A History of the Articulating Forklift Revolution

Innovation and inspiration

It’s thought that Bendi’s Freddy Brown came up with the principle articulated design in about 1982. Already an accomplished inventor, Freddy had designed the world’s first man-up order picker and pallet placer in the late 1960s.

He took inspiration from the hand pallet truck and found that by reversing the triangle of stability and changing the weight distribution (a principle that was almost unused in forklifts) he could solve the issues that had long eluded earlier attempts of articulating a forklift truck.

Patent pending

The first truck was rear-wheel drive and it was this principle that was first patented. Freddy’s 1989 patent application alludes to some of the issues raised by the drive method.

“[The patent shows] a truck having front wheels only driven by separate motors which can be controlled individually as to direction of speed. This provides a solution to the problem of the inner and outer wheels moving differently, but because those motors act as the only steering means, there are other problems introduced. [The design] uses two hydrostatic motors, one for each driven wheel, which can run at different speeds when the truck is in curvilinear motion, but this only goes some way towards solving the problem and does not cater for the possibilities of extreme movement of the steering…”

With most of the weight at the rear (even when loaded) rear-wheel drive was considered the most effective solution for traction/braking, but in the context of a warehouse truck, how relevant this is can still be argued.

A challenge from the neighbours

Meanwhile, the idea of a “back wheel drive Bendi” was also developed by Flexi in the 1990s.

When being awarded a lifetime achievement award in 2011, Flexi founder, Peter Wooldridge, was credited with playing “a huge role in bringing the novel idea of articulated trucks squarely into the mainstream.”

Upon receiving the award, he alluded to the scepticism the idea first met with: “Back in the 1990s, the Flexi concept was initially received by many commentators as a quirky, niche product, but the Flexi articulated truck has gone on to revolutionise the way palletised loads are stored and picked at many warehouses and distribution centre.”

Unlikely advocates

By the mid-1990s, Translift, the owners of Bendi, collaborated with a host of manufacturers, including BT Rolatruc, Jungheinrich, Caterpillar, Still and Manitou, but they found an unlikely group of advocates in the form of Toyota dealers. Together they helped Translift source Toyota 5FBE15 models and (much to Toyota’s chagrin) convert them to an articulated truck they called the DPV – Dual Purpose Vehicle. The DPV illustrated the potential market demand, as well as the some of the difficulties being faced in meeting that demand. French manufacturer, Manitou, later went on to build their own models, launching its EMA II range of articulated trucks in 2014, and Flexi also turned to Tailift for manufacturing, prior to Taiwanese company itself becoming part of Toyota.

Turning to Combilift

Translift turned to Combilift to help them build their LPG model from around 1998, prompting Combilift to found Aisle-Master in 2000. The Bendi/Aisle-Master LPG machines were front wheel drive to avoid patent issues but Aisle-Master agreed not to offer the equipment in countries where Bendi already had a presence.

In 2001, after 2 years of development, Bendi announced the N Range, capable of working in 1.6m aisles with a 1,000mm pallet.

The collaboration with Bendi allowed Aisle-Master to use Bendi’s four-wheel drive patent, with four separate drive motors, but just four years later, the Bendi and Aisle-Master agreement ended, meaning Aisle Master had to either revert to the twin front wheel drive or come up with another solution.

They chose a third option, in fact, a three motor option, omitting one of the rear drives and avoiding the patent issues.

Taking control

The Aisle-Master electric trucks were introduced in 2005, and the company became the first articulated manufacturer to incorporate AC power into its electric models in May 2008, when the AC range was launched at the CeMat exhibition in Hannover.

In 2006, a US patent was granted to Aisle Master Ltd (specifically Robert Moffett, Gerry McHugh, Joe O’Brien, Gary Harte and Martin McVicar) for the articulated forklift truck design, where the drive method featured prominently, the invention being summarised as having “means for driving both front wheels and one only of the rear wheels.” The patent abstract also states: “Both front wheels but only one of the rear wheels are driven by electric of hydrostatic motors.”

The application was originally filed by Aisle Master Ltd 5 years earlier, in 2001.

The dealer factor

The Aisle-Master business really kicked on in April 2010 when it became wholly-owned by Combilift. The new business moved operation to Combilift’s HQ and manufacturing plant in Monaghan, offering both AC electric drive and LPG powered models, with lift capacities of up to 2.5 tonnes and lift heights of up to 12.5 metres and a choice of wide or narrow chassis.

Aisle-Master grew its sales rapidly by increasing the number of dealers, typically established forklift companies that were already in some way tied to a counterbalance brand. Having already laid the foundations with Combilift, the dealers were known to the company and often they were able to take on these trucks without incurring the ire of their main suppliers who, perhaps a little short-sightedly, didn’t see them as direct competitors.

The end of the revolution?

Following a management / investment company buyout in July 2017, Translift, shifted production to US company, Landoll. Despite the success of the British concept, developed for years in the West Midlands, it was no longer built here. Bendi certainly under-estimated Combilift’s ambition: opening the door to a major player in exchange for an LPG model that would largely be superseded by electrics.

Bendi’s original bet on four-wheel drive also proved less conclusive than first imagined, with Flexi and then Combilift arguing that front wheel drive was in any case more precise, or as Combilift put it: “far superior to rear wheel drive when it comes to more precise positioning in racking when articulating.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, today, thousands of trucks are in use and the concept no longer carries that stigma that Peter Wooldridge and others experienced. The manufacturer you go for may be a matter of price, support and personal preference, but the concept is proven, the revolution is over, and the new order is here to stay.