The History of Material Handling Equipment
When considering the history of material handling equipment, you’re also pondering the history of humanity! Since the earliest times, there’s always been a need for tools, and especially to transport things from point A to point B. Innovative minds put their brains to the task, producing clever ideas to reduce labor, save on resources, and advance. Here’s a concise history of material handling equipment in all its forms.
It all begins with the simplest of things, the shelf. Material handling equipment would be useless if there wasn’t a place to put it all. It’s ridiculous to suggest that storage was “invented,” but the keeping and preserving of things in a specific spot was certainly refined over the millennia. One imagines people kept excess edibles in special places, whether it was a natural or carved-out alcove in a cave or otherwise. Eventually, they learned that cool spaces allowed food to stay fresher longer, while elevated and enclosed places protected food from hungry animals and even other humans. Shelving has been with us since people discovered a long plane of wood or other material could be suspended by a support system, permitting storage anywhere. Certainly, shelves were the first-ever pieces of material handling equipment.
The next step in the history of material handling equipment is the simple machines. Namely simple machines, which are the earliest tools used by humans to accomplish simple to difficult tasks. More than likely, the wedge was the first tool humans created. Two planes form a triangular-shaped tool with an edge that can be sharpened and used to chop wood, chisel stone, cut meat, and more. Sometime later, the first identifiable material-moving tools were developed. You know them better as the lever, inclined plane, screw, pulley, and the wheel and axle. With these tools, larger items could be moved. Using only muscle strength at first, bigger and more powerful rigs were built, run by human, animal, water, or wind power. Eventually, different tools were combined to lend the operators more strength—block and tackle assemblies and cranes, for example—which led to further developments as the industrial revolution began.
Bring On the Belts
The first material-handling equipment to be used to move massive quantities of materials may be the conveyor belt. Examples of conveyor belts turn up as far back as the late 1700s, when conveyors made of wood machinery and leather belts were used near waterways to move items between wagons on the shore and the ships docked there. Farmers also used conveyor systems in their work to transport grain and other bulk food materials. The conveyors weren’t the rapid devices of today and had to be powered by hand or animals. When steam power came into vogue, conveyor belts became swifter and more efficient. Eventually, in the mid-1800s, rubber replaced animal skins, and various tougher and stronger conveyors were developed during the Industrial Revolution. These were used in mining, factories, and elsewhere. This in turn led to assembly lines, causing an explosion in production and conveyance of bulk materials.
Hand Trucks and Pallets
Another first in material handling is the hand truck. While dollies—surfaces with wheels under them for carrying heavy goods—and wheelbarrows have been around for centuries, hand trucks are a more industrial invention. Turning up in the 18th century, hand trucks were a combination of a lever and a set of wheels. Heavy items could be easily rolled around in warehouses and up and down ship planks. This combo allowed even young boys the ability to move heavy weights they could never transport by hand. Hand trucks led to the creation of pallets which permitted even easier storage and movability of substantial amounts of material. This in turn led to the creation of forklifts, each an iteration of the hand truck, building on what came before.
According to several sources, the biggest changes in material handling have happened in the last 50 years or so, and don’t necessarily involve changes to the equipment. Early material handling was mostly done on a piece-by-piece basis. Things tended to be stored and shipped separately and with no regard for continuity. Material-handling experts recognized that there are three stages of handling. Specifically, these stages were collection, manufacturing, and distribution. Doing these separately led to erratic and expense-raising issues. Today, a more coordinated effort is made to integrate the flow of goods by shipping larger quantities of materials at once and in pre-measured units. Waste is therefore diminished, and transportation, loading, and unloading times are cut down.
Other advances in bulk handling equipment and systems include specific gathering and delivery equipment for specific types of goods and bulk materials. Cranes and conveyor belts continue to be used but have been upgraded and outfitted with new apparatuses to ensure less spoilage, spillage, and so forth. With products that can be pumped, pipelines and pipeline networks can carry gases and liquids directly to purchasers for use in their facilities. Pipes can also carry slurry, another long-time but still ingenious way to carry solids and semi-solids to other places without loss of product or requiring the use of trucks or other vehicles, extra fuel, or the use of public roads.
When it comes to bulk handling equipment and systems, it’s easy to think that it’s all about moving stuff. As we said in the beginning, material handling means transporting something from point A to point B. But, as with shelving, sometimes materials need a place to hang out, if not be processed, before moving on. Silos are another historical tool, and they’re at their best just standing still, holding and protecting bulk materials (most often foods but also other items) until a request comes through. Stackers and reclaimers can move bulk materials from one pile to another pile, for example. Hoppers are like silos, though they may be smaller and are equipped with a funnel below to distribute the contents into awaiting trucks or railcars in measured quantities. Overall, while the technology and tools may look the same over the centuries, the processes are being constantly refined!