March 12, 2018
material handling | Forklifts

Keep it simple

Keep it simple

Forklifts have gone high-tech, but not everyone needs all the bells and whistles. Here's how to determine when a more basic truck might be the right way to go.

By Toby Gooley

In some ways, figuring out what you need in a forklift is a lot like deciding what kind of car to buy. Some people need basic transportation just to get from one place to another; some drive long stretches and need dependable, comfortable cars that can stand up to heavy use; and some use their cars as offices on wheels and want luxury vehicles with productivity-enhancing technologies like hands-free communication. For that reason, automakers offer a wide range of makes and models that vary in cost, features, and quality.

Similarly, forklift fleet managers have different wants and needs. That's why lift truck makers offer everything from "no-frills" trucks that will simply get your pallets from here to there, to self-driving forklifts that can tell you in near real time where they are and what's going on under the hood, along with midrange models that fall somewhere in between the basic and premium types. How wide a range of equipment an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) offers varies from one provider to another. Some only serve the basic to midrange market, while some sell midrange and premium brands. A few that manufacture premium equipment also offer basic value-priced brands as well. Some examples of the latter include Kion Group (Baoli), Hyster-Yale Group (Utilev), and Crown Equipment Corp. (Hamech).

Many operations don't require all the bells and whistles that are available in some of today's high-tech forklifts. For them, a basic "value" lift truck may fill the bill. A value truck generally is low-cost and price-competitive; is based on commonly used engine, body, and transmission designs; and does not include features that add a significant amount of cost. It may not be as fuel-efficient as more expensive trucks, and it typically will not have technology "extras" like automatic slowdown or the ability to automatically stop at a specific rack height, says Jerry Weidmann, president of Wolter Group LLC, a Brookfield, Wis.-based company that includes five material handling and power systems businesses across the Midwest. Wolter Group represents 15 forklift manufacturers, including the basic and midrange brands Baoli, Cat Lift Trucks, Doosan, Komatsu, and Mitsubishi, as well as premium brands like Jungheinrich and Linde.

How do you know when a basic no-frills forklift would be the best choice? Here are some recommendations on when to keep things simple—and why.


It's important to understand that "value" or "basic" does not necessarily equate to "cheap" or "low performance." Certainly, some end users buy "disposable" lift trucks—very low-priced vehicles that last for just two or three years—and consider buying and replacing them to be a cost of doing business. But manufacturers typically use the term to mean something very different. For instance, Lexington, Ky.-based Clark Material Handling Co., which celebrated its 100th year in 2017, defines its "value forklifts" as vehicles that offer limited options and faster delivery than more customized equipment, says Jeff Arnold, product support manager. Limiting options and sticking with standard, commonly used chassis, parts, and designs lets manufacturers reduce overhead and production costs, and therefore keep the selling price low. But limiting options doesn't mean limiting performance and durability, he says; a value truck can incorporate improvements in engines, drivetrains, and other components that also appear in premium forklifts. "It's really not a matter of technology; it's more about the approach to design and manufacturing quality," Arnold says.

As the example of "disposable" lift trucks suggests, initial purchase price is the No. 1 priority for some who are looking to buy, lease, or rent value trucks. "A 'mom and pop' shop may not have the capital to buy based on the total cost of ownership," Arnold observes. "In a case like that, the initial purchase price can be driving the decision because they have such a limited budget. Sometimes, it's the only perspective they can take."

But Arnold and the other experts we consulted for this article agree that, just as with any type of lift truck, end users should consider a host of factors besides the initial purchase price. "While purchase price is always an important factor, it has become less of a priority for businesses over the last several years," says Shawn Jones, vice president of sales/warehouse solutions at Briggs Equipment, a full-service distributor of material handling and warehouse equipment with operations in the Southern U.S., the United Kingdom, and Mexico. Briggs represents lift truck brands across the price and application spectrum, including Hyster, Yale, Manitou, Combilift, and heavy-duty outdoor forklifts. "The professional fleet managers we interact with today ... their focus is on the total cost of moving their product over a period of time—not on the upfront cost of equipment," Jones says. That total cost, he adds, includes the cost of the equipment over time, the efficiency/productivity of the equipment, the energy source needed to power it, and the employee(s) required to operate it.

Keep in mind, experts say, that the more a forklift is in use, the lower its total per-hour cost to operate. Even a high-priced lift truck that runs a lot of hours in a year can cost less to operate on an hourly basis than a low-priced forklift that spends most of its time in park.

How usage and application influence price and complexity - Source: Wolter Group LLC
With forklifts, the greater the number of hours the equipment will be used and/or the greater the severity of the application, the more sophisticated the equipment that will be needed.

Once the basic specifications have been determined—for example, required load-lifting capacity, maximum height and width, and maximum fork height required—the decision becomes a matter of price vs. complexity. The greater the number of hours a piece of equipment will be utilized and/or the greater the severity of the application, the more sophisticated the equipment that will be specified, Weidmann says. (See Exhibit 1.)

Small distributors, manufacturers, or other types of operations that move pallets or unload trucks once or twice a day, and where a forklift will be used fewer than 1,000 hours a year probably will get the functionality they need from a value truck. A forklift that is going to be used 3,000 hours per year, however, must be highly productive, making expensive productivity-enhancing features like the ability to control travel, lift, and lower speeds necessary, in Weidmann's view.

The other main consideration when choosing between a no-frills lift truck and a midrange or premium truck is the application for which it will be used. For example, running pallets just a couple of hours a day around a moderate-sized flat-floored facility with fairly low rack heights will place relatively low physical and mechanical demands on a forklift, and a value truck may be all that's needed. A more rigorous application, such as carrying or pushing very heavy loads, traveling up and down inclines, operating in extreme temperatures, or running multiple shifts six or seven days a week, would require a forklift specifically designed for harsh duty cycles. That will necessarily drive up costs but will also provide the required level of performance, Weidmann says.

In addition, basic trucks aren't big on ergonomics—those cushy automobile-like seats are expensive—but that won't have a significant impact on an operator running a truck just one or two hours a shift. For an operator who's on a piece of equipment all day, however, seat comfort, accessibility and ease of use of controls, vehicle noise level, foot room, and so forth are extremely important for reducing fatigue, improving concentration, and minimizing injuries.

What if circumstances change, and you need more capabilities in an existing value truck? It is indeed possible to add technology such as fleet management software and some kinds of ergonomic enhancements to basic forklifts. "Modern material handling equipment is designed with technological modularity—the ability to bolt on functionality as needed," says Dan LaMendola, fleet manager at Briggs Equipment. He cites telemetry, the collecting of data at the point of use and making the data available to a separate user base via a remote server, as one example. Most telemetry systems, he says, can be deployed at the factory or out in the field once the material handling system has been put into operation, and for some time after that. That kind of flexibility is one of the greatest benefits provided by the technological and ergonomic advances that have taken place in the last decade, LaMendola adds.

The core of the lift truck can't be changed, however, and there are limits to what add-on technology can do on a low-end truck with a basic engine, electronics, and instrumentation. End users that want a lot of data and analysis, as well as the ability to collect a wider array of information in the future, will have to invest in more sophisticated technology. In that case, Arnold, suggests, it would make sense to move up to a "smart" truck that's designed to accommodate more advanced technology and can provide the full range of capabilities the end user needs for its particular application.


Where can end users turn for guidance when deciding which type of truck would best fit their requirements? "Everything starts with dealerships," says Arnold. "They're the front line for what the customer needs." Lift truck dealers will conduct site surveys to make sure they match the correct truck to the application; if needed, they will turn to the OEM's sales, engineering, and product-support experts, he adds.

Regardless of whether you're in the market for an entry-level value truck, a technologically advanced premium piece of equipment, or something in between, one thing applies across the board. The key to getting the right truck for your needs is to gather information about its intended hours of use and applications—and then communicate that clearly and accurately to your dealer.

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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