The history and future of pallet trucks

Although many people see pallet trucks as fairly utilitarian items of equipment that “just are”, in actual fact they are beautifully designed items that play a crucial role in the transport and distribution of a wide range of goods.

It is highly unlikely current levels of warehouse efficiency could be maintained were it not for pallet truck products, forklift trucks and pallet stacking trucks. Whether it’s moving cargo from freight vessels around the docks, transporting pallets into trucks or moving them around a storage facility, pallet trucks are the nippy little vehicles that get the job done.

How does EP see the future of pallet trucks?

Our Vision

The electric pallet truck is at the heart of EP Equipment. No other company in the world produces more electric pallet trucks than EP Equipment.

For many years, the electric pallet truck was designed around the heavy & big lead acid, traction battery. With the introduction of Li-Ion, technology EP went back to the drawing board and created the next generation of pallet trucks from scratch. Focused on the needs of our customers, we designed trucks for different applications with a focus on the transport and retail industry. By reducing the size of the battery and unnecessary weight from the truck, we were able to lower the energy consumption, increase the ergonomics, decrease the need of maintenance and reduce the total cost of ownership significantly.

Our concept

The main idea behind the new generation of EP pallet trucks: Simple and service friendly!

The main components of an electric pallet truck are Battery, Controller, Motor. With our new generation, we introduce the concept of Plug&Play to reduce the necessary service times and make it easy for our customers to check the source of problems before having to call a service technician.

In our EPT 12EZ, HPL 151 and EPL 151 the battery can be exchanged single handed and swapped between different trucks, exchanged for second shift application or replaced in terms of damage after a long life.

With our WPL 201 and based on the heavy duty application of such a machine, the truck is not only equipped with a Plug&Play Battery, but also with a controller that can be exchanged with our Plug&Play service system.

At EP Equipment, we are proud to present to you the next generation of electric pallet trucks. Worldwide unique and based around the needs of our customers.

But with this vision in mind, how did the success story of pallet trucks start? Read on to discover the history of these essential items and what the future holds in terms of future developments…

Why pallet trucks?

Obviously, for a pallet truck to be developed, pallets had to become widely used as a convenient method of storage. Prior to the 1920s, goods were normally stored in anything from barrels to packing crates and shifted on an individual basis.

This made loading, unloading and moving supplies extremely time-consuming and also dangerous: unevenly shaped containers didn’t balance well when being shifted by cranes or similar, leading to tipping and falling being a continual hazard.

Storage was inefficient, with differently sized items being stacked together with gaps between them. This meant storage wasn’t used as efficiently as it might be, adding to the freighting and distribution overheads.

Changes in methods of production in the latter half of the 19th Century meant that, increasingly, large volumes of goods needed to be moved from the place of production to the place of consumption, which in turn meant there was a need for a stable, space-efficient method of moving goods.

It was from this need that the modern skid was born. Initially, a single deck, wooden platform, the skid could be used as a flat base on which to store goods prior to moving them. The limitations of a single deck platform were soon realised, which was when the pallet, a double deck platform was developed.

It is unclear who exactly developed the pallet, although Raymond & House were credited with patenting an early version in 1939. The pallet had the advantage of the double-deck, which enabled it to be easily picked up using a hoist or similar.

Alongside the development of the pallet, there were also gradual advances in the technology used to move goods from one point to another.

Early hoists and the progression to the hand pallet truck

Manual hoisting gear was used throughout the 19th Century. Frequently employed to move goods on or off ships, into warehouses or onto the form of transport that would take it on its onward journey, they were operated by hand or occasionally horses.

The main issue with hoists was that considerable labour was needed to move goods onto the hoist platform, then off at the other end: what was lacking was a form of machinery that could take the goods from one point to another, without the need for hauling.

This was where the hand pallet truck came in. A number of different variations were pioneered almost simultaneously across Europe and the US. Initially a simple lifting mechanism on a trolley, the hand pallet truck allowed operators to move an entire pallet of goods quickly, cleanly and safely.

Early 20th Century advances

By the early 1900s, continuing increases in mechanisation meant more goods were produced than ever, necessitating more efficient methods of transporting them.

The need for more efficient transport was further exacerbated by the outbreak of WW1: with so many men fighting in the trenches, there was a desperate need for machinery to replace the labour which they had previously supplied.

This led to the development of powered lift trucks: in 1906, a railroad worker wired a battery onto a baggage cart – this early powered cart was one of the precursors of the forklift. A lifting platform, developed in 1909, allowed an entire pallet to be picked up and moved, albeit on a flat sheet rather than the forks which are more familiar today.

In 1915, Ransomes, Sims & Jeffries, a UK firm based in Ipswich, developed a lift truck that could move goods up and down as well as forwards and backwards.

This was a powered model, which was important because it allowed goods to be elevated as well as transported from a to b. Developments were also taking place on the other side of the Atlantic, in the US: the Clark company created the Tructractor in 1917 – a platform on wheels powered by a combustion engine, it was used to carry goods around the Clark premises.

Companies noticed the Tructractor and requested their own, leading Clark to develop more sophisticated forms of the equipment as time went on.

The interwar years

In the US, the launch of the 1922 truclift, by Clark, which combined a combustion engine with a hydraulic lift, marked the introduction of the first ever cargo carrying platform which was operated using hydraulics rather than mechanical gearing.

A further advance in the form of the 1924 Duat (also by Clark), saw the unveiling of a platform with a tiering mechanism. This piece of equipment, powered by an internal combustion engine, was one of the first forklift trucks.

Yale also produced a similar vehicle, in 1923, a year earlier. This had an electric motor and an elevated mast and forks. Two inventions which were patented in 1939 made a significant impact on the pallet truck and forklift industry.

The first was the patenting of the double-sided pallet; the second was the patent of a hydraulic hand pallet truck. Both patents were held by Raymond & House, a US company. The pallets could be used not only with a hand pallet truck, but also with a powered pallet truck.

WWII – popularising the forklift and pallet truck

In a similar scenario to WW1, WWII saw a need for significant numbers of machines which were capable of moving goods from a to b, as well as upwards and downwards.

Not only did the industry need machinery to take the place of men who had been enlisted, the war industries also required additional equipment to function efficiently.

This led to the popularisation of the forklift, the pallet truck and the hand pallet truck. Although there are some overlaps, usually a forklift is the vehicle with the greatest capacity, capable of moving larger loads forwards and backwards as well as up and down.

A pallet truck is primarily designed for ground movement. A hand pallet truck is again primarily designed for ground level movement, but can often be more flexibly deployed in constricted spaces, in comparison with a pallet truck.

Post- WWII

The 1950s was a time when the need for pallet trucks and forklifts continued to grow. A notable landmark at this time was the invention of the first narrow aisle electric reach truck. Pioneered by Lansing Bagnell, the machine allowed warehouse alleys to be narrower and also facilitated upward storage.

As warehouses began to stack goods at a higher level and house more goods in a smaller area, health & safety became a key consideration.

Pallet trucks developed cabs and cages to protect the operator; limits were placed on the height of the mast and testing was introduced to ensure adequate stability.

Emphasis on the well-being of the operative continued into the 1980s, with designs being increasingly developed which were comfortable to operate and promoted driver well-being.

1990s to the Present

Contemporary forklift trucks and pallet trucks aren’t just safe and easy to operate, they are also green: the use of hydrogen fuel cell power units and rechargeable electric trucks result in vehicles that are environmentally friendly and suitable for both indoor and outdoor locations.

What does the future hold for pallet trucks and forklifts – Enhanced mechanisation

With driverless cars already on the streets and artificial intelligence (AI) resulting in robots which can perform a range of sophisticated activities, it’s only a matter of time before these technologies are incorporated into the movement of goods. Not only would increased mechanisation make the operation more efficient, it also increases safety, as robotic transport could be used to move dangerous substances or goods.

Bluetooth technology and the “Internet of Things” are also key advances which could be used to operate and programme forklifts or palette trucks to work autonomously, with the operator many miles away.

In time, this could lead to the introduction of fully mechanised warehouses: goods could be checked in, stored and then distributed entirely automatically. The potential benefits for safety, security and operational efficiency could be enormous.

Tougher trucks for a more demanding workplace

With a 24/7 marketplace, forklifts and palette trucks need to be able to function for longer, frequently in challenging environments. There is a need for vehicles that can go many hours before recharging is required; also for vehicles that can take goods outdoors, or through rain or snow, as well as tolerate cold storage to move frozen foods.

Greater sustainability

The need for equipment that’s as carbon neutral and planet friendly as possible will continue. As solar energy storage options improve, there is the potential to use stored solar power for palette truck batteries. Modern materials enable trucks to be lighter and more durable with no corresponding reduction in performance.

From humble beginnings, palette trucks and forklifts have developed to become a globally utilised resource. With an ever-increasing rise in goods being distributed worldwide, the need for efficient vehicles to aid goods transportation is set to continue. Who knows what the exciting developments future decades will bring when it comes to pallet truck design and production?