How Forklifts Work

By: Christopher Neiger

Evolving Forklift Technology

As the need for forklifts has changed, so has the technology behind how they work.
As the need for forklifts has changed, so has the technology behind how they work.
© Weber

Forklifts have had the same basic function over the years, move a heavy load from one place to another, but the technology to get the job done is constantly changing. The forklift industry has advanced in its power source technology, mobility and automation; allowing for even more versatility from an already versatile truck.

More environmentally friendly technologies are being incorporated into forklifts partly because of rising fuel costs, but also because some energy-efficient forklifts can last 20 to 30 percent longer than internal combustion engine forklifts. In 2010, orders for electric forklifts consisted of 63 percent of all orders and are not expected to drop below the 60 percent in coming years [source: MHEDA Blog].


The Yale Company has a battery-powered forklift with regenerative braking to send power back to the batteries when it slows down and can also recapture energy when lowering a load as well. Aside from battery-powered forklifts, clean-burning and alternative fuels like liquid propane, clean diesel and hydrogen fuel cells are used as power sources as well.

Aside from being more environmentally friendly, forklifts have also changed in their mobility with the introduction of the Sidewinder forklift. The Sidewinder is built by Vetex and can move in any direction. Instead of traditional pneumatic or solid tires the Sidewinder uses a series of rollers that are able to change direction. The Sidewinder forklift can roll over obstacles up to 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) high and move a 40-foot (12.2-meter) long beam through a narrow entrance while driving sideways, both of which would be difficult or impossible for traditional forklifts to do.

Another innovation in forklift technology is the automated forklift. These forklifts use guidance systems to maneuver themselves through a warehouse or building and pick up and drop off loads automatically. The automated forklifts are used in the aerospace, automotive, manufacturing, printing, newspaper and warehouse industries.

There are several types of guidance systems including the laser, inertial, wire and optical. The laser system uses retroreflective targets throughout a warehouse to bounce the laser beam off of and back to the forklift so it can determine its location. The inertial system uses magnets placed inside the floor in straight lines. The forklift has sensors to locate the magnets and stays on course wherever the magnets are located. The wire system uses an antenna to determine where the forklift is in relation to wires placed inside the warehouse floors and optical guidance systems use sensors to locate ultra violet strips painted on the floor.

As the need for forklifts has changed, so has the technology behind how they work. Head over to the next page to find out more information about forklifts and other related topics.

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More Great Links


  • Corecon. "Automated Forklift Overview." (March 10, 2011)
  • Egemin. "Navigation System on Robot." (March 10, 2011)
  • "Forklift Lease Truck." (March 10, 2011)
  • MHEDA Journal, The. "Forklifts - Backbone of the Industry." July 15, 2004. (March 8, 2011)
  • MHEDA Journal, The. "The Growth of Green Forklifts." Nov. 9, 2010. (March 9, 2011)
  • (March 8, 2011)
  • OSHA. Powered Industrial Trucks. (March 10, 2011)
  • Vetex. "Sidewinder FAQ." (March 10, 2011)
  • Yale. "Operating in the Green." March 31, 2009. (March 10, 2011)