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Forkless environments: Myth or reality?

06 April 2016

Counterbalance forklift trucks have been the king of materials handling for decades. This year, for example, it is 60 years since the launch of the first Toyota forklift, the Toyota LA. However, as technology and operations innovate and develop there will continue to be changes to the equipment and processes used not only the UK but around the world.

One example where Toyota Material Handling has already seen developments is in intelligent operations, with both their automated warehouse trucks and truck management system, Toyota I_Site. Material handling professionals are striving to improve productivity and safety whilst increasing efficiency and it is a challenge that most operations will face.

However, innovation can come in all different shapes and sizes and if you’ve heard anything on the material handling grapevine recently, it might have been in relation to the growth of ‘forkless environments’. In essence these are environments that restrict or remove trucks with forks and to some extent are changing the way pallets are being moved. Dave Rylance, sales training and product development manager at Toyota answers some key questions on this innovation.

Myth or reality?

It isn’t a myth and certainly is a reality. Customers are constantly being challenged in terms of quality, efficiency and safety and this isn’t likely to change any time soon. Let’s look at efficiencies and safety first. Our experience shows that efficiency projects are usually related to increasing output which in turn means moving more products and material around a factory. This increases health and safety risk and results in companies needing to risk assess or re-think their material handling operation.

One of the highest assessed risks in a manufacturing environment is the presence and movement of forklift trucks, predominantly because of the danger that fork handling methods for moving materials can pose to pedestrians and machinery. Also mix that with the areas or aisles for operating in the factories being quite narrow, unlike aisle widths in a warehouse, and this is shifting the material handling landscape.

This shift is leading to a growing trend to take forklift trucks out of the manufacturing area altogether by creating a ‘forkless zone’.

This shift is leading to a growing trend to take forklift trucks out of the manufacturing area altogether by creating a ‘forkless zone’. Forklift trucks can operate in all other areas of the operation for example goods in and warehousing, but are excluded from the identified zone.

One solution is to ensure that all material carriers are changed to be moved on wheels. Once this is achieved the material handling method around the operation can move to a forkless towing method using towing tractors and wheeled trailers.


There are many benefits but it is also worth noting that introducing a different method of material handling can raise many challenges. You can move more materials and goods at one time simply working off the basis that a forklift is designed to move a single pallet at one time (unless it has a multi pallet attachment) whereas the tow tractor can tow a multitude of wheeled loads or trailers in the same time frame.

In manufacturing tow tractors are also used for what is known as ‘milk runs’, one description to explain this is a continual route which a tow tractor takes around the factory stopping at designated points either dropping off trailers or collecting trailers to be transported to another designated point. As a ‘milk run’ it is a constant ongoing route and process, many improvements can be made on material movement and related efficiencies.

Are forkless environments industry specific?

No, towing solutions can be used for different scenarios in different industries. However, we are finding that industries such as manufacturing and e-commerce are investigating the switch over from traditional fork handling to forkless or towing solutions for various reasons but mostly the continued improvement in operational safety and the efficiency of moving more materials at one time.

What should you consider when introducing a forkless environment?

It should be pointed out that traditional fork handling using a forklift or warehouse style truck is still the most flexible and often the most efficient way for most material handling operations. However if bulk materials need transporting over distances or if there are health and safety risks to people in an area this may result in a requirement for a forkless zone and towing solutions provide the answer.