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What is a Forklift? An Introductory Guide

When it comes to heavy machinery, our minds often go to the big guys – excavators or loaders. But let’s not overlook the smaller, yet equally essential forklift. These quiet achievers are not just vital for warehouses and construction sites; they’re a crucial part of many industries. Ever walked into a warehouse or construction site in Australia? Chances are, a forklift was the first thing you saw. In this blog, we’re set to give you a comprehensive rundown on forklifts: their history, how they work, the different types available, their power sources, commonly used attachments, where they’re used, safety features, after-sales service, and tips on choosing the right one for your needs. Whether you’re meeting forklifts for the first time or you’re a seasoned expert, our blog is packed with insights you’ll find nowhere else. For those ready to invest, our forklift for sale offer a variety of options to suit any requirement.

The development process of forklifts

The evolution of forklifts began in the late 19th century, initially as basic trucks with limited lifting abilities. A major milestone was reached in 1917 with the Clark Material Handling Company’s introduction of the Tructractor, considered the first true forklift and a predecessor to modern designs. In 1922, Miag further innovated with the world’s first “lift-up” forklift. Over the years, these machines have evolved significantly, becoming essential tools in industries worldwide for efficient and safe material handling.

Advanced technology of modern forklifts

Modern forklifts have evolved remarkably with technological advancements. Initially powered by steam engines, they progressed to gasoline, electric, and diesel power, with significant improvements in safety and maneuverability. The 20th century saw the introduction of narrow aisle forklifts, computerized controls, and ergonomic designs. Today’s trends include automation with robotics, alternative power sources like electric and hydrogen fuel cells, data analytics for operational optimization, telematics for real-time tracking, and augmented reality for operator training, making forklifts safer, more efficient, and increasingly adaptive to various industrial needs​​.

How Does A Forklift Work

The Machine Itself

Forklifts, essential in various settings like warehouses and construction sites, operate using a combination of mechanics and engineering. The design of a forklift includes several key components: the load back-rest to prevent load shift, an overhead guard for operator safety, a carriage that moves along the mast rails, forks for carrying loads, a stabilizing counterweight, and various power sources such as fuel cells, propane gas, or batteries. The truck frame forms the base to which all these parts are attached, with tires suited for different terrains​​.

The Lifting Mechanism

The heart of a forklift’s operation is its hydraulic system, which uses cylinders, pistons, and fluids to lift and lower loads. The operator controls the lifting through a handle connected to a base pump, activating the hydraulic cylinders. This system creates upward force as the fluid pressure increases, moving the piston and, consequently, the load upwards. A balance is achieved when the force of the fluids equals the downward force of the load. Additionally, a roller chain pulley system is used to enable the forks to lift higher than what would be possible with hydraulics alone, enhancing the forklift’s efficiency and safety​​.

Steering and lifting are the forklift’s main controls. Steering is typically rear-wheel based, offering greater precision and control, especially when carrying loads. Lifting controls involve levers for moving the load up and down and tilting it for optimal positioning​​.

Introduction to Common Forklift Types and Classifications

Forklift Types

Counterbalance Forklift

Named for the counterweight at their rear to offset front loads, these forklifts come in sit-down and stand-up versions, enhancing operator mobility during load transport. The three-wheel design of some models provides enhanced agility, making them ideal for tight spaces in warehouses. Available in various power options like electric, propane, or diesel, they are a staple in indoor warehouse environments.

Rough Terrain Forklift

Designed for outdoor work on uneven terrains, rough terrain forklifts, or straight mast forklifts, are equipped with large pneumatic tires for stability on rugged surfaces. Ideal for construction sites and outdoor applications, their solid build and reinforced cage can make them suitable for challenging outdoor conditions, ensuring safety and efficiency in transporting goods over rough, rocky landscapes.

Pallet Jack

Pallet jacks, or pump trucks, are compact and specialized, designed for maneuvering in tight spaces. Their small size limits their lifting capacity but allows for easy navigation in confined areas.These jacks are ideal for handling small weights, offering a cost-effective and low-maintenance solution for pallet maneuvering, especially in environments like warehouses and retail spaces.

Walkie Stacker

Walkie stackers distinguish themselves with a unique design that lacks a cab, requiring the operator to walk behind and steer with an attached handle. While these machines are not high-powered, their design enables lifting to greater heights than pallet jacks, making them suitable for environments requiring a larger version of a pallet jack.

Order Picker

An order picker is a variant of the walkie stacker, designed to elevate workers to high storage racks for individual item retrieval. Capable of reaching heights up to 32 feet, these machines excel in warehouses focused on customer order fulfillment, allowing for efficient picking of individual items without the need to move entire pallets.

Reach Fork Truck

The reach forklift specializes in indoor operations, featuring an ability to extend its prongs beyond the cab for accessing warehouse shelves in ways that conventional forklifts cannot. With an open compartment for enhanced visibility, reach trucks are ideal for precise and efficient pallet selection in indoor settings but are not suited for outdoor use due to their low ground clearance.

Forklift Classifications

Class I- Electric Rider Trucks

These forklifts, powered electrically, are a go-to choice for indoor environments. Featuring a design that can either be counterbalanced or three-wheeled, Class I forklifts come with either cushion or pneumatic tires. Depending on the specific model, operators can use these forklifts from a stand-up or sit-down position. Predominantly found in warehouses, retail backrooms, manufacturing plants, and food storage facilities, they are primarily utilized for shifting stock and pallets.

Class II- Electric Narrow Aisle Forklifts

Tailored to optimize storage space usage, these narrow aisle forklifts thrive in confined spaces where traditional forklifts can’t maneuver. Available in either order-picker or reach truck configurations, they facilitate inventory movement – order pickers handle inventory parallel to the operator, while reach trucks vertically lift loads. Notably agile, Class II forklifts are ideal for streamlining inventory movement in bustling warehouse environments.

Class III- Electric Hand Trucks

Operated by battery and controlled by hand, these versatile trucks are steered using a tiller and can either be walk-behind or ride-on, based on the model. Pallet jacks, walkie stackers, and tow tractors fall under this category, often serving as supplementary equipment for managing inventory that larger forklifts will later transport.

Class IV- Cushion Tire Internal Combustion Forklifts

Running on diesel, gasoline, or natural gas, Class IV forklifts with cushion tires are perfect for smooth, indoor surfaces like those found in storage and warehouse facilities. They are adept at transporting palletized goods and are suitable for settings with low overhead clearance due to their lower ground-level tires. These forklifts vary widely in weight capacity, catering to both light and heavy industrial needs.

Class V- Pneumatic Tire Internal Combustion Forklifts

Resembling Class IV, but equipped with pneumatic tires, Class V forklifts are versatile for both indoor and outdoor use. They excel in outdoor areas like lumber yards and construction sites but are equally efficient indoors. With a wide range of capacities, they can handle everything from single pallets to loading large cargo containers.

Class VI- Electric and Engine-Powered Tow Tractors

Designed primarily for horizontal towing rather than vertical lifting, these tractors are utilized in diverse settings like airports and production lines. They can be battery-powered or run on internal combustion engines like diesel or gas. Engineered for long-distance travel, these tractors are built for speed, quick acceleration, and agility in turning.

Class VII- Rough Terrain Forklifts

This category encompasses forklifts crafted for outdoor and uneven landscapes. However, not all Class VII forklifts are suited for every terrain type. For instance, telehandlers, which are part of this class, are specifically designed for construction sites, offering stability with their low wheel-base and wide weight distribution, even when their telescoping arm is extended.

The Different Forklift Power Sources

Forklifts operate on three primary energy sources: electricity, diesel, and liquid propane gas (LPG). Each of these power options has distinct attributes and considerations, influencing the forklift’s performance, environmental suitability, and cost-effectiveness.

Electric Forklifts

For electric forklifts, their rechargeable battery system makes them an ideal choice for indoor settings, due to zero emissions and low noise levels. They may require a higher upfront investment, but the operational costs are generally lower over time.

Diesel Forklifts

Diesel forklifts are known for their robust performance, suitable for varied outdoor environments. They are highly durable but tend to be noisier and less eco-friendly than their electric counterparts.

LPG Forklifts

LPG forklifts offer a middle ground with their balance of efficiency and environmental considerations. They are versatile for both indoor and outdoor use, with longer running times compared to electric models. However, they necessitate a dedicated area for gas cylinder storage and have variable running costs based on fuel prices and efficiency.

The Main Parts Of A Forklift

Overhead Guard

The overhead guard, also known as the falling object protective structure (FOPS), is a crucial safety feature on a forklift. It safeguards the operator from any falling objects or debris that might come from above​​.

Load Back-rest

The load backrest, attached to the carriage, is designed to handle small objects or those that don’t require bands to stay on the forklift. It helps distribute the weight of the load and prevents it from shifting towards the operator, enhancing safety​​.


The carriage serves as the platform at the front of the mast. It is where the forks or other attachments are mounted. Carriages are classified into different classes based on the forklift’s carrying capacity and load center​​.


Forklifts typically use two types of tires: pneumatic and cushion tires. Pneumatic tires, usually air-filled, are better suited for outdoor environments with superior traction. Cushion tires, made of solid rubber, are ideal for indoor use on flat surfaces like concrete or asphalt​​.

Truck Frame

The truck frame, akin to the chassis of a car, is the metal structure to which many critical forklift parts are attached. This includes the wheels, axles, engine, mast, counterweight, and overhead guard. Some forklifts also have built-in tanks for fuel or hydraulic fluids within the truck frame​​.


The counterweight in a forklift is essential for balancing and stabilizing the vehicle. It is positioned at the back of the lift to prevent tipping, especially important when the distribution of weight changes as the forks move​​.


The mast is the vertical assembly that allows the forklift to raise and lower loads. There are various types of masts available, each designed to meet specific height requirements. The free lift capacity is a critical factor, determining how high the forks can raise without changing the mast height​​.


The forks, giving the forklift its name, are connected to the carriage. They are the primary components responsible for picking up and transporting loads. The design and build of the forks play a significant role in the efficiency and safety of the forklift’s operation​​.

The Most Common Uses of Forklifts

Warehouses and Distribution Centers

Forklifts in warehouses primarily handle stocking, moving, and stacking materials. They are typically designed to carry loads up to 5,000 lbs, with heavy-duty models handling up to 20,000 lbs​​.

Recycling Facilities

In recycling centers, forklifts are crucial for moving compressed bales and loose materials. Attachments like bale clamps enhance their efficiency in handling these materials​​.

Manufacturing and Industrial Operations

Forklifts are indispensable in manufacturing, transporting raw materials and products through various stages of production. They streamline material flow, reduce manual labor, and minimize injury risks​​​​.

Construction Sites

Forklifts at construction sites are key for moving heavy materials and equipment, balancing speed and safety. They adapt to various tasks, proving their versatility in different construction environments​​.

Forklift Safety and Maintenance

Training and Certification

Forklift operator certification involves certifying an individual’s ability to safely and effectively operate a forklift. Training covers forklift operation and maintenance, safety requirements, load handling, and emergency procedures. It’s not only a best practice but also a legal requirement in many countries. Certified operators reduce the risk of accidents, increase productivity and efficiency, and ensure safe operation​​​​​​​​.

Safe Load Handling

Operators must be trained in safe load handling, including checking forklifts before loading, confirming load conditions, not exceeding loading capacity, ensuring proper load balance and stability, and using seat belts. Regular pre-shift inspections and adherence to load handling rules are crucial for safety and efficiency​​.

Use of Seatbelts

Operators should always buckle their seatbelts and adjust them properly. This is a fundamental safety rule to ensure the operator stays secure inside the forklift in case of sudden movements or accidents​​.

Routine Maintenance Requirements

Forklifts require maintenance every 200-250 hours of operation or every six weeks. Daily inspections should check tires, battery, fluid levels, forks, seat belt, and safety devices. Regular maintenance prevents breakdowns, increases resale value, and ensures safety. The checklist includes inspections before and after turning on the forklift​​​​​​​​.

How To Choose A Forklift

When selecting a forklift, there are six key aspects to consider:

Load Capacity

Determine the maximum weight your forklift needs to carry. It’s crucial for safety and efficiency.

Lifting Height

Assess the height requirements based on your storage or operation needs.

Fuel Type

Choose between electric, diesel, or gas based on environmental considerations and power needs.


Factor in both initial purchase price and long-term operating expenses.


Prioritize features that enhance operator and workplace safety.


Consider the ease and cost of maintaining the forklift over its lifespan.

Learn More About Forklifts

In short, forklifts are indispensable machinery in many industries. Understanding a forklift is a complex process, and understanding the definition is only the first step to understanding a forklift. Forklift types, performance parameters, energy types, application scenarios, costs, etc. are all the only ways to understand forklifts.If you want a more in-depth understanding, please check out the related blogs on our homepage!

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