Forklift-free plants: Considerations for success

Mike Urban, K-TEC Inc. Larry Tyler, K-TEC Inc. John Neumann, K-TEC Inc.

Increasingly, companies are mandating the move to forklift-free production floors on the basis of highly visible macro issues like safety improvements, reduced forklift lease and maintenance costs. However, there are many other less visible advantages with direct and secondary benefits that may play an important role in reducing costs and improving customer response. Identifying these benefits requires a big-picture overview of the project as well as an understanding of how each department and suppliers, both internal and external, will be impacted.

Implementation of the forklift-free factory plan can be extremely challenging and, at times, frustrating. Many familiar habits of both the material handling support and production assembly personnel will be changed. Physical plant, assembly line and storage constraints, packaging changes, budget limits, ergonomic issues and project completion time add additional complexity. Working through these difficult problems will require unabridged input from top management, the affected departments and suppliers who will share ownership of the plan.

The Case for Forklift-Free

There is no question human loss and liability cost relative to forklift injuries has been the No. 1 driver for forklift-free (also referred to as fork-free) plant floors. Each year in the United States, nearly 100 workers are killed and another 20,000 are seriously injured in forklift-related incidents. Forklift overturns are the leading cause of fatalities involving forklifts; they represent about 25 percent of all forklift-related deaths.

The Hyster Company estimates that businesses waste more than $1 billion in unnecessary operating costs associated with material handling equipment. A recent study suggested that, unfortunately, only 6 percent of end-users actually know their real maintenance costs. Even fewer have programs in place to reduce these expenses. An old industry axiom states that, on the average, over the life of a forklift, only 20 percent of its cost is ownership. Approximately 80 percent of total forklift costs are operating costs.

On the flip side, forklift-free programs can contribute value in areas relating to reduction of inventory, improvement of material flow, reduction of line-side handling equipment and floor space, improved operator ergonomics, cycle efficiency and reduced need for coordination between forklifts and operators for replenishment. A summary follows:

Forklift-Free – Justification Issues

  • Improved worker and investor perceptions relating to the company’s plan to reduce forklift activity in response to injury or death situations involving forklifts.
  • Decrease d lost worker production, compensation and litigation costs associated with less forklift injury claims by going forklift-free.
  • Reduced costs for forklift leasing, purchase and maintenance.
  • Reduced forklift operator costs (direct labor and benefits).
  • Cost avoidance due to fewer and less expensive line-side handling equipment.
  • Cost avoidance of extra line space required for forklift replenishment.
  • Improved scheduling flexibility by not needing tight coordination between line operators and production floor material handlers (built-in system using radio frequency, kanban, etc.).
  • Decreased total WIP (work-in-process) inventory.
  • Improved control of FIFO (first in, first out) products delivered line-side.
  • Reduced coordination time between forklift operators and production floor material handlers.

Macro Issues

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. At the start of the project, a framework can be established by asking probing questions about how the forklift-free system might impact operations and the supply chain. Manufacturing/industrial engineers and material logistics personnel are typical forklift-free project leaders who would ask questions and make decisions with input from safety and ergonomic teams, production managers, line operators, proposed tug drivers, market supply teams, purchasing and suppliers. Poor communication is the root cause of ineffective forklift-free programs that add waste, increase costs and create the “tried it once, not going to try again” mind-set on future programs.

The following questions are samples of those that should be asked to help uncover possible problems and define the foundation/framework of the plan. At the end of the exercise, all affected personnel and departments should have a clear picture of any changes to past procedures and new responsibilities that may be required under a forklift-free plan.


What are the goals of the forklift-free program? Can they be clearly defined, measured and shared with all personnel?

  • Do proposed plans and actions support the goals or stray from the target?


  • How many material handling support personnel are needed for forklift-free (FF) replenishment? Is this better or worse than present forklift manpower? Why?
  • How closely will ergonomic guidelines be followed?
  • Will material handling (MH) operators be loading/unloading any carts to conveyors?
  • What maximum weights will MH operators need to push, pull? What frequency, distance?
  • Will assembly operators be expected to move containers or carts?
  • Will MH operators be required to get in and out of units repeatedly? Stand up vs. sit down designs? Ergo impact?
  • What are the union regulations and issues related to FF changes?

Parts Presentation

  • Are mixed product lines with complex parts changeouts being used?
  • Will they be handled with sequencing or kitting part configurations?
  • What criteria will determine where containers will be “pushed” to/from conveyors or containers on carts will be “exchanged” in work cells?
  • Will suppliers (internal/external) support different container configurations and more frequent deliveries? What are the costs?


  • Where in the plant will forklifts continue to be used?
  • Will there be one market area and/or multiple smaller staging areas?
  • How much inventory can be removed from the floor?
  • How much can be removed from the market?
  • Will forklifts be used to load forklift-free supply carts in the market areas?
  • What kind of tugs will be acceptable to the drivers, maintenance and be suitable for the loads handled?

Micro Issues

Serious handling problems can be avoided if the forklift-free system designer role-plays with all of the plant clients who must “touch” material in some way. Tracing the flow of material (and containers) from the supplier to receiving dock through the assembly station and back to the shipping dock for each part or part group can provide the insight into troublesome details that might otherwise not surface until the first run-off. In Example 1.1 that follows, the movement of one part (and its container) used in one production cell location is compared to a forklift-free strategy. As the details unfold, note the number of operational issues, personnel and supplier changes that must be put in place.

Example 1.1





Standard Forklifts

Original part is delivered from an outside supplier two times a week in 96-inch-long x 45-inch-wide containers. Parts are in 10 stacks of 50 each/container, five to six containers per/delivery. Production uses approximately 10 containers per week. Maximum market inventory: 3,000 units.

Forklift-Free Approach

Ten stackable, gravity-slide tube racks that hold 125 units each are delivered four times a week from the supplier. Racks are forklift loaded in the receiving area onto low push/pull force, towable carts and staged in the market area. Maximum market inventory: 1,250 units.

Line-Side Delivery

Standard Forklifts

Forklift operator delivers one container to the line at the start of each shift for two shifts. Assembly operator places any remaining parts in new container, forklift driver removes empty container, loads new container on a lift and tilt device. Load time: 10 minutes.

Forklift-Free Approach

Every two hours, the tug operator tows one rack to the line. Tug operator rolls out empty rack (placing any remaining parts on the new rack) and pushes new rack over a small footprint lift. Maximum inertial push/pull forces are not to exceed 40 pounds. Load time: 4 minutes.

Assembly Operator Actions

Standard Forklifts

Operator works from one side of the tilted container walking the length (96 inches) of the unit to unload. Line space required: 81 inches linear (36 inches for operator and 45 inches for container width), plus 96 inches depth. Average operator cycle: 45 seconds retrieve/install, 12 seconds rest.

Forklift-Free Approach

Operator works from the back of the cart rack (end facing the line). As parts are removed, gravity slide rack feeds new parts to the operators allowing them to stay (sit or stand) in one area. Line space required: 42 inches for operator/rack width, plus 75 inches depth. Cart rack has double slides to accommodate required part volume. Average operator cycle: 20 seconds retrieve/install, 37 seconds rest (opportunity to increase line speed or add second operation).


Standard Forklifts

Forklift picks up empty container line-side, moves it to shipping and stacks it on the floor (stacked two high) until next vendor pickup.

Forklift-Free Approach

Empty rack is towed to shipping and forklift separates the base from the rack assembly and stacks the rack on the floor (stacked two high) until next vendor pickup.


Plant Considerations

Working through the details of forklift-free changes in existing plants (brownfield) is more difficult than in new or remodeled facilities ( greenfield) where constraints can be adjusted on the drawing board. Even when approached carefully, existing plant constraints may make the best forklift-free strategy less than optimal. 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. Table 2.1 lists more examples of micro issues that would need to be addressed.

Table 2.1



Operator Ergonomics/Safety

Push/pull forces, rotational forces, reaching distance, lift height, bending/twisting needs, pedal forces, tripping, pinching, crushing or impact hazards

Part Picking, Sequencing, Presentation

Line-side configuration (cart exchange vs. push) relative to high density/low density parts, dunnage type, weight, size and line space

Operator Efficiency (production)

Cycle time targets, eliminate wasted motion or action

Zero Line Stops

Simulation models, real variable assumptions

Line Space Required

See part presentation

Operator Efficiency (MH)

Market: loading/unloading dunnage, conveyor vs. forklift, tug speeds, market to line cycle times

Plant Constraints

Floor types/condition/flatness, column locations, aisle widths, production line setbacks, turnaround areas, market areas vs. high-volume assembly locations

Equipment Constraints

Existing conveyors, lifts, tilters, etc., that compromise ergonomics, forklift-free loading, cart geometry/alignment (to conveyors), number of carts/train

Financial Constraints

Poor planning/business case, cost overruns, budget cutbacks (at expense of long-term forklift-free gains)

Replenishment Signals

Determining the appropriate type of pull signals such as kanban cards, electronic RF calls, etc.

Visual Factory/Error Reducing

Color coded inventory containers, open racking for easy identification of inventory, color-coded delivery locations

Brownfield forklift-free conversions work best when done incrementally by addressing one to two work cells at a time or common assembly areas. A good place to start planning is in an area where a kaizen event or new product or process is being implemented and the material flow process can be changed at the same time. Despite the challenges, brownfield conversions can yield good results if it is understood that changes may require more customized solutions, higher initial costs and longer implementation times.


Converting to a forklift-free plant floor is a significant technical challenge. Regardless of whether the plant is a greenfield or brownfield installation, material movement into and through the plant can be systematically analyzed and improved. Getting the best possible forklift-free plan is dependent upon getting detailed input from affected departments and management. It is equally important to find suppliers who have experience in forklift-free implementation and can provide useful plan feedback, suggest creative approaches and help avoid application pitfalls.

 This article was provided by K-TEC Inc., a designer and manufacturer of forklift-free systems. Headquartered in Cleveland, it serves markets throughout the United States and Canada. To learn more, call 440-943-4111, e-mail or visit


Subscribe to Reliable Plant

About the Author
About the Author
About the Author