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Forklift – Automated vs Traditional

Forklift technology – is it time to automate?

The automation of materials handling equipment is not new, but it is one of the ways organisations are driving savings on overhead costs, enhancing productivity, and reducing workplace accidents. The growth of e-commerce and the proliferation of SKUs have prompted distributors and retailers to find more efficient solutions to their logistics. Warehouses and distribution centres (DCs) handling more frequent orders need to move more goods, more quickly, both horizontally and vertically. Cost efficiency and reliability are to be found in the application of new technologies, better management of labour and staff training.

Automated forklift trucks

Automated or self-driving forklifts, also sometimes called lift trucks, move and transport goods around without direct human intervention. Forklift technology is advancing quickly. Self-driven forklifts are like other automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that move goods around the warehouse, they save time and effort. New versions include automated forklifts that can learn routes and tasks from an operator who drives the machine in “learning” mode. After this, they can be switched to automatic mode and drive themselves. Automated forklifts can be integrated into an existing warehouse management system (WMS) so that their daily tasks can be directed as part of the overall activities.


Automated forklifts are available 24/7 and don’t need holidays. Artificial intelligence (AI) techniques are being used to gather and process data as they work to find more efficient routes. AI-powered forklifts can handle hazardous materials or extreme environmental conditions as well as work in restricted spaces. Productivity is also enhanced through effective and speedy communications. Mobile technologies such as 5G are enabling managers to schedule tasks such as preventive maintenance and repairs using real-time feedback. Data analytics can provide management information on each piece of equipment, its operator and distances covered which all lead to better allocation of resources. 

Operator safety

At present, most traditional forklifts are operator driven. According to Angus Lift Trucks Ltd., around five people receive life-changing injuries from forklift accidents every day in the UK, with trends showing an increase in fatalities in recent years.  The danger is always present and accidents happen due to inexperienced drivers, overloading, poor securing of goods and unstable roadways. The more intelligence that can be built into a forklift vehicle, the safer it can be for both the operator and other warehouse employees. Technology tools such as sensors can give forklift operators an increased awareness of what is happening around them and serve as an early warning system.

Environmental impact

Traditionally, forklifts use diesel, batteries, or liquified petroleum gas (LPG), even automated ones. As more organisations become conscious of their use of fossil fuels, their carbon footprint and exhaust emissions, the choice of the right equipment that minimises damage to the environment is important. Diesel and LPG-driven forklifts are pollutants, they need adequate ventilation while batteries take up warehouse storage space.  Hydrogen fuel cells are now being used extensively to power new forklifts.  They can be recharged at a public refuelling station or an in-house facility.  Toyota has just released an industry-first lithium-ion-powered vehicle that is smaller, lighter and consumes low energy. 

Cost implications

Although automated forklifts cost more to buy or lease than manual ones, they pay for themselves over time. Human resources costs including wages, downtime due to injuries, overtime, etc are greatly reduced. Identifying and addressing potential problems before they occur through predictive maintenance is one measurable cost-saving. As technology continues to evolve, demand is likely to increase, leading to lower prices.

Automation of materials handling equipment, especially forklifts, will continue to develop rapidly.

The benefits are clear:

  • Increased productivity
  • Better employee safety
  • Cost savings
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Integration with existing WMS

We are still a long way away from automated forklifts being commonplace. There will always be a need for conventional forklifts, especially in smaller businesses. However, where there is an opportunity to replace an existing forklift in a fleet of many, an automated solution may be the answer. 

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