As a regional sales manager for the Bucyrus-Erie Company, Melvin B. Hill was always around heavy construction equipment. Whenever he traveled, he was attracted by new equipment designs. This continued into his retirement.
One day, about 10 years ago, while shopping at Home Depot, Hill noticed the wooden pallets stockpiled in the back of the store. He asked the manager about it, and was told that the central office at Home Depot had put out a call for suggestions on what to do with them. Used wooden pallets had evidently become a serious problem for the company. This call for a solution to a problem sparked Hill's interest. His initial reaction was, "This can't be that hard of a problem to solve."
Hill started thinking about alternative pallet designs. His first idea was for a "soft" pallet that would use only cloth and tension from a lift truck to protect and support product. But that design idea proved to be too limited in scope, so he kept revising, refining and tweaking.
The final design, which he patented, is a pallet that uses no wood, no nails, is foldable, and is completely recyclable, thereby reducing, if not eliminating, waste. It is made of industrial-strength cloth, metal, Styrofoam and Velcro. It has no sharp edges.
This alternative to the wooden pallet addresses many of the material handling problems that wooden pallets are currently encountering, especially in the international market. These problems are well known:
- They are subject to parasite infestation, which can cause environmental hazards. This problem has become so acute in Europe and China that several countries have imposed either a complete ban or major controls on the import and export of wooden pallets;
- They consume an enormous volume of trees;
- Wooden pallets are heavy and challenging to handle;
- Damaged pallets can cause product damage and loss, and even injury;
- Wooden pallets are difficult to recycle and present serious disposal problems, especially in landfills.
Because of the potential environmental benefits of Hill's product, he dubbed it the "Green Pallet" ( although this is not part of the patent). It is sound in design and is considerably lighter than a wooden or plastic pallet. It weighs 41 pounds. That alone could result in lower shipping costs.
How rugged is the "Green Pallet"? Tests on the beams at Cerny and Ivey Engineers in Atlanta in 1997 indicated that the beams could withstand a load of 4,074 pounds.
Let's look at wooden pallets. The testing lab at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, estimated that after 50 handlings ("handlings" being raising and lowering of a pallet with a pallet jack or lift truck), a wooden pallet would need some type of repair, and that after 150 handlings, it would need to be replaced. According to Hill's testing procedures, he estimated that his pallet would need some type of repair after 600 to 700 handlings. As noted earlier, this pallet is designed for repair, thanks to replaceable components.
"While the component parts themselves are not that expensive, the labor costs could be a problem, except for economies of scale in mass production," admits Melvin B. Hill Jr., son of the pallet's inventor, and successor in the effort to spread the word about it. "However, a longer life span for the product would make up for higher initial cost. In any case, I think that the major savings from the pallet will come not from the pallet itself, but from its lower weight, safety factors and environmental benefits."
Hill Senior passed away in August 2001. Hill Junior, an MHM reader, decided to submit his father's name and approach to pallets for "Innovator of the Month" consideration. This September installment is a tribute to the
Hills, Junior and Senior, for their efforts to solve a particularly tough material handling challenge.
"My father would be delighted to hear that his innovative idea might make a positive difference to someone's material handling operations, and that he helped the environment as well. It is another legacy he would be proud of — in addition to his grandchildren!"
Melvin B. Hill Jr. is currently the Robert G. Stephens Jr. Senior Fellow in Law and Government at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. He can be reached at mbhill47@ bellsouth.net or at 706-355-9924.
For More Information
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