Customer Service Begins with Pallets and Unitizing

April 1, 2004
Even the best product tracking systems won’t mean a thing if your product is damaged in transit. Undamaged products begin with the proper shipping platform and protection from the elements.

by Clyde E. Witt, executive editor

What’s so special about pallets and unitizing? Everything. This basic, core part of material handling has changed more rapidly than most people realize, following the ebb and flow of consumer demands. While radio frequency data collection gets the ink, it’s pallets that do the work. Whether you’re shipping motorcycles, computers or corn flakes, there’s a shipping platform to fit your needs.

Pallet choices are influenced by ergonomic regulations as well as other government mandates. If you’re shipping globally, faced with international regulations governing wood packaging material, there are plenty of alternatives to consider.

And when it comes time to wrap the unit load, manufacturers of stretch and shrink wrapping equipment have met, even surpassed, the needs of distribution centers. Wrapping equipment is designed to work in concert with conveyors and palletizers to create safer, faster, more efficient applications at the shipping dock.

From the financial point of view, pallets are now recognized as assets and should be managed as such. To aid companies moving to closed-loop or reusable systems, software manufacturers, more at home with logistics execution systems, are stepping to the plate with sophisticated tracking and management programs.

Follow the money

Economic pressures have always had a major influence on pallet selection because pallet purchases were made by people at the front of the office rather than people in back who actually used the pallet. This is changing. Managers are finally getting the message that a pallet should, and can, be controlled like any other asset.

"We’ve long sold our product based on cost-per-use," says Hartman Poland, general manager at PDQ Plastics, manufacturer of specialty pallets primarily used in the printing industry. "Now we’re having to sell against the concept of cost-per-pallet; drive out cost, period. And if people are going to have that mindset, especially with niche manufacturers like us, they have to be able to track the pallet and maintain control of the asset."

Tracking and maintaining can be as complicated as establishing a radio frequency identification program or as simple as a person with a pencil and clipboard. "In the end," adds Poland, "controlling the asset has to be part of management’s thought process."

In the past, how important tracking a pallet was seemed to be a function of the value of the product on the pallet. That, too, appears to be changing. As managers are forced to do more with less, any pallet, regardless of cost, has increased in status if not value.

The need to know

If you think a pallet is just a pallet, there are plenty of folks ready to take your money. To better understand your pallet requirements, and thus spend your money wisely, a little education can go a long way. Depending on the level of education you seek, the Center for Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech can start you off with anything from short courses to full, continuing and professional education. "People might not care about different species of wood," says Ralph Rupert, packaging engineer at the Center for Unit Load Design, "but they can benefit from knowing the relationship between performance and design of the pallet."

Another place to get a good education on how your pallet choice will perform is in the various test labs around the country. A newcomer for testing all aspects of pallet performance is the lab established by Underwriters Laboratories. Well-known for safety testing, this new function of UL is dedicated to a broader study of pallet performance.

"We’re hoping to create a hierarchy of performance for pallet use," says Dan Steppan, senior project engineer at UL, "ranging from automated storage and retrieval machines through single-use pallets that will eventually be recycled."

The lab offers an endurance test program that cycles pallets through heat, cold, flexing and abrasion. "We’ll have this information as our ‘standard,’" explains Steppan, "and correlate endurance ratings for a particular application such as automotive or pharmaceutical."

Steppan adds that eventually his lab will develop statistical information to design tests in cooperation with other organizations such as the Center for Unit Load Design and commercial labs such as the one found at CHEP, the pallet pooling provider.

"We spend a lot of time testing," says Victor Mendes, CEO of CHEP, "like the five-year effort we’ve put into creating an RFID [radio frequency identification] solution for customers trying to adhere to mandates established by retailers and the U.S. government."

Mendes says RFID has the potential to drive tremendous cost savings throughout the supply chain and it all begins with the pallet. "The pallet is the constant as products move through the supply chain to the retail store," he says. "Our Plus ID service is a pragmatic first step for companies seeking the collective benefits of this technology."

Tracking pallets

Tracking pallets and costs is only a click away for many companies. IFCO Systems’ proprietary on-line system, PalTrax, for example, helps customers assign pallet costs and evaluate price and volume levels in addition to establishing an audit trail of the units.

An interesting partnership that has recently emerged brings together RedPrairie, a producer of supply chain technologies software, and TriEnda/Wilbert Plastic Services, manufacturer of plastic pallets.

"Many manufacturers have made substantial investments in mobile assets," says John Jazwiec, company leader, RedPrairie, "without a way to track these resources." He says the partnership with TriEnda/Wilbert gives customers a way to track returnable pallets and containers throughout the supply chain via RFID technology.

Bob Klimko, marketing director for TriEnda/Wilbert, says a common interest has brought the two companies together. "We have a shared expertise in the same industries," he says, "and we need an unbiased RFID partner that can work with any of the tag and hardware suppliers."

Special needs, special platforms

Sometimes a single pallet can be the solution to several problems. "Harley-Davidson came to us with a multifaceted problem," says Don Pulver, vice president and general manager, Worthington Steelpac. "It was experiencing an unacceptable level of damage to its motorcycles in shipping, and its dealers were faced with serious waste disposal costs getting rid of wood and corrugated."

Pulver’s solution was a custom-designed steel platform that is used multiple times. "Motorcycles are secured to the base of the platform made of lightweight galvanized steel," he says.

The pallet features fork tunnels to protect the motorcycle from damage, a special tire cut-out at the rear for easy roll-off and stack pins to assist stacking for return shipping.

Manufacture of these pallets is done in a highly automated plant only a short distance from the Harley-Davidson factory in York, Pennsylvania. The robotic tooling of Steelpac’s Multibend Center is used to bend and create the seamless blanks of steel into shipping platforms in a matter of minutes.

If you’re looking for the strength of metal and reduced weight, the proven success of aircraft design and construction leads you to aluminum. Earl Rasmussen, CEO of Rhino Pallets, says aluminum delivers high load-bearing capability with low tare weight — and lower cost. "We’ve been able to adapt aviation-style riveted-fastening techniques to pallet manufacturing," he says, "and build them on a highly automated assembly machine."

A 48 x 40, four-way entry pallet made of aluminum can weigh as little as 30 pounds with a rack-load capacity of 3,000 pounds, says Rasmussen.

Engineered wood

A major impetus for global manufacturers seeking alternatives to solid wood pallets has been ISPM 15, the International Standard for Phytosanitary Measures regulation affecting exports around the world. The regulation requires all timber packaging be specially fumigated or heat treated to control pests and diseases, thus increasing the cost.

Inca presswood pallets, made with a proprietary process by Litco International, have been around for more than 30 years. "Our products are not affected by the regulations," says Gary Trebelcock, president, "because our products are made of wood fiber and synthetic resins." He adds that the company has been shipping pallets to Australia and New Zealand, two countries with strict import regulations, for many years now.

Inca pallets have a nesting ratio of four-to-one and are manufactured in a variety of sizes and load-bearing capacities.

Global manufacturers such as IBM are well aware of international regulations. Susie Elkins, corporate packaging engineer for IBM, says the company ships products to and from China on a regular basis and was looking for a non-solid wood replacement for its shipping platforms. "We were already implementing some engineered wood solutions for a specialized product," she says, "so now we’re taking that original design to create a generic design that will fit our worldwide needs, which are even more rugged." She says the challenge is to create a generic pallet design when you don’t know what the requirements imposed by different governments and products might be.

Elkins worked with APA — The Engineered Wood Association and the Center for Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech to create a pallet that meets existing standards. She has also worked with peers in the Electronics Industry Pallet Standard (EIPS) task group, seeking solutions to common problems.

"In part," she says, "I was looking for a way to use engineered wood for our internal shipments to countries where regulations are an issue, and also design one that could become the EIPS standard."

The need for this standard is to help not only major companies in this country, but also to aid companies in less-developed countries that do not have the labs and software required to generate internationally acceptable pallets.

Elkins says a standard pallet will at least serve as a starting point for companies, potential suppliers to her company or others in the electronics industry looking for a new design.

"One of the challenges [in creating this engineered wood pallet design]," she says, "is that in places like China, the price of plywood or solid wood is similar, whereas in this country, the prices have a much wider range."

The current status of the project to create engineered wood pallets is entering the test phase. "When the design is proven in the lab," she says, "we’ll feel more confident about putting the pallet into document form that others can reference."

Within IBM, the design will become another tool in the company’s packaging engineers’ toolboxes. "Each company site has comprehensive knowledge of what is needed for their specific location," Elkins explains. "In some cases there are geography-specific requirements, such as China, where we specify engineered wood. At other times, engineered wood might be the exception pallet."

Wrapping it up

Once you’ve found the best shipping platform, keeping the load in place is your next challenge. There are a number of ways to achieve this, ranging from total enclosure with corrugated or some other material, through specialized products that keep items from slipping.

Driving productivity and protecting the load have always been goals for palletizer and wrapper manufacturers. For example, LanTech’s Q300XI Plus automatically attaches and cuts the wrapping film, allowing the lift truck operator to drive up, position the unwrapped load on the turntable, start the machine with a lanyard switch and drive away. When the load is wrapped, an indexing arm transfers the wrapped load to an exit conveyor.

Conspicuous by their absence in this discussion of shipping platform specialization have been the corrugated pallet and slipsheet. Nor have we mentioned floor-loading, an increasingly important way of shipping in overseas containers. These and other specialized areas will be covered in future articles.

The end of the story about specialized pallets is that standard (whatever that means) wood pallets still occupy more than 90 percent of the new pallet market. Wood pallet manufacturers have improved their processes and responded to phytosanitary regulations with heat treatment and fumigation programs to eliminate pests. Meanwhile, escalating wood prices (an increasing pace of 8.5 percent over the past 12 months for hardwood and 25 percent for softwood in the past six months) are challenging pallet users to look at other types of shipping platforms as wood pallet manufacturers work to maintain their customer base. Complying with retailers’ demands for data collection will happen first at the shipping platform level, creating new challenges for the pallet user and confirming the pallet’s role in material handling. MHM

Stretch Wrappers Are True Value

When True Value’s Springfield, Oregon, regional distribution center made the switch from manual stretch wrapping to semiautomatic, the company virtually eliminated end-of-the line damage, dramatically reduced manpower requirements and significantly reduced film costs.

Roger Hansen, operations manager, says, "Orion’s semiautomatic stretch wrappers have not only cut our wrapping time in half, now our stores receive product loads that are tighter and arrive nicely unitized."

Orion’s proprietary Insta-Thread technology dramatically reduced film costs when compared with hand wrapping. The powered prestretch film delivery system applies films at up to 245 percent of stretch levels, compared to hand wrapped films that are applied with only about 15 percent stretch. The greater prestretching results in a much stronger film that is better able to hold varying product loads.

In addition to cost savings and increased wrapping quality, the machines have dramatically improved the work environment for True Value’s employees.

Responsible for shipping 3,500 palletloads a month to 520 company stores, True Value used 25 people in two shifts per day to manually wrap palletloads at approximately 2,300 pounds per operator hour. With palletloads containing multiple products, from light bulbs to lawn mowers, it was cumbersome to wrap by hand.

According to Hansen, "A significant number of damaged products or poorly wrapped packages occurred toward the end of shifts and increased during heavy demand periods. This indicated to us that the ‘fatigue factor’ was impacting the quality of our shipping."

True Value’s new stretch-wrapping operations center around two M-67 IS (integral stand) gantry-style, semiautomatic wrappers. What makes the system important is the specially designed rotating stand that allows the mast and carriage arm to rotate 360 degrees and access three pallet positions placed around it. The three-station semiautomatic machine is an economical way to achieve a higher throughput without the relatively high cost of buying a totally automatic system.

According to Hansen, the ability to dock three palletloads at a time increases the speed of the stretch-wrapping operation by 20 percent.

"Since the installation of the stretch wrappers, productivity has jumped to approximately 3,700 pounds per operator hour," says Hansen. "We estimated the combined cost savings of operator pounds wrapped per hour and film to be more than $10,000."

Hansen says safety has improved as well. "Back injuries are reduced and we haven’t had a lost-time accident in shipping since the installation of the stretch wrappers," he says.

Low Speed Is Fast Enough

Alvey Systems, an FKI Logistex member company, has recently brought to market a low-speed, high-level infeed palletizer with a compact footprint and flexible layout options.

The case palletizer is best suited for single-line applications in the food and consumer goods industries, and uses a right-angle pattern formation that allows it to achieve virtually any case pattern. Close-center rollers and a biparting plate apron also give the 780 palletizer the ability to handle a variety of case and pallet sizes at rates up to 40 cases per minute. The 780’s small footprint is designed for existing facilities where space is at a premium.

Ken Thouvenot, Alvey Systems’ vice president, project management and marketing, says, "The machine’s compact footprint will fit into the tightest of spaces. Its flexible layout configurations allow the user to arrange the machine to fit an operation’s individual needs."

When Is a Pallet Not a Pallet?

Corbett says a challenge of this project, as with many applications, was the fact that the designers of the shipping platform were brought in after the product was designed. "When we work with robotic and conveying applications," he says, "generally we’re brought in at the beginning of the process because we’re designing dunnage or trays around the conveying system."

What You See Is What You Get

It might be that the best pallet is no pallet. A newcomer in the pallet war is a product from OptiLogistics called the OptiLedge System. The OptiLedge is an L-shaped unit load transport device made of copolymer polypropylene. The load carriers can be fitted to unit loads in an infinite number of ways, then strapped on to use the integrity of the carton for strength, and moved with powered or hand lift trucks.

Gary Garkowski, vice president of marketing, says, "The demands of the product and supply chain, not the dimensions of the pallet, now determine the size of the load, and will dictate how handling transport and storage are organized."

For Further Reading

For more information, contact any of the following sources:

Airdex International Inc.,

Alvey Systems,

APA — The Engineered Wood Association,

B.U.S Systems Inc., 815-675-9612

BTD Manufacturing Inc.,



Decade Products,

DIC Pallet,

Grate Pallets Inc.,

IFCO Systems,

International Safe Transit Association,



Magnolia Forest Products,

National Wooden Pallet and Container Association,





PDQ Plastics,


Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition,

Returnable Plastic Pallet and Container Association,


The Center for Unit Load Design,


Underwriters Laboratories Inc.,

Worthington Steelpac,

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