Automation vs. Pallet Quality: As warehouses become more automated, something is going to have to give with pallet quality. Pallet Enterprise founder explores the quality degradation over the years and what pallet users should look for in finding the perfect pallet.
By Edward C. Brindley, Jr.
Date Posted: 3/1/2022
Many Pallet Customers Do Not Know Their True Spec
The pallet they are getting for years may not match the spec. Small changes from the thickness of deck boards to the nail can make a huge difference.
It’s time to have an honest chat about pallet quality. This all starts with pallet companies and users discussing the purpose of a pallet. Shippers – have you ever thought about why you use pallets?
Well, that’s easy you say, “To protect product and facilitate better movement of goods.” And while that is true, for years to keep costs low, pallet buyers have asked for changes to temper cost increases. And there are only a handful of things you can do to achieve this goal. The easiest is to pull wood out of the pallet. Pallet design software has enabled the safe engineering of pallets that are custom-built to go that one trip even though they likely will last several more. The idea is that pallet buyers don’t want to pay for a beefy pallet that is too heavy and expensive. This makes sense for the supply chains of yesterday.
But it might not make much sense for the future. There are several drivers that could change the way that buyers look at pallets. For starters, automated warehouses don’t like poor quality pallets. Why invest millions in a state-of-the-art facility with automation replacing people if the low-cost pallet causes snags, slowdowns and disruptions? More automation will lead to higher pallet standard requirements. Shippers and distribution centers can either re-palletize loads onto slave pallets of higher quality or they can insist on higher standards in the first place. Of course, this will cost more. But it could save more in the long run.
Secondly, companies are focusing on more responsible corporate purchasing. Buying disposable/one-way pallets doesn’t really fit the requirements for Environmental Social Governance (ESG) principles. It is hard to claim you are green if the pallet you buy has a hard time finishing multiple trips. Thirdly, when it comes to waste, designing a better pallet leads to less product damage and cheaper total unit load packaging solutions. You can spend a little bit more on the pallet and save a lot more on the product packaging itself.
Pallets are becoming more expensive due to lumber and core price spikes. This will mitigate at some point, but prices won’t go back to pre-pandemic lows any time soon if ever. As pallets become more expensive, suppliers are producing skimpier designs just to reduce costs. So, the initial purchase price of the pallet and other factors demanding quality are coming to a conflict point. You can’t remove wood and make a stronger pallet
The industry has also seen the proliferation of more sizes and designs over the past decade. Pallets are being designed and built for specific purposes. Over time these trends have all contributed to specification degrade. In reality, many pallet customers don’t know their true spec. The pallet they are getting for years may not match the spec. Small changes from the thickness of deck boards to the nail can make a huge difference.
Back in 2016, I wrote in the Pallet Profile, “The GMA pallet specification has deteriorated at a steady pace from its original heavy, dense hardwood pallet of 13/16” thick deck boards and 1-3/4"x3-3/4" stringers to the wide mixture our industry sees today.”
Variations include different decking and stringer thicknesses, different lumber species, and different quality, quantity and placement of deck boards. Over the past thirty or more years the GMA specification has eroded to the point that decking went from 13/16" to ¾” or 11/ 16" and then to 5/8" and now often down to ½”. I have even heard of some companies designing pallets with boards as skimpy as 3/8" in width.
This erosion of pallet quality occurred because customers wanted to keep costs low. But have we reached a point where you can’t take much more wood out of the pallet and keep it viable?
There are a lot of things you can do to design a better-quality pallet. It starts with the quality of the nail and the thickness and structural integrity of the boards. Many pallets fail at the joints, so it is crucial that a nail drives well and has good holding strength. You want to eliminate nail pops that can cause failure and product damage.
Six-inch versus four-inch lead deck boards can improve the durability of the pallet, because that’s the area that receives the hardest impact from fork tines. The placement, number and thickness of deck boards impacts a pallet’s ability to carry a load and support boxes and pales. If a pallet is used, are there missing boards or half boards? Are stringers cracked or plugged?
So, this all leads to the importance of a discussion between the pallet user and supplier to re-evaluate pallet standards every few years. Many companies are sending our RFQs looking for pallets specifications that are a mirage of reality. That’s why it is good to investigate what you are getting and what you truly need. Have your needs changed? How will those key performance factors change with automation and faster supply chains?
That’s one of the reasons that the Enterprise will be running a series of articles looking at pallet specifications and pallet quality over the next few issues. These articles are written by Rick LeBlanc, our pallet user guru. This issue he explores why you should re-evaluate your current specs given all the changes in materials handling and the pallet sector over the past few years. You can read the article starting on page 28.
Companies are starting to see the importance that pallets play as the key connector between various aspects of supply chains. If you want to have the best logistics infrastructure, you can’t ignore pallets.