Transport Packaging: Balancing Act

March 1, 2009
Specifying pallets that will interact with automated material handling equipment is a strategic decision that weighs cost, functionality and durability.

The Center for Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech has been a leading expert in pallet design and performance for three decades. But, over the last 15 years, the learning center has expanded its focus to include the symbiotic relationship between pallets and automated material handling systems.

To explore the ever-changing dynamics of this critical relationship, MHM sat down with the center’s director, Ralph Rupert, for an exclusive interview.

What are the dangers of purchasing pallets based on cost alone, particularly when they must integrate into automated systems?
“I look at the pallet as a part of your product protection system. If you only buy on price, you’re jeopardizing your product, because it’s not going to protect it as well as it potentially could. Automated systems are not intelligent in the respect that if a pallet is not the right dimensions or damaged, the system won’t recognize it, which increases the possibility of shutdowns.

“What often happens is you end up having more added cost to your system because you’re trying to save money in one area. And, this is where we also find out that the packaging, pallet and material handling people are in different segments, including purchasing. Somebody designs the package, somebody purchases the pallet and somebody installs a multi-million-dollar warehouse. But, they don’t talk to each other.”

What, then, is the most effective way to select pallets?
“There are two parts. The pallet must meet a performance specification. If you’re purchasing the pallet on a performance specification, and that performance is based on your material handling system and the package going on it, you can avoid some pitfalls. Secondly, people have to understand that there is a pallet standard—the MH1. You can hold your suppliers to a standard, but you have to understand what that standard is, so you’re not trying to over-specify the pallet.”

What specific characteristics does a pallet need to interact with an automated system?
“There’s actually a chapter in the MH1 standard specifically for pallet performance that’s going into an automated system. The biggest part of that is stiffness of the pallet because an automated system is typically going to be a rack-storage system.

“As the pallet is under load, it is going to deflect. Clearances between the shuttle carts may be jeopardized if you’re not paying attention to the stiffness requirement.”

What are some of the total lifecycle costs not normally calculated, and where can the real value come in?
“You’re starting to get into that whole sustainability issue, and it’s difficult to determine total pallet costs because you really don’t know what its life is going to be. When a pallet is classified as ‘one way,’ it’s really a misnomer. It should be called ‘limited use.’ But, even that pallet will have life beyond its initial use. It’s going to be collected, repaired and put back into service in some manner.

“We need to understand whether the pallet is going to be in multiple use or limited use and design the pallet to that use. It really comes back to the durability question. A limiteduse pallet will be a lower durability than a multiple-user pool pallet. I might be saving money on my pallet, but if it’s not going to be as durable in the long term, have I really saved money?”

For more information about the Center for Unit Load Design, visit

Ralph Rupert

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