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They’re no longer just wood and nails hammered together, even though 90 percent of pallets are wood, according to Clint Bailey, president and CEO of Pallets Inc., in Fort Edward, New York. “On the surface, wood pallets are not very technical,” he says, “until one starts to dissect the pallet and the components used to make it. Species, lumber grades, thicknesses, fasteners, board placements, etc — all have profound influences on pallet performance with respect to material handling, storage and transportation of a specified unit load.”

Pallets Inc manufactures custom-built wooden pallets, and Bailey says that the nuances above are calculated by years of research and development, and programmed into the Pallet Design System (PDS), originally developed by Virginia Tech, the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA), and pallet manufacturers in the early 1980s. “PDS is on its fifth version and has helped shape the industry for decades, designing the right pallet in the right environment,” he says. “In addition to PDS, other advancements in technology with respect to pallets are RFID (radio-frequency identification) and bar coding. Both are used primarily in larger warehouses for tracking and retrieving unit load information in a complex environment.”

At Chep USA, in Atlanta, Vishal Patell, VP, retail supply chain solutions, says that his company’s pallets are mainly constructed with commercially available softwoods and adorned with Chep’s logo and signature blue paint to assist in identification. “It’s because of rigid engineering and specifications — designed to allow for a uniform stable unit load platform — that Chep is able to significantly reduce product damage for its customers,” he notes.

 

Unlike typical ‘one-way’ pallet use, Patell says that Chep operates a ‘pooled pallet system’ in which the company maintains ownership of pallets moving through the supply chain as leased assets. Chep controls the sourcing, construction, movement and repair of pallets according to strict protocols. The pooled pallets circulate in a closed system with maintained ownership, continuous inspection and repair, and controlled end-of-life management. Chep works closely with its customers to analyse their supply chains and data to identify specific improvements that drive operational efficiency.

 

“Chep is constantly seeking and testing new ways to improve our pallet design,” observes Patell, “as well as identify new platforms and services. In addition to our Innovation Center, Pallet Test Track, and continuous enhancements we make with technology and how we interface with our customers, we recently launched improvements to our 48-by-40 block pallet to ensure we continue to build a better shipping platform for our customers.”

Chep also works continuously to stay abreast of trends, developments and advances in technology through strategic collaboration with customers, according to Patell. In March 2012, Chep launched the Strategic Leadership Forum (SLF), a series of regularly held meetings in which retail and manufacturing leaders participate and drive action in areas of mutual interest. The Chep-hosted sessions aim to help participants understand challenges and develop collaborative, value-added solutions.

In the future, Patell says, pallets will be a central component of the grocery industry’s supply chain and, in the company’s view, will remain the unit load transport platform. “We do, however, believe that there will be an increased demand for fractional pallets as our retailers continue to experiment with smaller and unique formats,” he says, “as well as to support an increased amount of SKUs, new product launches and promotions.”

In 2013, Chep launched a 40-by-24-inch half-pallet in the U.S. market to support customers’ promotional strategies and aid in efficient replenishment of products with smaller order sizes and to smaller-format stores.

Lab-tested

Jessica Camilly, marketing programmes analyst at Millwood Inc in Vienna, Ohio, says that her company provides new, used and remanufactured wooden pallets, and also offers plastic and corrugated pallets for some applications. The advantages of Millwood’s pallets, she says, are the support of national and regional teams, access to the Unit Load Lab, availability of packaging consumables/systems, and the company’s 27 pallet-manufacturing facilities.

“One of Millwood’s greatest strengths,” Camilly says, “is our Unit Load Lab, where we design and test to ensure the proper package, pallet and material-handling interactions. We are able to keep our pallets state-of-the-art by continually challenging industry standards and providing a better match to customers’ needs.”

Camilly feels that the block-style pallet, whether plastic or wood, has improved the material-handling function and increased the demand for this style. And while RFID has made the pallet “smart,” she believes that this technology hasn’t become an important aspect of the pallet market. “The pallet market is driven by the material-handling system,” she says. “Until the system changes, pallets will continue to be the same. Millwood Inc. is part of an international research group, PI Initiative, which is involved in redefining the material-handling system, but any new system is decades away.”

Litco offers many types of pallet solutions, says Gary Sharon, a VP at Litco International Inc, also in Vienna, Ohio, but specialising in Inca presswood molded pallets, which are constructed from wood fiber and resin molded under high heat and pressure, making them water- and mould-resistant.

“Our export-ready pallets are not regulated by ISPM-15 (International Phytosanitary Measure) because they are free of insects and considered ‘processed wood,’” explains Sharon. “The pallets are easy to handle, featuring a nestable space-saving design. Most have four-way entry for handjacks, and four-way entry compatible with forklifts, and most conveyors and pallet dispensers. We also offer small-size pallets such as a 24-by-40 half-size for small-lot shipping, and a 24-by-20 for point-of-purchase applications.”

Sharon also notes that Litco’s pallets are sustainable, being the first to be Cradle to Cradle Certified by MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry). According to Sharon, Litco has its own in-house engineering department for new and improved product design, and uses the Center for Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech. Litco’s pallets are designed for strength and stiffness, and molded in a press for consistency and uniformity.

 

In the future, he sees a demand for smaller pallets to fit the smaller lot orders becoming more popular as the sizes of pallet load shipments in Europe are replicated. He also anticipates a need for small-lot purchasers of wooden pallets that can be conveniently purchased online.

“We prefer to take a holistic approach to solving damage prevention problems,” says Sharon. “We offer free consulting to ensure that our customers are using the most efficient pallet size and design for optimum load-stacking patterns. To help them get the most out of high shipping costs, we also recommend a pallet size that will best cube out a trailer or overseas shipping container with the greatest amount of product at the lowest possible cost per unit shipped.”

Obviously, today’s pallets have come a long way from when they were known as ‘skids’.

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