How The Forklift Industry Is Changing


When talking about what is going on in the forklift industry, those that have seen it's evolution over the years tend to be pretty good judges of what is going on and where we go from here. Like many industries, most of the new things we see today and what is planned for tomorrow have been seen before in our industry. The technologies are new and more powerful, and the rate of change is quicker than ever - but much of what is happening in our industry has happened before and fundamentally tied to one truth. Those things that build predictability, performance and the trust of people to change will win the future.

My name is Chris Kuny, and I have been personally working in the forklift industry for 38 years. During that time I have seen several waves of change while working for one of the largest companies in the forklift industry. A few years ago I retired as some of the luster had waned, but after about 60 days I decided that path wasn’t for me and went back to the thing I love and joined the team at Big Joe Forklifts.

Big Joe is focused on some of the fastest changing areas of the business, and I personally I couldn't be more pleased — as I am having all sorts of fun again. As they say, change is good. Below are some of my perspectives about what I see going on in the forklift industry today from a guy with high miles and fresh eyes.


The biggest changes going on that I see is a huge transformation of warehousing related to how they replenish retail stores and pick low quantity high SKU count orders to support the fulfillment of e-commerce. Retail distribution centers are now sending smaller more varied pallet loads to retailers not once a week, but often three times a week to support maximum product selection with limited just in time inventory at the store level. To do this, extensive changes in how warehouses fundamentally operate are required and some warehouses are really struggling to break old traditions and overcome the limitations of systems and equipment that is no longer a good fit. This is especially true in facilities that try and do both retail store support and direct to consumer e-commerce orders. Often referred to as "omnichannel distribution", mixing the needs of different product flows from one site presents all sorts of fun for those that like to be challenged. It is akin to running a sit-down and fast food restaurant in the same space while trying to please both types of customer.

To perform in an environment like this, warehouses have responded by putting up more locations closer to population centers, trying to maintain flexibility and figuring out ways of moving product through the warehouse faster than ever. Across the distribution supply chain, "just-in-time” inventory is becoming more and more prevalent everywhere because of overnight shipping and two-day shipping, and inventory control systems are becoming fully integrated to support these new paradigms. Orders that used to be handled weekly or monthly are now being handled daily by multiple facilities all orchestrated to work in an interconnected manner by more and more powerful systems run on increasingly predictable demand algorithms.

It is truly a brave new world, and the days of "stack it high and let it fly" in the warehouse have more or less disappeared.


Of specific note, more SKUs in less time is the mission now in material handling and distribution. This forces companies to be more efficient with the warehouse spaces that they have as well as more particular about the material handling equipment they choose to operate. 

Large e-commerce giants as examples of this must create exceptional warehouse efficiencies to handle the volume, variety, and velocity or they cannot provide a compelling advantage over traditional retail operations. To do this, e-commerce giants spend huge sums of money to experiment, reiterate and fail & learn rapidly to find what works best in the warehouse in support of the needs of the public. The distribution efficiency gains of e-commerce giants from this process then force big-box retailers to have to keep up and either play the online game themselves or provide more consumer value at the store level. Big box retail stores are not without advantages such as having stock close to customers, but have been behind the curve a bit when it comes to e-commerce fulfillment and now trying to play catch-up. As they do, it then forces the e-commerce giants to move into traditional bricks and mortar locations which has created a very dynamic struggle that continues to dominate many changes we see today. No one has figured out the perfect model yet, and many are starting to put more of a premium of flexibility and adaptability than trying to be perfect.

For us that state of affairs is paying huge dividends as products like our Big Joe J1 Joey Task Support Vehicle are right on trend. The J1 Joey is small, flexible and provides a ton of capability toward solving issues related to supporting more SKUs in less time and space in both DCs and at the store level. The J1 Joey can turn in a 6' aisle and support the access to small order quantities
as high as 20'... meaning that pick faces can now expand horizontally and vertically. Even in storerooms at a local store for things like click and collect. It is really a neat machine and a pleasure to sell given the changes and challenges I run across in
the field.


Another big area of change that I see in the industry is in regard to forklift safety given the potential for serious worker injury. Some forklift manufacturers are including things like stability systems or blue lights to warn pedestrians of approaching traffic on their standard products. Some companies are limiting forklift drivers to just 5 mph, which impacts the productivity of what are fairly expensive vehicles. At Big Joe, we focus on walk behind lift trucks and we are even seeing many customers looking to get rid of rider equipment all together for many tasks. As compared to a 10,000lb forklift that can travel at 10 mph, a Big Joe walkie stacker can perform a wide range of tasks and has a number of advantages when it comes to safety by comparison:

  • They travel at about a normal walking speed of 3 mph and weigh a quarter of a sit-down equivalent.
  • They don’t have a rear counterweight swing, or high stacked loads in front of them, which are blind spots to a sit-down operator.
  • In general, the visibility and attention during operation are better with a walkie, with the load normally behind the operator as they travel.

Also, in regard to safety, I also see a lot of people moving away from manual equipment like rolling ladders and manual hand pallet trucks. Employee injuries and turnover are just too expensive for companies to risk falls or back injuries to use that equipment anymore.

In the Big Joe product line, we address these issues with our Joey series of vehicles to replace ladders and our small format electric pallet trucks to upgrade those products. Using people like human conveyor or thinking it is ok to carry stock down a ladder just isn't acceptable anymore. People are too valuable, and attitudes are certainly changing across most industries when it comes to safety and basic worker tasks.


Our customers have gotten way more sophisticated with fleet management and data analytics over the past decade. Companies are collecting data on fuel use, battery use, how often operators are be bumping into things, how fast they are driving and more …. I also see more and more companies taking advantage of telematics and IoT technologies to reduce fleet operating costs and even tie their forklifts into their WMS (warehouse management systems) directly. By doing so, forklifts and their operators are becoming so integrated that it truly amazes me what a few workers can do these days. On the forklift side, companies are saving money by identifying poor and unsafe drivers, getting better power usage by vetting which batteries work best in their operation and getting better fuel efficiency on LP trucks. On the operations side, big data and analytics means better order picking strategies, routing, storage utilization, and things like matching inventory to demand and warehouse placement in real time.


Even though I have seen the last 38 years, I can’t see the future with perfect vision. No one can... but based on what I have seen before, I think automation is the number one change coming in the forklift industry ahead of us, especially within the next 5 years.

Second to that are changes to how forklifts are powered and designed to become a better fit for the world of tomorrow. All of the things I discussed above point in that direction and are putting the foundation in place for possibly the biggest change of my career, which is still yet ahead. Should be a great ride. Manufacturing went through this change 30 years ago, now we are seeing drastic changes in the logistic side setting things up for what comes next.
There is another wave of change coming and like those that have come before,
I look forward to it. 

Contact Chris Kuny at [email protected]

More in Supply Chain