The Basic Principles of Materials Handling

The best handling solutions involve the least handling.  Handling adds to the cost but not to the value of the product.  The choice of the right equipment or system to optimize material flow is broadly a definition of MATERIAL HANDLING and includes cranes, conveyors, automated vehicles, tractors, free ranging forklifts, order pickers, stackers and pallet trucks.

The Unit Load

Product, whether they can be cartons, bags, cans bottles, drums or sacks are assembled together to form a load.  The commonly used base on which unit loads are formed are flat wooden (sometimes plastic) pallets, ISO Containers, roll cages and tote bins. Others are stillages, box and cage pallets, bulk containers, for example.

Pallet Handling

Products are often handled without pallets using specialized attachments in place of forks: Bales, white foods, cookers, carpets, tyres, drums, beer kegs, paper rolls and milk crates are just some of the many products where attachments are utilized.

The Application

It is essential to consider all aspects of an application in order to ensure that the most suitable equipment is specified and the best handling solution selected,  Important factors are :

The load and the Pallet of other load base type

a) Pallet details

    Length, width, depth; type ie any base boards; pallet under hang under forks; are the base boards chamfered ? two or four way access ?

b) Load details

   Weight; length when stacked on pallet; width when stacked on pallet; overall height of load and pallet; type of load; cartons, bags, sacks e.t.c; is the load shrink wrapped ?

Type of storage

Block stack, fixed racking, mobile racking and so on.

Stack Height

What is the maximum top shelf height onto which loads must be lifted ? This will determine height of lift and define nominal and residual capacities.  The forks have to lift the pallet above the top shelf with sufficient under clearance to place the load on the top shelf (mast defections must also be taken into account).

Overhead Obstructions

Is there sufficient clear headroom over the stacking area with the mast fully raised ?

Note any overhead obstructions either in the aisle or on the travelling route.  This will determine whether free lift or triplex masts are necessary.

Allow for possible future changes to the application.


To determine whether pedestrian or rider equipment is required the average and maximum distances covered in a typical work cycle need to be established. Sometimes a tractor/trailer system may be the preferable method.


The Length of any gradient is important as well as its surface and slope.  This determines the truck and battery capacity and sometimes, the type of wheel/tyre equipment.  It is also very pertinent to record the types of surfaces on the level areas.

Working area and duty

Inside or outside, order picking, lorry loading/unloading, loading docks, containers stuffing, public roads.

Careful study and definition is needed.


Operating in a cold store ? Ambient temperature ? Abrasive /Dusty atmosphere? Hazardous material? Brine or salty conditions ? Chemicals ?

Other Factors

  • Hours per shift and number of shifts
  • Numbers of pallets in and pallets out per shift
  • Any Peak periods ? If so when.
  • Electricity supply, ie. Single phase, three phase .
  • Delivery Access: ground level/loading dock.
  • How Many loading docks.
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By John

John Condron, has had a very long varied career in heavy equipment industry. Including a 10 year stint in the USA materials handling markets. John now make a full time writing for several online publications.