A breakdown of material handling equipment: Forklifts, carts and conveyors

January 18, 2024

Outfit your retail or warehouse facility with the right material handling equipment and you’ll get work done quickly and securely. But get it wrong and you jeopardize efficiency, safety and your bottom line.

So it’s worth having a handle on three of the most common types of material handling equipment used in retail, warehouses and fulfillment centers: forklifts, carts and conveyors. While some operations use all three options in tandem, this isn’t standard practice. Sophisticated facilities know what equipment best suits their needs and act accordingly.

We’re here to walk you through the role each kind of equipment can play in the modern warehouse.

Forklifts and pallets: The classic option for heavy loads

Forklifts are specialized tools to transport palletized goods. Warehouses use forklifts to lift and stack heavy items, unload and load trucks, or move goods from production lines to distribution centers with less effort.

A mainstay of material handling, large forklifts are durable and can lift and transport thousands to tens of thousands of pounds. But other kinds of equipment are capable of transporting pallets, too. For instance, pallet jacks can slide under a skid, pump a pallet off the ground and enable a single operator to efficiently transport items around a warehouse or facility.

For facilities that receive, store and ship out palletized goods, forklifts handle nearly all operational tasks. And even more facilities rely on forklifts at receiving or other initial stages of their operations before sorting goods out within their facility.

Forklifts have been the most recognizable warehouse equipment since they replaced pulleys and cables over a century ago. But they have limitations, especially in the tight-margin, hyperefficient landscape of contemporary logistics.

Pallets exhaust space in a facility, and constant palletizing and repalletizing create wasted packaging material, time and effort. Pallets often break and are a constant expense. No matter their size, forklifts and pallets struggle to handle a varied product mix, making distribution within a facility inefficient. If items are unusually shaped or come in smaller quantities, it’s difficult to securely transport them on pallets.

The safety and ergonomics of large forklifts has improved over time. But every year, thousands of workers are injured in the U.S. due to incidents relating to forklifts. Deaths occur regularly, and compensation costs put pressure on managers. Some of the largest and most active distributors use no forklifts at all in their operations, maximizing efficiency with advanced conveyor systems and carts.

Carts: Flexibility for improving efficiency in retail and warehouses

Carts are the backbone of retail and warehouse picking and stocking operations. Material handling carts can navigate tight spaces and corners, making them an excellent option for use within a facility. Carts can also be used to move product between facilities — a well-designed, loaded cart takes up minimal additional space on a truck.

Let’s say you need to transport a variety of individual products around your facility. While pallets might limit you to moving large loads of one type of product, carts allow you to fulfill multiple orders at once. A good cart allows employees to quickly identify different items and move them to and from their specified locations.

What carts gain in flexibility, they lose in sheer volume — a large forklift and pallet will always be able to move more material than a single employee pushing a cart. But there are ways to partially make up the difference: Motorized carts enable employees to push heavier loads ergonomically and with minimal labor. Cannon’s SmartPWR carts help employees safely move loads of over 700 pounds.

Selecting the right cart for the job requires forethought, and it’s worth consulting an expert for free advice. Picking, stocking, distribution and utility carts all serve different functions and can further be customized to meet your facility’s needs.

An off-the-shelf, robust and thoughtfully-designed cart might be exactly what you need. But to go even further, a custom cart takes into account field conditions, your inventory dimensions and your workflow to ensure reliability and improve your operational efficiency.

Conveyors: Streamlining shipping and receiving

Conveyor systems facilitate unloading and loading trucks. They’re commonly used for receiving, shipping and cross-docking.

Picture a 53-foot truck filled with packages. Unloading packages individually would be laborious, time-intensive and inefficient. Now imagine placing a conveyor into a truck to transport every package into a dedicated sorting area. You’ve saved time and labor.

Conveyors allow employees to quickly load or unload trucks and keep packages safe from damage in the process. Motorized conveyors further reduce labor and increase speed.

Still, conveyors are limited by their size — a conveyor system meant for shipping and receiving won’t move packages through an entire warehouse. A customizable conveyor, like Cannon’s motorized and hypermobile Agiliflex, can be designed to meet the space requirements of your facility. And with its collapsible, durable design, it can easily be stored away when not in use.

Extremely high-traffic distribution centers may also use advanced, automated conveyor systems to enable high-speed movement and sortation within a warehouse. These advanced conveyor systems are a large investment and difficult to move once installed, but they can exponentially increase throughput.

In facilities that have moved toward automation, shipping and receiving conveyors still play a crucial role in operations. Many modern conveyors, including Agiliflex, are built to integrate with other technology in your facility, such as high-speed conveyors and automated storage and retrieval systems.

Want to talk more about the material handling equipment that’s right for you?

Whether custom or off-the-shelf, if you already know what equipment you need, we can get to work building and shipping it. But if you need help determining what material handling solutions will meet your goals, we can talk through design considerations for your facility. We’ll always know where to point you.

Reach out and we’ll be in touch within a business day to see how we can help.


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