About the Author:
Paul Casebourne has spent a life time in service to the Materials Handling Storage and Distribution Industry with over 50 years in materials handling experience from the shop floor to running and operating businesses. He has worked in over 7,000 locations and handled over 20,000 business enquiry problems. In this personal sharing of his experience with you he means you as part of us, the people who provide an amazing facility without which the modern world ceases to function and is held in fine and delicate balance as the events of the early parts of the 21st century have reminded us all only too well. Author, engineer, installer, designer and manufacturer these are some of the fundamentals he shares with you. Please feel free to use and enjoy the ‘takeaways” Sign up here to receive this series in monthly instalment building up into a set of usable, practical help for modern warehousing for businesses in all stages of development.

Chapter 3:

30 Jobs a Forklift can Do. Most people can name four or five.

Here is how we got to where we are from a design and thought process perspective.

We have talked about the philosophy of the wheel.   It is the most transferable technology with variants which enables sound (and film, tapes and discs), distribution operations in a variety of ways and when applied to other mechanical facilities suddenly there are gear boxes, flywheels, steering wheels, drums and rollers. Forklift trucks are a good example of tractors morphing into big load movers once they are used to provide hydraulic systems with power. Again a very old established system of goods and equipment transfer between levels using the means of an incompressible material to achieve the task. Somewhere a wheel or the geared derivative of a wheel or roller enables a small amount of non compressible material to be moved from a small chamber into a larger chamber, if the roof is a large steel rod the fluid will elevate it. Even tidal locks, the most basic hydraulic system requires fixed rollers or rods around which heavy doors are suspended to rotate round and trap the water or a hinge as we would call them today.

Wheels and rollers are the most fundamental principle of mechanical movement. They are the mechanical means to generate and provide force and support capable of moving vast weights and delivering large volumes of power. Even rocket engines need the wheel principles to work (as illustrated). The fundamental difference between a wheel and a plain roller is when the roller is placed through the centre of the wheel. This simple fundamental step provided the very first means of independent power transmission and is the foundation stone of modern engineering. Everything else is either reverse thinking or transferable variants. It becomes a train of thought.

To design and think in these forces or spaces we owe much to René Descartes who developed the XYZ co-ordinates principles to enable mathematics to be accurately related into design work modelling space. At this point we get things out of the blacksmiths’ head and on to paper. It is the first step of transferring information and lays the foundations for the industrial revolution. In fact many great scientists were busy in this same period including Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist and brilliant engineer who documented the idea of piston engines.

This Cartesian principal readily transfers to warehousing and accessing controlled covered space, add in the wheel and if you can draw it, it can be made!

A Cartesian mechanical means of design access and controlled goods delivery with a means of defining function and mechanics, so all and any equipment may be positioned and repositioned freely and independently of any overhead support structure. Now that is a method and an algorithm all rolled into one.

That same notion of transferrable technology can be used to expand its usefulness into a range of other tasks which utterly transform the original purpose, i.e. that of handling the pallet. The pallet goes deep into our engineering past but it wasn’t until it married the fork truck that modern storage and handling systems really got under way. From that humble beginning we get busy thinking “inside the box” and bits of boxes, other handling and rotating and craning activities rapidly queued up to take advantage of mobile floor based powered mechanical systems, the most revolutionary of which was and is the fork lift truck. This story is still in process and plenty of companies today earn a healthy living and owe their existence to this aspect of industrialisation.

Pipe Clamp forklift attachment

Forklift Adaptations

Here are 30 other modern adaptations which can be safely engineered into the fork lift truck’s job description:

  • Emptying and filling liquids
  • Clamping mill size rolls of paper
  • Handling sea containers
  • Emptying sea containers
  • Standing steel work
  • Rotating work
  • Overturning pallets
  • Clamping pallets
  • Clamping irregular loads
  • Craning
  • Lifting steel and plastic drums
  • Human activities, tasks and maintenance including melting ice
  • Lifting wide loads
  • Stabilising and moving long loads
  • Site assembly work
  • Sweeping
  • Picking up metal (magnets)
  • Clearing snow and mud
  • Handling bricks, blocks and stone packs
  • Lifting deep loads (boats)
  • Towing
  • Coils, reels and wire
  • Bales
  • White goods
  • Lifting multiple pallets
  • Pushing and pulling (pantographic)
  • Load positioning
  • Aggregates (bucket attachment)
  • Waste management
  • Carpet looms and materials


Forklifts are capable of handling loads bordering on 100s of tons, but that is rare. Everything we enjoy today and I mean everything, owes its existence somewhere down the line to the forklift truck, so it pays to understand the philosophy of the truck itself. There is a significant difference between history and fundamentals, whereas history is retrospective and often dormant or dead, fundamentals are very much alive. As an engineer that is what guides my thought processes because anyone can look up history, but fundamentals have to be earned, learned and reaffirmed.

Christiaan Huygens probably started the thought process that led to the inspirational engineering in the automotive sector by John Stevens, Sam Brown, Karl Benz, Rudolph Diesel and Rene Lorin to name but a few. The means of transferring the power from a piston to an axle had already been invented in Syria some 400 years before Huygens experimented with pistons, with geometry which is used in hydraulics even today. Perhaps it is all down to communications. The earliest of which were military and took days, if not months, to achieve what we can do today in seconds. So that probably explains the vast progress and research gaps. Projecting that forwards with such an advanced infrastructure enables us to totally define how we use our global tool chest of engineering treasures largely aimed at keeping fed, alive and in touch with one another. Fork trucks certainly speed that up. its an interesting way of looking at the speed at which history transmits inventions through time to an end purpose. Having thought about using a piston there is still a long way to go from using a single piston or cylinder to powering a motor car, which uses up to 6 or even 12 of them. But if you can draw it, you can make it.

The fundamentals of the forklift owe their existence to the force of fluids as explained by Pascal. However only humans have mastered the controls which turn these building blocks into tools. After that, mechanical logic takes over. I wonder who it was that sat and watched the tide rise and fall and came up with the idea of dams and locks, because that person was the parent of hydraulics. There were the ground fires where oil ignited on the earth’s surface, leading to people studying closely what burns and what explodes (flammable v inflammable) in all cases pressure is fundamental so hydraulics and I.C. engines are derivatives of fundamentals. The wheel unites the system to provide a means of Cartesian movement, as in XYZ co-ordinates. I say this as a foot hold in the designer’s mind, to aid creative thought. In all cases the idea of combining forces to achieve objectives is not just a method but a philosophical approach which is itself a form of evolutionary thinking. Life is seldom a “one” thing. An expert can easily list 30 things a fork truck can do, but originally not, it started as a tractor. Why stop that process just because you now know it can do 30 tasks, what if it can do 31?

A minor modification can alter the dynamic from one method of gravitational support to compressive support or with an adaptor even rotational facilitation, so now you can pick up a reel on one plane and deposit it in another. With the addition of a further adapter, it can roll forward or backwards and some more hydraulics will allow side shift. The tasks may be combined in one piece of equipment or split between machine and mechanical handling devices to solve a range of problems that are common place in steel production, paper manufacturing and other mill processes.

All of which have been transformed by these fundamentals at work.

    Why it’s not what you’ve have, it’s what you do with what you have!

    So sitting on the dock of a bay with Otis Redding might be a lot more inspirational to those with such a disposition for problem solving or just a curious mind looking at the odd coincidences, and there is always one or two of those lurking. There is no doubt about it, that what we look at and the way we see it, is a tiny part of what the mind can do with it, the missing ingredient is only a problem. There is no finer example than that of the Dam Busters which is a testimony to maths, observation and transferable technology. In this case not from the bright lights of the theatre, as the 1950s film would have us believe (probably because the true story was still an official secret) but actually transferred from a proposed method of spotting inshore submarines. The method depended on aligning two lights not only forward and aft, but also offset and originally fitted to a different aircraft before being fitted to a modified Avro Lancaster. Where the 2 beams merged, the height was exactly 60 feet and then at 201.6 knots (232 mph), the perfect launch height and speed for the bouncing bomb was achieved. The maths, simple enough, was absolutely critical. However the ground crew still had to build it and fit it so it worked.

    The person who devised it was Sir Benjamin Lockspeiser, who was later appointed first president of CERN, home of the Hadron Collider today. In his ministry work for the military he was involved with the British atomic bomb, supersonic flight, and guided weapons. He went on to make some very interesting predictions, much of which has happened. A member of the institute of mechanical engineers, he was no bystander on the dock of a bay or taking inspiration from theatre lighting, he was transferring existing technology to breach the barriers to new possibilities. Barnes Wallace on the other hand was inspired by an account of the result of a mid air tyre change in a Lancaster.

    The discarded tyre bounced on the water below over a reservoir taking out an anti-aircraft position in the dam, a separate incident on a different mission.

    Finally, the bomb aimer had to know when he was in exactly the right location to release the bomb, by now spinning at 500 rpm courtesy of a hydraulic motor exactly 450 yards in front of the dam, ready to be released at 60 feet above the water. Fractions of a second to make a well rehearsed release but how did they know when they were 450 yards in front of the Dam? Wing Commander Dann is credited with solving that problem with an improvised triangulation site, it is said other crews had devised similar improvisations, but it was Dann’s in the hands of John Fort, which is accredited with the bomb that burst the Mohne Dam.  

    Although the world was a poorer place for the loss of Otis Redding, who sadly died in a plane crash in 1967 in water, in a lake of all places, the song became the first ever posthumous single to top the charts in the US. It was his only number one and he never knew it. Make of all that what you will. I just think that without people sitting on the dock of a bay watching the world go by, hydraulic motors may never have been invented and fork lifts would have been a great deal more maintenance intensive and bulky.

    Why you should stop and take 5 to look around.

    Vertical panorama of a high bay warehouse under construction

    My point is, that joining up the dots becomes easier when you have lots of dots. Creators are under pressure to deliver results. That is why research and surveys are so important and inspiring to designers and engineering in particular. For a bit of kit which was advanced in World War II to improve the speed at which goods could be transferred round the world quickly and cheaply, the fork truck punches well above its weight. Not until Malcom McLean, did the container dots get joined up fully. But that’s another story. The forklift of the 40’s could lift and tilt, but as for the other 30 tasks, no, although Manitou was working on tele-handlers, not quite the same thing, but the fork truck can do some of that work as well.

    Today the fork truck has four methods of manipulating specialised lifts, they are:

    • Mechanical
    • Hydraulic
    • Towing
    • Fixed and demountable mechanisms for manipulation

    The manufacturers behind these options are in the after market and the supply chain too for OEMs. Most trucks are supplied with additional facilities to enable at least one adaptation (accessory) to be used, for example side shift. The mechanical options are either carriage or fork mounted and work happily on tele-handlers too. Fixed and demountable include items such as buckets or demountable apparatus for handling 45 gallon drums for example. I always keep in mind that all volume markets started out as small niche opportunities, a prototype and an inspired person.

    There is always a “But” because engineering is so A to B. Build a railway line, build a bridge, mine a tunnel, load a ship. The lines get longer and longer. 32 days to get a container from Shanghai to Felixstowe. One item, shared loads. But what is really going on, we are mobilising warehouses, transport systems and “flash” storage systems randomly organised on a vastly unco-ordinated, disjointed improvised basis. 32 days is more than one simple stock turn. It’s a complex algorithm which involves measurable events for which there are “Apps” which could do a better job of it than engineering can once you take the eagle eye view of the whole thing. If there is sufficient infrastructure the rules change. Sequential actions may be viewed differently, a journey is simply a mobile warehouse. (Your pocket is a storage facility).

    A warehouse or multiples can become a system instead of a personal asset with space allocation to take stock on a vast scale to reduce distances to last mile proximity. It’s a bit like putting a solar panel on your roof and selling your spare capacity back to the electricity grid. The grid takes your stock and re-directs it more efficiently and activates extra storage for you on a reciprocal basis. It actually liberates warehousing. We have already done it with pallets, why stop there. Your forklift is part of a national fleet, warehousing is a safe undercover facility. It’s just a large, well fitted out container really, the purpose of which is to make bulk accessible. What if you could do that anywhere in the transport process? We already have forklifts which travel with lorries. We have automated picking, packing and expediting. Our present evolutionary system is still very much A to B because we are largely a reactive risk averse society, yet we have already managed that risk, we just haven’t joined the dots up. Instead of thinking of us as a race, why not think of us as a chain. That really joins the dots.

    In the “Thatcher” years globalisation got underway. The man in the street became an expert in complex insurance issues, small engineering companies who manufactured on a local basis went into extinction, superseded by Dollar driven politics to manufacture for the world. A plant making in fives or fifties will never compete with a plant manufacturing in thousands. The price drop was so huge that the world compromised to derive benefit. Children and businesses need stable, well managed secure environments to flourish. That requires agreement on standards and stability with rules, otherwise progress is not possible. Meanwhile the world is dealing with the fallout instead of developing integration in systems, where how we use our planet, largely enabled by the forklift, stagnates because we limit ourselves with A to B technology.

    Life in London is not the same as life in Northumberland, why? It’s because the mass of infrastructure in London constructed round higher densities of facilitation, which enables shorter distances and vastly more shareable systems so everything required is in far more convenient reach. In that environment it is easy to change how we use what we have more efficiently.

    Just like the fork lift no longer just lifts the specially developed pallet, it pays to think how we use the assets we have created in a more productive and prosperous way.

    10 Thought Provoking Take Aways:

      • Engineering is created by finding multiple uses for the same thing once science has managed to document how it works. Scaling it is the job of industry.
      • Floor based mobility is given additional advantage by creative use. For example a standard fork is around a meter, and a non standard fork is around 2m. With a 2m fork you can reach the far side of a lorry bed, lift and support a longer load and extend the usefulness of your forklift truck.   This means you can unload vehicles in places that you can only access from one side, building sites are a classic example.
      • For some tasks it is necessary to be able to perform numerous tasks with the equipment to hand, handling 3m wide pallets for example. The simple adoption of a four fork attachment is like converting the Avro Lancaster to handle a rotating cylinder, levelling to a precise height and then setting it down in exactly the right position. Whereas the crew had to improvise with lights and handmade sights, at the correct speed and approach, today we can achieve the exact same with electronics on a dashboard, or with cameras, pressure sensors and proximity alarms. The bouncing bomb weighed just over 4 tonnes – Piece of cake!
      • The inspiration for the success of the Bouncing Bomb arose from a delivery system determined in part by hydraulics, the ability to combine elevation with exact location and excellent load control, the origins of which can trace their roots back to scientific work first noted up to 300 years earlier and utilising methods which had been tried out else where and are reusable. I would say that is the ingredients of all design.
      • Research and history applied to most surveyed situations are generally enough to drive the sort of day to day differences in productivity that define an extraordinary job, from an ordinary job done extraordinarily well.
      • Once you find what works better, practice and use makes it work better still.
      • 300 year old discoveries are being re-purposed and given new tasks by today’s equipment. I like to think our ancestors would be proud of us!
      • Take another look in your own back yard, surprise yourself.
      • You don’t need to be an engineer to think up the 31st thing you can do with a forklift, you just need to share the problem and the dots will start to form a chain that provides the desired result.
      • If there is something wrong with you, you go to the Doctor to find out, so it can be fixed. If you have a problem at work, just like 007 has Q, you have an engineer somewhere who will be delighted to look at your problem. It’s just a question of finding the right engineer.