Forklifts are a must-have tool for many machine shops and warehouse facilities. Some machine shop forklift uses include moving heavy parts that can’t be lifted by hand, and moving pallets of completed parts onto trucks for shipment elsewhere. Warehouses use forklifts virtually all the time to move heavy loads around and even place pallets on high warehouse storage shelves.

While many warehouse managers are old hands at shopping for forklifts, machine shop owners may not be as well-versed in how to compare forklift features or basic forklift terminology. So, to help you compare forklift features before you buy one, here are a few explanations of forklift parts and functions:

Comparing Forklift Drivetrains

In forklift terminology, the drivetrain references the system that provides the forklift with its motive power. There are currently two primary styles of forklift drivetrains:

  • Electric Forklifts. These forklifts are powered by a large, heavy battery (typically lead-acid type) that both powers the forklift and provides a counterbalance to keep it from tipping over while carrying a heavy load. Because the weight of the battery remains constant (unlike a fuel tank, which empties as the forklift is in operation), these forklifts are often able to carry heavier loads than combustion forklifts. Other advantages of these forklifts is that they are virtually zero emission (helping avoid respiratory issues when used indoors) and are much less of a fire risk than combustion models.
  • Combustion Forklifts. These forklifts use a combustion engine that burns gasoline, natural gas, or other combustible substance for their motive power. These forklifts are often used for outdoor applications but tend to have a lower weight limit than their electrical counterparts. One major advantage is that refueling a combustion forklift only takes a few minutes, whereas recharging a used electric forklift battery can take hours (or require you to remove a very heavy battery and load a very heavy pre-charged replacement).

In terms of overall maintenance, both types of forklifts have unique needs. Lead-acid battery electric forklifts need careful refilling of their battery water and adherence to a set charging schedule to maximize each battery’s useful life. Combustion forklifts, on the other hand, require every bit of maintenance that you would normally associate with a vehicle engine (oil, fuel injectors, timing belts, etc.).

When choosing between the two types of forklift drivetrains, it can help to consider what the weight of the parts or loads you’ll be moving will be on average—as well as to consider whether the forklift will be used indoors or outdoors.

Explaining the Components of a Forklift

There are many types of forklifts on the market today featuring a variety of specific components—too many to go into detail about every last one of them and their differences in a single blog of reasonable length. So, we’ll focus on a generic forklift components diagram for now:

  • The Cab. The cab is the part of the forklift where the operator sits. It contains all of the controls for the forklift, and the specific design and layout will change from one forklift to the next. When inspecting the cab, be sure to check the condition and action of the controls and the control panel. Are the pedals sticking? Does the steering wheel rotate smoothly? Are the mast controls loose? Is there a roof/overhead guard to the cab? If so, is it intact?
  • The Mast. The mast is the structure that moves the forklift’s tines up and down so it can lift and lower loads. There are a few different types of forklift masts, but common parts of a forklift mast include:
    • Lift cylinders—to elevate or lower the load.
    • Forks—to hold the load.
    • Load backrest—to keep the load from tipping into the cab and injuring the driver.
    • Tilt cylinders—to allow the mast to tilt forwards or backward.
  • The Counterweight. This part is a weight that is meant to counterbalance the forklift when it is holding or lifting a large load. If the counterweight is too light for the load, the forklift may fall forward when lifting a heavy load. So, it’s important to check the counterbalance weight as well as the forklift’s maximum recommended load weight. The higher a load is lifted, the more likely it is that the forklift will fall forward if the load is too heavy. On electric forklifts, the battery is often used as a counterweight.

Comparing Forklift Features to Choose the Best One for Your Machine Shop

When comparing forklift features and components such as the forklift’s drivetrain, the mast, and the counterweight, it’s important to consider:

  • Where You Plan to Use the Forklift. Will the forklift be used primarily indoors or outdoors? If the former, an electric drivetrain may be your best bet for employee health and safety reasons. If the latter, then a combustion drivetrain may provide optimal long-term performance.
  • If You Need to Reach High Storage Spaces. How high up are the storage spaces you need the forklift’s mast and forks to reach? Different masts may reach different heights, from just enough to reach into a truck bed, to dozens of feet in the air. It’s important to remember that the higher the mast reaches, the harder it will be to counterbalance the load—so high storage spaces should be reserved for lighter pallets.
  • Maximum Expected Load Weight. How heavy will your pallets be on the high end? It’s important to consider the maximum recommended weight for the forklift compared to how heavy your pallets will most likely be.
  • Maximum Operating Time. How long will the forklift last on a full battery charge or tank of fuel? Furthermore, how long does it take to recharge/refuel the forklift? If you expect to use your forklifts heavily for hours on end, it may be best to use a combustion drivetrain forklift since they’re faster to refuel. Otherwise, electric forklifts may provide the best balance of operating costs and performance.
  • Forklift Size. One of the most important, and often-forgotten, forklift features to check is the actual size of the forklift. If a forklift is too big for your shop floor, then it won’t be worth it, no matter how good the rest of the forklift’s parts and functions are. A forklift should be large enough to comfortably accommodate your pallets, but small enough to easily navigate your shop floor with some room to spare.

Need help finding the right forklift for your shop floor? Check out SFMS’ used forklifts today, or contact us to leverage our extensive network of contacts to find the perfect forklift for your needs.