Chapter 2: Conceptual thinking – Something you don’t need to put your back into!

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.

Have you heard the expression “Put your back into it”?

Ever wondered where it came from? Gravity and mass is the answer, acceleration, elevation, braking and balance. The whole point is that engineering explores these forces and uses mechanical advantage so that you can move more with “less Back”. Something much more basic than rowing, pulling, climbing, lifting and digging might be a yoke designed to fit over the shoulders and use the human frame to lift two weights in balance for example.

Your back is one of life’s miracles and the need to preserve it well into old age largely depends on how you value it. You can only do that if you have awareness and appreciation of its tolerance and to evaluate that, humans have spent years on many things you might simply take for granted. I would encourage you to just stop and take a second look. You might be surprised on how your perception explodes with possibilities that dramatically improves both safety and productivity and very much has a serious place in the modern world at prices your ancestors could only marvel at today.

Let’s start with bags, handbags maybe, but backpacks definitely. The general rule of thumb is about 20% of body weight based on a healthy view of your BMI. BMI is the thing the doctor will look at. Body mass is your weight per cubic meter, it’s tricky to calculate since the only cubic shaped person I ever came across was Mr Strong. I would think his BMI is a source of medical concern. If you are interested look over your shoulder to check nobody is watching and click here. Mine of course is absolutely model perfect for an overweight old guy, but let’s not make this about me! If you were perhaps 60 kgs and a man, about 177 cm tall then the backpack weight would be 12 kgs. If you are over weight it will still be 12 kgs or even less to protect yourself. It’s about half of the maximum lift guide cited on the left hoisted on your back or 24 tins of drink.

 30 kgs of gear can be carried manually and is. Soldiers for example sometimes carry almost their own body weight but we are not all soldiers or 20 something’s so a little awareness can be useful in managing expectations.

For general lifting the model on the left is what is usually recommended (for a past president of the USA when younger!) The force (for say pushing) is generally accepted as being about 40kgs that an average person can exert, Newton’s 3rd law says that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Key to Diagram :
Male lifting guide in Kg (Black numbers)
Female lifting guide in Kg (Pink numbers)
Bottom set, without bending knees.

With a wheelbarrow for example the content of say 200 kgs is excepting that force down through the legs and vertically through the axle and wheel. Then to lift it the mechanical advantage of a lever takes over which is equal to the ratio of the length of its ‘effort’ arm to the length of its ‘load’ arm (the Archimedes Principle). So the wheelbarrow handles are a respectable distance from the axle about which the load pivots. Basically what this means is if you use the seesaw principal to loads, suddenly for very little effort a great deal of weight may be handled. Therefore in the case of a pallet truck it is perfectly possible to move over 30 times your own bodyweight in goods.

Pulleys do the same for lifting. The result is some serious volumes of goods moved which, if divided into the young president’s BMI weight and what is permissible for him to lift, they would require 100 young presidents for the simplest of tasks. The pink number is for the ladies, which is why it is useful to have a man available from time to time. It is also a very interesting business figure because you can work with it for productivity efficiencies and with a little more research you can absolutely nail a distribution plan together to move goods about. There are still places that a human being and a barrow get to better than forklifts and pallet trucks.

Most modern factory and warehousing applications take up a serious amount of the environment to achieve viability. You can buy a lot of wheelbarrows for £400,000 so manual handling can work out well in a large number of applications which is a trick not to be missed! 

I would cite construction and trades, markets (in towns and villages), harbours and fresh produce applications, last mile distribution of small goods, catering and hospitality, hospitals and of course military. Field applications are particularly tricky to supply. Paramedics, engineers and soldiers all need feeding and supplying with tools, equipment, bullets and medical supplies etc. Bags and wheels are an interesting combination to work with for mobilisation of resources.

Bags are cheap, secure and product adaptable, they make good outer protection and adapt easily and scale up to huge proportions, bulk bags (IBCs) and all in between. Handling systems are easily adaptable to carry them. For example a simple flat frame mounted on a single wheel clips to a hip mounted belt and will carry your backpack lightening the load. A wheelbarrow in reverse simply tows behind you.

All these are simple field operation support ideas, which are in regular use and add hugely productive scope to what may be done to improve durability and reduce the consequences of weight. If you are in the disaster response industry, ideas like this save lives, give a woman the muscle power of a man and improve field facilities. If you are in the skydiving world into tricky situations, equipment like this improves safety and effectiveness, extraction and expands the scope of an operative. Sometimes it is the only way in and out.

For more information on a Monowalker device, for example, which will more than double your capacity to handle and transport equipment and goods click here.

If you want a wheelbarrow click here.

Now we have established what one person can reasonably achieve and the potential of manual handling for moving stock, equipment and orders around, we can move from one wheel to multiple wheels.

The notion that; wheels plus equipment, gives us a method of thinking creatively about tasks. My daughter walked the way of St James, 500 miles from France through the Pyrenees to the Santiago de Compostela, the first thing she learned; comfortable clothes are not optional, followed by; travelling light is essential. My father always said take half the clothes and twice the money and things work out a lot better than the other way round. Simple devices are life changers when mounting expeditions to remote regions, sleds that also float for example, if you happen to fall through the ice, you don’t want to lose all your gear.

The planet is a giant warehouse and life factory, everything we have starts out in a location for which equipment is a game changer. Lean manufacturing takes several leaves out of this very notional concept.



One wheel does twice the job of a backpack. Two wheels, and you can lift and move twice your own bodyweight, 3 wheels and a mechanical elevation system and you have mastered basic trailers, 4 wheels and suddenly you open up low-cost scopes, which drive modern volume production methods. It all depends on how your mind is conditioned to work, but with a little prompting and transferable thought process, it won’t take long before you are working on systems, driven by basic well established engineering concepts which add value, organisation and productivity to the smallest of tasks which deliver high volumes or productivity back to you in return.

One of the major issues with trucks, trolleys and barrows are the room they take up. When we make them, export is tricky because once you create what essentially is a lifting or support frame, chassis or other dynamic system, it takes up specific space and holds on to it even when it is not being used. The furniture industry is a classic. Sofas and armchairs, beds and mattresses are logistical headaches, which have taxed the best engineering brains over the years. These brains have devised all sorts of solutions including:-

  • Nesting trolleys
  • Presses to flatten products such as mattresses for transport efficiencies
  • Special storage systems
  • Handling equipment
  • Production lines
  • Repurposing

So a whole new dual industry has evolved incorporating existing systems which integrate the old with the new, giving new life to established concepts which produce impressive combined results. Models may become extinct; fundamentals always survive the test of time.

    When is a trolley not a trolley?

    Good question, the answer is probably when it becomes a worktop or place of static work. You could also argue it stops being a trolley and becomes a form of bogie, where tasks may be performed under more accessible feed facilities.

    The benefit of moving production systems where the build process progresses from one stage to another or one place to another, so for example you may provide a mobile platform on to which you mount a chassis or frame or a component. Work can then commence. Complete mobile workshops may be taken down in minutes and reassembled 5000 miles away at the next event as in Formula 1 racing, horse racing or emergency response services on the one hand or they can be mounted for component production such as a ship’s hull and transported in sections to a final assembly point.

    This also is commonplace in construction throughout a variety of build programs. A trolley can be an operating table to save a life, or a means of completing upholstery work for a motorcar door. The duality of both mobility and expansive build, construct and/or repair has broad appeal both manually and as a powered process. Space missions start and end up deploying this method.

    I think the true answer to when is a trolley not a trolley, is when it becomes a stage other than a means of dedicated delivery and/or temporary storage. At such a point it ceases to have just one function and becomes a tool chest of functions where, lights, tools, power, jigs, electronics, cameras, people, robotics, transportation and automation all may arrive together in perfect harmony to produce a very satisfying outcome. The limiting factor is merely your own imagination.

    How to know what you don’t know?

    Vertical panorama of a high bay warehouse under construction

    I am often asked what I think will work or what things will cost or even what do I think is the best way of doing “it”. The thirst and hunger for knowledge is a relentless tide ebbing and flowing throughout humanity, but somewhere, someplace there is always a wheel involved, somehow.

    We need only three things to survive, if we are prepared to learn from them: History and science, where; one tells us where we have been and the other tells us where we are going. The third thing is engineering, because that pinpoints where we are. Of course we need all the other derivatives, but without the 3 fundamentals none of the others can progress. Why? Because this is where all our rules are formed. The first steps in these processes are research or survey (the evidential history of “what is”, the distinction being only method and tooling, where method is documentation and tooling is measurement defined as a means of determining what is there. From these two procedures, observations may be made, conclusions arrived at and processes tested and improved, because nothing is ever a “one thing”.

    How to know what you don’t know is the process of finding out, picking up a stone on the beach or on the riverbank and examining it or what is below it and recording what you find. It is so successful as a method that our universal education system actually rotates round it, wheels within wheels. Once you get it under the magnifying glass the detail becomes fascinatingly obvious and possibility occurs

    So when I am asked for the answer before I have carried out this procedure, not surprisingly I don’t have an answer. The real answer is not in the question, but more in the procedure arising from the question, which is the need to find out. Survey the hell out of it, gather the information, research what you find and test the results. It’s how we define our qualifications simply by degrees of learning. It applies to all human activities. It will certainly tell you how to set up your logistics system, your production lines or storage facilities and whether to use trolleys or not and where, when and how.

    The philosophy A 5 step procedure to unlock a world packed with knowledge you didn’t know existed

    cantilever racking design

    A philosophy is simply a method, an algorithm is the formulation of a philosophy, a theory is the projection of the algorithm into a scientific environment and engineering it is the commercialisation and end result of the process exhaustively executed until it works. Discovering how to transport acetaminophen in volume for headaches and aches and pains (paracetamol to you and I) all starts out as a philosophy arising from an experience for which method may be established, theorised and tested to understand construction and design. Once this is grasped anything is possible. In this case the manufacture of paracetamols and alternative manufacturing techniques.

    So we have both looked at how a wheel or multiple of them changes dynamics, awareness and capabilities. There is no specific philosophy for the wheel, yet entire philosophies have evolved from considering the connectivity of the wheel, and that’s the thing isn’t it. Wheels link, connect, change and expand our universe. It is perhaps the oldest dynamic engineering known to us and yet frequently overlooked as a fundamental starting point of least cost and greatest safety or in fact risk. The fundamentals of wheels could be described as:

    • Direction
    • Movement
    • Guidance
    • Storage
    • Support
    • Containment
    • Efficiency

    I have avoided using the term “load” as that is incidental to efficiency and is therefore consequential and not fundamental. I like to think that somewhere about 10,000 years ago, someone worked out how to arrange a series of observations in such a way that a facility evolved which would ultimately provide the physics, math’s and engineering which we enjoy today as the wheel of fortune, fairground fun, feed systems, traffic control, computers, dart boards and a thousand other variations, the greatest of which are speed and mass over land, sea and air.

    In any engineering projects the wheel, however large or small, plays a role in both the first and last 50m delivery of goods, works as well as a strong contributor to the long haul. It must never be out of your mind as a mechanical awareness or fundamental, low cost solution to many engineering problems. It is the start of orderly distribution, which enables us not to have to put our “backs” on the line for everything and enabled us to afford shirts to stay warm and presentable, have identity which could be transferred and changed and yes, we could also put our shirts on the line to show everything we have, “backs” and all are in the game!

    It all starts with becoming aware of method and how things are.

    See-Saw, Poles apart

    • Finally, using one or both shoulders as a fulcrum point surprisingly enables your body to cope with far higher weight loads than the diagram shows. It is not uncommon for people to lift their own body weight safely, using a lifting pole or yoke. It improves both balance and “gait”, according to research, as it effectively distributes load far better without pulling the skeletal frame in stressful directions. Worth a thought.


    • The whole point of materials handling equipment is low cost, safe productivity. By looking at what we do and mapping and observing how we handle and move product we start a simple survey process which evolves into a method from which an abstraction may occur.
    • You don’t need to be a degree qualified engineer to carry out elementary survey techniques, you might be surprised how little you need to do to connect the dots up to expose the obvious, its only obvious if you see the dots in the first place.
    • There is a surprising amount that may be achieved with small investments multiplied by well thought through procedures. In fact this is the basis of all Japanese philosophy and Eastern teachings on workplace efficiencies.
    • A bag, a wheel or a yoke allows the user to do more, go further and rest more effectively than handling the load entirely manually i.e with no mechanical assistance. Just think what multi-wheeled equipment can do. Turn a fixed castor upside down and fix it down, put another one 450 mm apart next to it and repeat every 250 mm, place a 400mm x 1000mm board on top and you have your first production line. It’s a conveyor and a mobile work top all in one, an upside down trolley.
    • The Post Office tower in London revolves on an upside down trolley. It’s a giant lazy Susan!
    • Find out what you have and start thinking about how it is being used, it will soon occur to you as to what else it can do or simply what is missing. Or just what if.