How Forklifts Work: A History of Mechanics and Controls

From construction sites and warehouses to recycling facilities and shipyards, forklifts are incredibly versatile machines that are useful for several different tasks. This diversity in use allows them to take on any job that requires heavy lifting, making the work less strenuous and more efficient for the human workers involved. Though these machines make our lives a bit easier, it’s still essential that workers have a basic understanding of how they operate. Despite how many classes of forklift there are, it’s important to remember that there’s still a basic formula for how all forklifts work.

Brief History of the Modern Forklift

As the industrial age took hold of the United States, workers needed mechanical assistance to move large items around their factories. One of these affected companies, the Clark Company, took the initiative to invent a truck as a way to combat this problem. This machine, known as the truck tractor, was manufactured and used exclusively by the Clark Company until various partners discovered it. Once aware of the potential, these business partners commissioned truck tractors of their own, building the demand for the first forklift devices.

Over the years, truck tractor manufacturers began creating different classes to accommodate the demands of different jobs. As such, these models were equipped with the best technology to help industrial workers with their tasks. Then, in 1923, a company called Yale invented the first model that could lift loads off the ground rather than transport them. This model, after several modifications over the years, would become what we know as the modern forklift.

The main differences between these two models lie with the long, lifting mast. While the original truck tractor toted cargo from one area to another, the forklift’s mast allowed it to carry more with less human effort. No longer did workers have to find a way to load heavy items; they now had a tool that could do both and save time.

Lifting Mechanics

Even knowing the history behind what made the forklift what it is today, it doesn’t change that they can be complex to operate. To fully understand how forklifts work, you must know what their necessary lifting components are and how they assist in the machine’s overall operation.

Generally, the lifting sections of a forklift comprise of two interconnecting components: the hydraulic cylinders and roller chain pullies. Each has its designated purpose for lifting a load to the ideal height and maintaining balance while a worker transports it.

Hydraulic Cylinders

A forklift’s hydraulic cylinder component often consists of a hollow tube—sealed at one end—with a movable piston positioned into the other end. This piston is lubricated so that it can move when the pressure within the tube changes. When activated by the lift handle on the controls, an electric air pump will begin forcing air into the machine located in the lifting mast. The air causes the pressure to build within the tubing and pushes the piston upward.

When at the proper height, the force of the gas will equal the downward pressure of the object being lifted. Working in unison with the frame’s counterweight, the hydraulic cylinders help the forklift maintain its balance when lifting something more massive than itself.

Roller Chain Pullies

Roller chain pullies, on the other hand, are the components that physically move a load into position along a forklift’s mast. As the hydraulic piston raises the mast into place, it will press against the gears operating the chains. Since these chains are attached to the forks holding the cargo, the additional force from the hydraulics will rotate the chains and move the load upward.

While this might seem like a simple enough job, these pullies are essential to lifting a heavy object without exceeding a job site’s height and safety regulations. Without these devices, the forklift masts would have to quickly be twice their current size to accurately lift and maneuver a load. An increased height would also make the forklift more prone to tipping, putting individuals at risk.

Forklift Controls

Since forklifts serve two essential functions, it’s only natural that they also contain different control panels for each purpose. In keeping these panels separate, the operator will be able to easily transition between the two without the fear of mishandling it. Though the differences between the two may seem simple enough, every forklift driver is educated on when to use certain functions and what a forklift’s limits are.

Driving Controls

The first set of controls to be aware of are the ones that dictate the forklift’s maneuverability. Like most vehicles, this control scheme consists of acceleration and brake pedals, a steering wheel, reverse gear, and forward gear. With these functions at your disposal, you’ll be able to properly steer your forklift through various terrains while maintaining the stability of the weight you’re carrying. Forklifts are often equipped with rear-wheel steering for this very purpose, as it increases your ability to rotate and execute precise turns.

Lifting Controls

The lifting controls, however, tend to be a bit more complicated. Though they only consist of two levers, they tend to be movement sensitive and could take a bit of practice to use correctly if you’re a beginner. The lifting gear, when pushed forward, activates the hydraulic cylinders and pushes the mast upward, bringing the load along with it. Use slow movements when adjusting this lever, as the machine will need time to adjust to the command.

The second lever, also known as the tilting function, controls the angle that the mast rests at while moving the cargo. This is often useful when handling oddly-shaped containers or ones that require more leverage to lift. Pushing this lever forward begins to tilt the mast forward while pulling it back will bring it to its original position.

For more information on how forklifts operate, reach out to Toyota Material Handling Ohio. Our team of highly skilled and trained mechanics can educate you on each forklift type and how their functions can assist you with your job. From electric to hydraulic forklifts, we can provide you with what you need and the knowledge of how to properly use it.

History of Mechanics and Controls forklifts



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