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The Human Factor of Forklift Design

Jan. 11, 2016
Ergonomics are essential to creating designs that are compatible with how operators interact with a forklift.

For many forklift operators, the forklift is their office. Outside of personal breaks and maintenance stops, they spend the majority of their day on a truck and the way they interact with that equipment has a big impact on overall warehouse productivity and safety. While most manufacturers tout their designs as ergonomic, the attention many give to human factors and ergonomics is often only during the evaluation stage of product development. To be truly human-centered, the operator's interests and needs should be defined at conception and revisited throughout the development process to ensure they always come first.

A growing trend within the material handling industry that is helping to reinforce human-centered design thinking is the integration of human factors & ergonomics (HF&E) logic directly into the product development process. Rather than only relying on consultants to evaluate products and offer suggestions for improvement, on-staff HF&E practitioners work alongside designers and engineers throughout development as both thought partners and advisors to help reinforce the approach of designing the forklift with the operator top of mind.

HF&E is a scientific field of study much like engineering and physics. Instead of studying things such as metal fatigue or atomic particles, the human factors discipline studies the role of humans in man-machine systems and how these systems can be designed to work well with people. Professionals in the HF&E field blend elements of psychology, engineering, biomechanics, industrial design, physiology and anthropometry to ensure product, system and process designs take into account how people interact with and use technology.

The HF&E discipline is key to creating designs that are compatible with how operators interact with a forklift. The end result for fleet managers and forklift end users is a better designed forklift that improves the operator experience, ultimately helping to boost productivity and safety throughout the entire operation while promoting the employees' well-being.

So what is the benefit to "integrate" HF&E logic into the forklift product development process versus simply conducting HF&E evaluations? Integrating HF&E expertise into the product teams can reinforce an operator-centric design approach that elevates user experience. Operator needs are considered at each step of the design process. Forklifts designed holistically across disciplines with empathy toward operator daily experience and work environment means that relevant operator needs are examined and accounted for within and beyond the design process.

Design with Empathy

The sole focus of the HF&E expert is the forklift operator. While the engineers and designers are attending to multiple considerations as they proceed through the stages of product development, it's the job of the HF&E expert to look at everything through the experience of an operator. As a thought partner in the early stages of development, an HF&E expert can be involved in informal brainstorming about the designs of a new control or an innovative approach to seat adjustment. This level of participation means that HF&E considerations tend to become part of the "what if" innovation and not just post-design evaluation.

Designers and engineers should spend time in the field, observing how the trucks and operators perform in real-world applications, and then incorporate their learning back into their design.

As an example, consider a system we designed to aid drivers by remotely advancing the pallet truck when manually picking stock in warehouses. While any wearable button could technically be used to activate the truck, HF&E knowledge of operators in their environment allowed engineers and designers to disregard the concepts that interfered with the picking process and devote more attention toward integrating the technology into the tools that are already being used in the picking process. Adding this activation button to a glove proved to be both beneficial for and readily accepted by the operator. 

Understand the Work Context

Much of the design and engineering process is spent behind computers, inside project rooms pouring over designs and specs or building prototypes and design concepts. No matter how customer-centered the product team, their office is not the warehouse floor. It can often be difficult to maintain a strong connection to the operator. So designers and engineers often spend time in the field, observing how the trucks and operators perform in real-world applications and then incorporate their learning back into their design.

As an integrated part of the product development team, the HF&E expert helps these individuals review their designs along the way to ensure they maintain deep appreciation for the forklift operator's work context, physiological needs and cognitive requirements. For instance, thinking through the location of components for both operation and visibility helps to enhance both operator and pedestrian safety. HF&E experts watch how operators interact with the forklifts to better understand how optimal operation might be impeded. Then, they work closely with the design and engineering teams to identify potential solutions.

Additionally, HF&E practitioners often work across product lines, ensuring that this appreciation is similarly embodied among different product teams. They are often aware of issues that have been addressed with other products, and they help to ensure that any proven, relevant best practices are shared.

Work Collaboratively Across Disciplines

When a product design reaches the evaluation phase, it's time to give operators a chance to experience the new design and provide feedback. Engineers and designers participate alongside HF&E professionals to observe and learn directly from operators as opposed to receiving a summary report. This active participation builds dialogue and learning within the team and improves the final design. Here, HF&E expertise shepherds the evaluation process to help promote optimal learning and consideration of operator feedback and quantitative evaluation data.

Applying a HF&E focus to the forklift design process is about helping to ensure the design properly accommodates the physical, cognitive and behavioral attributes of the operators who interact with the forklifts. Having HF&E experts integrated into the design process helps everyone involved better understand the user experience and helps to ensure the equipment developed makes operators comfortable, productive and safe.

When a product design reaches the evaluation phase, it's time to give operators a chance to experience the new design and provide feedback.

As a fleet or warehouse manager, it is important for you to know if your forklift manufacturer has integrated human factors & ergonomics practitioners into the design process, not just the evaluation of their products. If you have feedback or observations on how your operator is interacting with your forklifts, these experts are there to help integrate relevant feedback into the product development process so the forklifts help enhance the productivity and safety of your entire operation. 

Jess Gilland, Ph.D., CPE, is senior human factors engineer with Crown Equipment Corp. (, which designs, manufactures, distributes, services and supports lift trucks and other material handling products.

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