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Posted by Stephanie on July 31, 2023

Any warehouse or facility that uses shipping containers for storing and transporting goods can benefit from using container forklifts. While smaller forklifts are often used to take items in and out of shipping containers, larger container handlers can move the entire container into the correct position. Shipping containers are most commonly used in and around ports.

Since containers can weigh as much as 60,000-70,000 pounds when fully loaded, the job of moving the container requires a specialized and heavy-duty lift truck. Standard forklifts that you use in your warehouse or distribution center have much lower weight capacities. In comparison, specialized forklifts can handle up to 90,000 pounds. The following is an in-depth guide on container forklifts and how they can make your cargo handling tasks more efficient.

Yard Ramp with Forklift Unloading from back of Container or Dry Van.

Overview of Container Forklifts

Container forklifts are large machines that are designed specifically to lift and transport shipping containers. As mentioned previously, these containers can handle up to 90,000 pounds and are capable of stacking containers up to six levels. While container forklifts are commonly seen in shipping yards, ports, and terminals, you can use them in any location that consists of a shipping container. Warehouses regularly use container forklifts to perform quick lifting cycles and reduce freight costs.

Shipping container forklifts may consist of numerous features depending on the type of forklift you buy. Some of these machines are designed to effectively stack empty containers. However, other forklifts are capable of moving loaded containers. When a container handler is empty, it’s much more agile than a loaded one, which means that the forklift needs to be able to move the container with high maneuverability and stability. They’re oftentimes fitted with three-speed power shift transmissions and hydro-static load sense steering.

Empty container forklifts also come with a torsion-resistant steel frame, which allows them to last for many years without wearing down from the high amounts of wear and tear that can occur when moving shipping containers. It’s possible for these trucks to handle around 16,000-18,000 pounds of weight. Some of these forklifts come with double-stacking functionality that makes it easy for two shipping containers to be stacked at the same time.

As for full-capacity forklifts, they focus almost entirely on power, visibility, and stability with the features that are placed on the trucks. They can lift as much as 90,000 pounds and are suitable for scenarios where you need to perform single row stacking or loading and unloading processes. They include many of the same features as their smaller counterparts but are also outfitted with more durable and longer-lasting materials.

Types of Container Forklifts

Along with the two types of container forklifts mentioned above, there are also many variations and models to select from. Many forklift companies provide specialized container forklifts to accommodate specific applications. For instance, some of these trucks are reach stackers, which means that they can stack containers anywhere from four to six high.

You can also obtain side loaders, which are adept at maneuvering shipping containers to precise positions. Before you purchase your next container forklift, you should first take some time to identify your needs and determine which forklift would address them. Keep in mind that forklift models will be slightly different depending on the company that manufactures them. For the following examples, Hyundai is the main company being looked at.

  • Hyundai 110D-9 to 160D-9: These models are sizable counterbalance forklift trucks that provide you with considerable power and reliability when performing difficult jobs. If you want to be able to lift heavy trucks that have already been loaded, these models will serve you well.
  • Hyundai 160D-9L: If you choose this model, you’ll receive a truck that’s capable of performing heavy-duty applications that involve moving the largest shipping containers as well as steel and concrete. It’s similar to the 160D-9 model but with more weight capacity.
  • Hyundai 180D-9: If you choose this model, you’ll receive a more compact forklift that can handle heavy-duty applications but shouldn’t lift loaded shipping containers that weigh between 60,000-80,000 pounds.
  • Hyundai 250D-9: The 250D-9 model is an all-terrain truck that provides you with great productivity and fuel efficiency when performing container lifting operations. They are ideally suited to empty shipping containers.
Pallet Racking with Column Guards

Benefits of Using Container Forklifts

There are a few benefits derived from using container forklifts at your shipping yard or dock. For instance, you’ll be able to improve productivity and efficiency when it comes to cargo handling operations. Without these forklifts, moving the shipping containers would be more challenging. However, having a container forklift at your facility makes it possible for you to move the container to the ideal loading or unloading location, which should boost efficiency and improve your cargo handling efforts.

These forklifts offer adaptability and versatility to different container types and sizes, which means that you likely won’t need to spend money on multiple container forklifts. The right forklift can be used in a wide range of different situations. Many of the best forklift models also offer enhanced safety features that will keep the operator and any other on-site personnel safe. Since operators can spend lengthy periods of time in these trucks, many container forklifts emphasize operator comfort.

Considerations for Choosing a Container Forklift

If you’re thinking of buying a container forklift, there are several things you should consider. While some warehouses and shipping yards use cranes to lift shipping containers, the operators you hire to use cranes will need to first obtain a special license. Different licensing isn’t needed to use a heavy-duty forklift, which is why it’s often the best option at your disposal.

Make sure you identify the forklift’s weight capacity and lifting capabilities before making a purchase. The maximum weight capacity should be well above the weight for the heaviest loaded shipping container at your facility. You should spend some time considering how well the forklift is able to maneuver in confined spaces. Forklifts that are designed to lift empty shipping containers are typically more agile than their heavier and larger counterparts.

Another consideration involves the fork width that the machine comes with. Is the fork wide enough to get into the pockets that are present on the container? If you purchase a smaller forklift, you might not have the fork spread you need to perform this task. If you’re set to operate this machine on a rough surface or unfinished site, make sure you opt for a forklift that’s capable of handling uneven terrain.

These trucks often provide different fuel options, which means that you can select a diesel or electric forklift. Consider which one of these fuel types is better for the environment.

yard ramp with forklift

Operating a Container Forklift

Operating a container forklift requires training and careful adherence to safety checks and the right techniques. These forklifts can be used for several different purposes, which means that different lifting techniques should be followed based on the application the forklift is being used for. Make sure you inspect the machine before you use it. This inspection should include safety checks. If any component appears to be faulty, don’t use the forklift until you fix it.

When your personnel lift these containers, they must practice proper lifting techniques and load balancing. Once a shipping container has been sent to your facility, the forklift should be moved beside or behind the container. The operator must then align the forks with any pockets or holes that are present at the bottom of this container. To lift the container, the forks should be at full depth below the load, after which the container can be lifted slowly to ensure it’s balanced. Once the load is secure, it can be moved to its new location with relative ease.

You should maintain and service container forklifts after every 200 hours of operation, which ensures that the machine is safe to use. This maintenance also allows you to obtain optimal performance.

Innovative Technologies in Container Forklifts

There are several innovative technologies that are currently being used to improve container forklifts. For instance, automation and remote-control capabilities already allow smaller forklifts to be used without someone being in the truck. This may one day be true for larger container forklifts as well.

The integration of telematics and IoT can also assist with enhanced fleet management. Businesses and warehouses will be able to effortlessly communicate information about the forklift’s location, engine diagnostics, and safety metrics in real time. An increasing number of advancements are being made to electric-powered container forklifts as well. These improvements may eventually allow electric-powered forklifts to be as viable as diesel-powered ones.

Container Forklifts in the Supply Chain Industry

Container forklifts are used in ports, distribution centers, and warehouses to perform all types of supply chain operations. These machines are essential to maintain seamless cargo flow and logistics. Along with having minimal operational expenses, container forklifts move at relatively high speeds and are designed to last for many years without breaking down. When used effectively, you can move shipping containers to practically any location, which means that cargo won’t need to be manually moved lengthy distances by your personnel.

Forklift on Yard Ramp connected to a loading dock

Future Trends and Developments in Container Forklifts

In the years to come, there are numerous trends and developments that you should be on the lookout for in regard to container forklifts. For instance, governments are focusing on sustainability initiatives, which means that more manufacturers are adopting Eco-friendly designs that can save fuel and help the environment.

Integrating these machines with emerging technologies like machine learning and AI may eventually allow them to be fully autonomous, which will further reduce operational costs. Since the EPA, OSHA, and similar government agencies are regularly adopting new regulations and standards, there’s a good chance that tighter regulations will be applied to container forklift operations in the future. The warehousing industry must quickly adapt to these regulations to avoid fines.


Container forklifts offer versatility and efficiency that can’t be found with other devices. Even though you can use cranes to perform the same functions, container forklifts are more effective and should deliver quicker results. Having a container forklift at your facility will allow you to maintain a seamless cargo flow. Since container forklift technology is evolving at a fast rate, you can expect these machines to be improved even further over the coming years.

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