An architect once told me a good exterior is a silent recommendation. Too bad the theory doesn't hold with pallets. To help reveal the beauty beneath the skin, Underwriters Laboratories has opened a pallet testing facility in Northbrook, Illinois.
While pallets are certainly an area of material handling fraught with danger, often hidden by smoke and mirrors, it's refreshing to see a new, old name in the game. When you see the UL listing or classification mark on a product (and who hasn't after 109 years in business and placement on 18,750 types of products to the tune of 17 billion UL marks annually) you think safety.
Certainly, creating safer pallets was part of the impetus for this test lab, says Dan Steppan, senior project engineer. "Among other things," he says, "we're hoping to establish a hierarchy of performance for pallets so end users can determine which pallet might work best in a given application."
Level playing field is a phrase that came up in my conversation with Steppan. "We've heard from pallet users, even some manufacturers, that load ratings attached to pallets are somewhat confusing."
Steppan is being charitable. He's referring to the kind of pallet maker that rates its product at 3,000 lbs., yet fails to tell you that rating is when the pallet is flat on the floor, not in the rack.
UL's pallet testing lab will work with other established labs such as those operated by CHEP and the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet and Container Research Laboratory at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The plan is to create a round robin set of tests that ensures everyone is measuring to the same parameters and providing comparable answers.
While initially the focus will be testing and creating a database of information on plastic pallets, Steppan says the lab will look at all types of material and containers.
"Information surrounding the performance of wood pallets is well covered," says Steppan, "in the pallet design system [PDS CAD] at the Sardo lab. We [UL] have a strong background in plastics with our work on fire retardation, so we'll start with plastic and metal pallets."
He adds there has been interest in the performance of corrugated pallets. The lab will be testing those as well, only not with the vigor that it will with other material.
The pallet testing facility UL has created is a virtual torture chamber that simulates real-world conditions - and more. If, for example, you want to know how a pallet will perform at minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit, because you're shipping to Cleveland, or plus-140 degrees because you're shipping to - Cleveland, the lab will have the answers.
Some of its better real-world tests are designed around how a pallet reacts in response to an encounter with lift truck tines. When I suggested that many of his tests could be eliminated if operators were properly trained - and adhered to the training - Steppan laughed. He said he was not concerned about being put out of business soon.
One test unique to the lab is its ability to test abrasion to the bottom of the pallet. Too often, a lift truck operator, rather than pick up a stack of pallets or a pallet under load, will push it on the warehouse floor to move it. This abrading is particularly tough on plastic pallets. The lab has the ability to insert sections of different kinds of concrete into a 20-foot-long test track, then accelerate and decelerate the pallet, under load, any number of times, typically enough to equal a quarter mile.
"If you're losing material from the bottom of the pallet," Steppan explains, "then putting that pallet into the racks with its maximum load, you're really changing the capabilities of that pallet."
In the long run, to the benefit of pallet users, the UL pallet testing facility will produce white papers on pallet functionality, and offer performance parameters on its Web site, www.ul.com. In the short-run, given UL's reputation for safety, it's easy to see how any pallet bearing the UL mark could go a long way in clearing the air for the buyer.
Clyde Witt, executive editor