Is ‘Forklift-Free’ in Your Future?

Forklifts have long been the workhorses of production plants and warehouses, but there is a growing trend toward forklift-free work areas, fueled by proponents’ claims of increased safety, cost savings, and flexibility.

It’s hard to picture production plants without forklifts ferrying materials to assembly lines, but that is becoming the case in an increasing number of workplaces. Taking the place of forklifts are smaller “tuggers” (usually electric- or diesel-powered) that tow a train of trailers (also called carts).

Advocates of forklift-free work areas usually point first to the safety issues, noting that nearly 100 workers are killed and another 20,000 seriously injured in forklift-related accidents every year.

“We’ve had some pedestrian safety issues in the past,” said Steve Orr, material planning and logistics superintendent at Ford Motor Company. Orr was quoted in an article appearing on “In the line side, someone would step out and get hit with a forklift, or a high-low driver would bump into someone working on the line. Forklifts can do some serious damage to people.”

Don’t just tell forklift operators what to do—show them with action footage on DVD in BLR’s Training Solutions Toolkit: Forklift Safety. Read More.

In forklift-free operations, the tuggers are small, allowing operators visibility that is unobstructed by roll cages or masts. The operators tug carts behind them and only move forward, as opposed to lift trucks where it is often necessary to back up with limited visibility.

The 3-year conversion of Ford’s Cleveland Engine Plant No. 1 is cited as a forklift-free success story. The company spent more than $350 million on new equipment and tooling to make the plant more flexible and efficient.

“Before, we’d build a line, and it could just do one engine,” Orr told Assembly Magazine. “Now, we can build six different engine models on the same line. We can go from a six-cylinder engine to an eight-cylinder engine or whatever. It’s pretty neat.”

The Case for Forklift-Free

That kind of flexibility is one of the major factors touted by forklift-free advocates, perhaps second only to the previously mentioned safety issues. Some other advantages, courtesy of the Conveyor & Caster Corporation website, include:

  • Improved Productivity—The “tugger and trailer” concept offers higher yield and output by utilizing the most efficient method for transporting loads fore and aft.

  • Decreased Congestion—The tugger and trailer concept eliminates traffic bottlenecks by reducing the pieces of equipment (forklifts) required for material load transfer. The lower-cost train of trailers is able to transport more load volume and weight in fewer trips compared with transporting loads utilizing

  • Cost Savings—The saving benefits are said to be two-fold: equipment and manpower. The tugger and trailer concept requires less capital equipment investment when compared with the traditional alternative of using forklifts or lift trucks. The reduction in manpower is significantly less when a tugger with a train of trailers is compared with forklifts or lift trucks.

Kinetic Technologies, Inc. (K-Tec), a designer and manufacturer of forklift-free systems, says that over the life of a forklift, only 20 percent of the cost is ownership—the other 80 percent comes from operating costs.

The Case Against Forklift-Free

Even proponents of the concept concede that forklift-free is not going to work for all employers or in all situations. Among the considerations that might militate against retiring your forklifts are:

  • Conversion Costs—It is obviously more economical to build a new facility to be forklift-free. Converting existing structures can be quite another matter. “Even when approached carefully, existing plant constraints may make the best forklift-free strategy less than optimal,” according to a K-Tec whitepaper. “Narrow aisle widths, blind aisles, poor floors, variable conveyor heights and set backs from the aisles, limited linear line space, ceiling height and poor market (inventory stores) locations are just a few of the basic challenges.”

  • Conversion Time—It took Ford 3 years to retrofit its Cleveland plant. Even the planning can be time-consuming. “Building a forklift free program requires that a significant amount of time be spent on the ‘front end’ of the process clarifying plan targets, goals, identifying waste, ergonomic and safety threats,” according to the K-Tec whitepaper.

  • Wasted Space—Converting a taller facility that was built to accommodate tall stacks of materials can result in a waste of the upper vertical space (which tuggers and trailers can’t reach) unless a mezzanine or similar type of construction is used.

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Keep in mind that workplaces do not have to give up forklifts entirely when converting part of a facility to forklift-free operation. For example, in an operation that uses both full and split case picking, it may be feasible to apply a combination of lift trucks and carts.

“Using the truck for full case picking and a cart or dolly to handle the split cases can be very effective as well,” Robert Liptrot, president of Boston Industrial Consulting, told

Even if plans for a forklift-free operation are on the drawing board at your facility, the chances are good that you won’t be saying goodbye to your forklifts any time soon. Tomorrow we’ll look at forklift training requirements—and a solution to safeguard your workforce.