brought to the industry through DOZR and hopes that DOZR will help change the standard way equipment is rented.

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