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Bo Knows Pallets – and Recycling
PRS Automated Repair Line, Innovative Data Systems Technology Provide Big Boost for Georgia Company
By By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 10/1/2002
ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. -- Greg Bowen, owner of Bo's Pallets Inc. likes to travel. He sees even a short trip as a good time to read, think, and sketch plans for improving his business. So Greg's wife drives when the couple travels by car.
Last November, heading to the Great Smokey Mountains for a few days, Greg began reading an issue of Pallet Enterprise, and he knew everything about his pallet recycling business was about to change.
"Since 1996 I had this basic idea of what a pallet repair line should be," said Greg, who started Bo's Pallets in 1984. "I didn't want to pre-sort. I had a theme: handle a pallet once. And most important: put the dismantling saw in line." An advertisement he read in Pallet Enterprise convinced him he could do exactly that.
In mid-April, Bo's Pallets began operating with a new automated pallet repair line that was designed and supplied by Pallet Repair Systems (PRS). "PRS got our business because of their engineering, " said Greg, who had very specific ideas about how he wanted the line configured and what equipment it would require.
Innovative Data Systems Inc. supplied a complete bar code label system for the new line: blank labels, label printer, bar code label scanner, and the Pallet Track® automated system software to integrate them and process the data collected by the system. Greg uses the Innovative Data Systems Pallet Track software program to keep track of various aspects of production, inventory control and payroll.
Before putting in the PRS automated repair line, Greg was running two shifts. Now the company produces 30% more pallets with one shift, and Greg was able to reduce his labor from about 48 employees to 32.
(Greg was able to eliminate one shift without laying off workers. Some employees did not like the increased accountability under the new system and quit. Others were not available to work during the day; Greg regretted that he did not have an option for them. "That hurt," he said.)
He expects the investment in the PRS system to pay for itself within 13 months of its start-up and to fuel new growth for Bo’s Pallets. "The guys can do 33 percent more production than before," said Greg. "Now I can go out and bring in another 70,000 pallets if I want to bring in a second shift."
Greg summed up the impact of the new system in about six words: better manageability, fewer problems, and less stress. Also, improved quality control has reduced the number of scrap pallets -- that are dismantled -- from about 25% of incoming pallets to 20%. The entire process is also much faster and efficient. "Now we can fix pallets as fast as we can unload pallets," said Greg. Everything about the system, from in-line dismantling to the bar code system, has helped the company reduce costs and increase profitability.
Greg has a growing list of other benefits the new PRS automated line has provided. It has "cut my blade costs in half," he said, reduced power usage, reduced the costs associated with producing each deck board, and reduced core costs. Until a pallet is repaired, he noted, it is a core.
The new system has created more value for the company because quality control personnel differentiate from high-grade and low-grade A pallets, and the GMA grade A pallets are priced higher.
The PRS automated repair line has eliminated some of the arduous work. Before putting in the line, repair workers manually stacked pallets after they were rebuilt. The most difficult task they have now is pulling the pallet from the incoming stacks delivered to them by the forklift and maneuvering it onto the table. From that point on, the PRS line has helped to save labor. The new system also brought more accountability for the repair workers: labels on each pallet identify who performed the repairs, and the addition of a quality control position also improved the quality of the pallets coming through the line.
The automated repair line also has helped to reduce employee turnover. Morale has soared, understandably: the new equipment makes the work easier for employees. The one-way flow of the line also has reduced stress and confusion, according to Greg.
Bo's Pallets so far has achieved every goal for the automated repair line. "I can't tell you how thrilled I am," said Greg. "I am ecstatic about this line."
Greg credited PRS president Jeff Williams for his engineering skills. "Jeff is very knowledgeable and knew the answers right away."
The Innovative Data Systems technology is an integral part of the line. "It eliminated counting," said Greg, freeing the repair staff to focus more on their job and doing higher quality work. "Anybody that puts in a line that doesn't put in Innovative Data Systems Pallet Track is missing the boat," said Greg.
A native of Kentucky, Greg moved to his wife’s hometown of Adairsville in Georgia in 1974. He got into the pallet business thanks to his father. Greg was working at a factory, supervising the warehouse, when his father, a truck driver, stopped by one day. "We were throwing away pallets so the fire marshal wouldn't write us up, " he recalled. His father, Bill, pointed out that Greg could sell the pallets at the farmer's market in Atlanta. He took his father’s advice. Greg sold $500 worth of pallets at the market and "was hooked."
Making his first calls on businesses to sell pallets, Greg soon came up with the name Bo's Pallets. (When he made his first call, he hadn’t even decided on a name for his company; he did not get past the receptionist.) He took the name "Bo" from his nick-name. "I wanted something short and sweet" that customers would remember, he said.
Two members of Greg’s family have roles in the business. His wife, Carol, helps in the office and is Greg’s closest adviser. "Carol has been with me from the beginning," said Greg. His son, Colt, joined the company full-time after graduating from high school three years ago and is now his father's "right-hand" person in the business.
Bo’s Pallets receives about 70,000 pallets per month; approximately 20% are dismantled. The company sells about 56,000 pallets monthly. Occasional sales of new pallets are brokered.
Customers include distribution centers, carpet mills, chemical plants and food processors. Most are within a 100-mile radius of the company's headquarters in Adairsville, which is just north of Atlanta. Bo's Pallets keeps a 30-day supply of pallets in inventory for customers. It also has the ability to react quickly to last-minute orders for specialty pallets. About 13% of the company’s business is specialty orders; three men are devoted to making custom pallets.
Bo's Pallets usually repairs pallets with used stock that it recovers and remanufactures; it occasionally buys stringers when it has an unusually large order. Even then, however, it normally buys recycled pallet parts.
The company puts a strong emphasis on rebuilding and upgrading pallets. "We don't dismantle a GMA that can be repaired to B or C," said Greg.
Scrap wood is conveyed by the PRS line and eventually is loaded into a trailer with a walking floor. It is delivered to another business that Greg operates, WoodChippers Mulch. A Rotochopper 166XLT machine -- the biggest portable version made by the supplier -- grinds the wood scraps into mulch and also produces colored mulch; Greg uses colorants supplied by Ameri-Mulch. The company’s red mulch is very popular. WoodChippers Mulch sells retail directly to homeowners and landscapers and also wholesale to other businesses that bag it for eventual retail sale.
Bo's Pallets has about 100 semi-trailers, and like other, similar pallet recycling companies, it does "a lot of drop and hook" -- dropping off empty trailers at a customer site and retrieving vans that have been filled with excess pallets. A forklift operator empties trailers as they arrive at the 25,000-square-foot building -- there are nine dock doors -- that contains Bo’s Pallets on a nine acre site.
All incoming pallets go directly to one of 10 repair stations on the PRS line. Each station is equipped with a Minick Enterprises lead board remover. About 85% of pallets requiring repairs need a new leading edge deck board. Workers at the repair stations use Max power nailing tools and Kentec collated nails. A Kentec technician comes in weekly to service the nailing tools.
"The principle of the line is to handle each pallet one time," said Greg. Another key to the company’s operations is that decision making is delegated to the quality control personnel. The repair worker decides whether to rebuild a pallet or dismantle it, and then the quality control worker verifies his decision. This approach keeps the line running at maximum capacity and maximum quality.
The PRS line is about 120 feet long and then has a 90-degree turn to another 35-foot section. The first section, with the 10 repair stations located on either side, consists of a two-tier line. The bottom tier is a 60-foot section of powered roller conveyor. Repair workers put a bar code label on each pallet after it is processed; the label, printed in both bar code language and ordinary text, identifies the pallet size, grade, and the number of the repair station. The repair workers slide finished pallets and pallets to be dismantled onto the powered roller conveyor; pallets to be dismantled are placed on the line upside-down. A bar code scanner is on the line at the end of the repair stations, reading the labels on pallets as they exit the repair area. The top tier is a belt conveyor that moves in the opposite direction. Repair workers put scrap boards onto the belt conveyor, and they drop automatically into a hopper at the end of the conveyor line.
The next section of the line, a 60-foot length of gravity conveyor, consists of the sorting and stacking area. The PRS stackers, six of them, are located on one side of the line, and three inspectors are on the opposite side. The inspectors examine the pallet to ensure it has been properly repaired and graded and slide it into the chain feed of the appropriate stacker. Pallets that do not pass inspection are pulled off the line and stacked by hand on the floor behind the inspectors to be returned later to the repair station where they originated. Pallets to be dismantled are pushed further down the gravity conveyor line.
The inspectors are experienced personnel and provide three levels of quality control. The first inspector sorts GMA-spec pallets to the correct stacker. A second inspector pulls out A and B grade pallets and back-stacks odd-size pallets. A third inspector pulls out 42x42, 44x44, and 48x48 pallets and also back-stacks odd size pallets. In all, Bo’s Pallets sorts according to about 15 common footprints.
Pallets to be dismantled are pushed along the gravity conveyor, make a 90-degree turn and then are in a position to be removed by one of either two band saw dismantling stations that are adjacent to this 40-foot length of gravity conveyor.
The company operates two band saw dismantlers. A National Material Handling Products high-speed band saw dismantler runs every day; it can quickly remove all the deck boards from one side of the pallet. A PRS dismantler, which can disassemble about 650 pallets in eight hours, was purchased along with the line and is used when additional production is required. Bo’s Pallets has two men working at a dismantling machine; one places the pallet into the dismantler and the other removes the recycled lumber.
On the other side of the band saw dismantlers, and parallel to the gravity conveyor, is a 70-foot long, three-tier conveyor system for handling material from disassembled pallets. Scrap material goes into the top conveyor, and at the end of the line it falls automatically into a hopper. Recovered stringers are placed on another conveyor, and deck boards are placed on the third conveyor.
At the end of the three-tier conveyor, a worker on one side removes deck boards and feeds them to a PRS Optimax trim saw, and a worker on the other side removes the reclaimed stringers and feeds them to a second PRS Optimax trim saw. The Optimax saws are capable of trimming deck boards and stringers into seven different lengths. The finished pallet parts flow automatically onto a discharge deck.
The Optimax trim saws are equipped with an optional PRS sorting system consisting of a chain feed and steel rails. With the optional sorting system, stringers and deck boards are segregated automatically by length and drop into the correct bin or crate. The company also has a Smart Products chop saw for cutting stringers as needed with multiple cuts.
All the belt conveyors, roller conveyors and gravity rollers were supplied by PRS. Another benefit of the automated material handling was that it allowed Bo’s Pallets to eliminate one forklift.
Each repair station has a crate with a supply of deck boards. Near the end of each day, an ‘early bell’ or ‘clean-up bell’ signals workers that it is time to clean up their station and get it organized for the next day. The workers use the time to clean up and stock the storage boxes with the material they need.
Bo’s Pallets, which has a Web site at pays above average wages and offers employees a health insurance program and a 401k retirement plan. The company also offers up to four weeks of paid vacation and five paid holidays. "This has enabled us to assemble a highly professional management team," said Greg, who gave a special mention to production manager James Eifert and office manager Betty Graham.
The essential design of the automated repair line was Greg’s idea. "The design is mine, really," he said, although Jeff’s advice and experience helped him to fine tune problem areas.
Greg considered other suppliers. He chose PRS because he was impressed by Jeff’s candidness and his knowledge of pallet recycling equipment. Jeff also arranged for Greg to visit a couple of PRS customers in the New York City region with automated repair lines.
Greg takes advantage of attending trade shows and reading the pallet industry’s trade magazine, Pallet Enterprise, in order to learn more. He also enjoys the "thrill of the deal" and takes satisfaction in "doing something good by recycling."
When he takes time away from his business, Greg enjoys traveling. "I love to travel," he said. Greg and his wife visited four countries last year.