The Center for Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech explains the efficiency of unit load material handling is based on performance of three interactive components: packaging, pallet and material handling equipment. Considerable art and science are required to combine these components into a coherent system. At the same time, there is something to be learned about the capabilities of the separate pieces to fit them in the unit load puzzle.
Pallets and palletizers are basic to the unit load concept. “Using a palletizer takes the human factor out of operations,” explains Jason Bennett, director of sales and marketing for von Gal Corp., a supplier of palletizer solutions. “There are no repetitive stress injuries, where a back injury nowadays can cost upward of $60,000. The overall speed of the production line is increasing to the point where human intervention is almost obsolete. There are drives on everything now. Everything is more sensitive. Servos are getting more popular. A palletizer means you can handle product a lot more smoothly and gently.”
von Gal has an installed base of more than 4,000 palletizers. Bennett notes the company has a number of food and beverage customers, although it has provided material handling solutions for materials as different as unbundled carpet tiles and oil-related products.
“We did a job for a major furniture manufacturer where we moved what they call a ‘Bedroom in a Box,’” recalls Bennett. “It's a complete bedroom set in one box. Everything is pre-cut, just needing final assembly. The single case was 88-inches long × 32-inches wide × 9-inches high. It weighed 200 pounds and sat on a pallet that was 80 inches long.”
Founded in 1957, von Gal's original product was the SPLX palletizer that, Bennett explains, is still responsible for a large portion of the company's machine sales, although it has been modified over time, bringing it up to 2009 standards. Bennett explains that SPLX is an acronym for Slide Plate Layer, and the X stands for Cross Tie.
At the most recent Pack Expo, von Gal introduced its new SPLX-MK II Stack and Wrap palletizer. “The shrink wrapper is actually integrated into the end of the machine,” notes Bennett. “It made the machine about two feet longer than a standard palletizer, but because of the placement of the wrapper, it doesn't affect the speed.” The small design requires fewer conveyors and drives, allowing for cost savings, including simple mechanical and electrical installation and start up by one technician. A case turner cushions cases during turning.
The rakeless Formula VG is von Gal's top-of-the-line palletizer. It handles 200 cases per minute. To minimize product damage, cartons are conveyed rather than pushed. With a guiding concept that the industry seeks automation, Formula VG operation is completely automatic, requiring no operator.
“Automate the conventional” is a program currently underway by HK Systems. “This economy might stand in the way of people spending $30 million on a brand new, mega DC,” notes Mike Kotecki, senior vice president of the company. “We've developed a technology that provides unit load storage and retrieval within an existing conventional warehouse. What we've done is develop fundamentally a family of very-high-reach automatic guided vehicles.”
Unit load for HK means storage and retrieval systems that are largely pallet-based. A pallet of merchandise, or sometimes layers stored on a pallet to be picked off, is how HK classifies unit load, explains Kotecki.
“Ten years ago, unit load storage and retrieval was more strategic in small applications,” recalls Kotecki. “We sold a lot of unit load storage systems to augment manufacturing operations. A unit load system would be positioned in the middle of a manufacturing plant to conduct work-in-process storage and retrieval.”
To Kotecki, unit load systems historically have encompassed stand-alone pallet handling. “I think what people are turning to now is more of a blended, strategic design where there are unit loads, case handling systems and each picking.” Systems, he feels, are becoming a little more complex, a little more custom tailored for applications.
“The other thing that's really important right now is we're seeing a great deal of agility,” continues Kotecki. “Historically, pallet handling systems and automation in general got a bad rap for being a bit inflexible. Designing for flexibility is absolutely foremost in our mind. Allow for a change in business, in SKUs or unit of measure down the road. Agility is a huge top-of-mind issue for those designing and buying systems.“