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The Future of Pallet and Unit Load Design
The Pallet of the Future: Best Load and PDS V5.0 software will help drive cost reduction strategies. Experts point to greater focus on systems-based design for the unit load, standardization, asset tracking, and sanitation.
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 12/1/2011
For over 20 years it seems like everyone has tried to develop the perfect pallet. From unique designs to specialized materials, a lot of different innovations have been tried. While some technology has made inroads into the market, the wooden pallet remains the mainstay in the supply chain. But that doesn’t stop the wheel of innovation as pioneers seek the next big thing to find the perfect balance of performance, weight, safety and low cost.
This article looks at some of the latest innovations and trends to consider as pallet and unit load design evolves in the future. The most important developments may not even be on anyone’s radar screen yet. Who knows what the pallet of the future will look like? One thing seems certain, the debate continues as the perfect pallet has yet to be invented.
Figuring Out the Best Load
What’s the secret to cutting transport packaging costs in the supply chain? It’s not what most companies think according to Dr. Mark White, renowned pallet design expert. White hopes to spread the message of system-based design to supply chain managers by conducting analysis using a new unit load design software called Best Load®. The idea behind the software is that by managing all aspects of a unit load as a system (shipping platform, load, containers, product packaging, and load stabilizers), you can cut total costs in the supply chain, up to 20% savings in total packaging costs.
Current packaging industry software is component-based, focusing only on one part of the unit load. Best Load considers interactions between the pallet, packaging and shipment to identify opportunities to reduce packaging costs. The software reduces costly time and testing of actual loads in a laboratory setting by mathematically modeling the interactions of the component parts and predicting their performance.
According to White, compression strength is the single largest factor affecting the choice of packaging when product is palletized. “If the package bends, crushes, rips open or breaks during shipment there are direct costs due to product damage, leakers, clean-up or possible safety concerns when the product is a hazardous chemical.” See Diagram 1.
When such damage occurs, designers will look first to the package. But this is an expensive way to solve the problem because the product packaging generally costs much more to change than the pallet. See Diagram 2.
White said, “The traditional solution is to beef up the packaging until the damage stops. Best Load demonstrates that a pallet designed to be stiffer with deck boards placed in ideal locations for the package, lessens the stress on the product and package. A stronger pallet can lead to reduced packaging. The resulting packaging savings more than offset the increased costs of a well-designed pallet.”
More than just a theory, research conducted earlier this year at Virginia Tech proved White’s theory that increasing the bearing area (stiffness) of the pallet deck will effectively reduce compression stress. Thus, taking wood out of a pallet, particularly the deck, is one of the worst things you can do to reduce total packaging costs. This insight could encourage pallet users to look at costs differently than they have in the past.
After a delay due to a court battle with the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA) and improvements made to the original version, White & Company, the packaging research and design firm founded by Dr. White, has announced the release of this new software as part of its consulting service. For information on Best Load consulting and research services, visit www.whiteandcompany.net or call 540/449-2100.
PDS Version 5.0 Will Draw the Entire Unit Load
The industry standard when it comes to pallet design has been the NWPCA’s Pallet Design System (PDS) software. This mainstay of the industry since the 1980s has just undergone its most revolutionary upgrade to date. Version 5.0, which will be released soon, now enables pallet manufacturers to specify and draw the entire “unit load” – consisting of the pallet, containers, and load stabilizers.
Keeping up with the latest research, PDS V5.0 contains new structural analysis models which are based on state-of-the-art wooden pallet design, all relevant historical data, and the latest laboratory and field test data. Essentially, PDS V5.0 will enable pallet manufacturers to specify, draw, and analyze performance of almost any wooden pallet design.
PDS V5.0 can analyze pallets stored in overhead racks, pallet performance in ASRS systems, corner supports, multiple stacking patterns, etc. Users also can draw a wide variety of containers and stabilizers.
PDS V5.0 will compute and display all possible stacking patterns for a layer of containers on the pallet, and calculate the footprint efficiency for each possible configuration. Stacking multiple layers of containers is displayed, with either interlocking or column stacking for boxes and bags, and the overall dimensions and weight of the unit load calculated.
The interface of the top deck of the pallet and bottom layer of containers is displayed. Users can arrange deckboards so they properly support and protect the containers. Similarly, the interface of the bottom deck of the pallet and top of the unit load is displayed. Users can arrange bottom deckboards so they align with container corners, edges, and rims in order to maximize stability and prevent damage to the containers when stacking multiple unit loads in the warehouse or during shipping.
The graphical capabilities of this latest version will help pallet companies improve their ability to market technical services to customers. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the new PDS will illustrate design issues that previously were difficult to explain or comprehend. For more information, contact the NWPCA at www.palletcentral.com or call 703/519-6104.
Which Material Type Will Win Out? Wood, Plastic or Composites?
Most industry observers agree that wood will remain the market leader for years to come. Ralph Rupert, the manager of unit load technology at Millwood Inc., a major pallet and transport packaging provider, said, “For the most part, I think you are going to see the materials remain fairly constant. Plastics will continue to make inroads. But wood is still going to dominant because it is the most cost effective for the performance criteria that matters most – strength, impact resistance, etc.”
Rupert commented that plastic is likely to make some market gains due to the increased focus on standardization. He believes that more and more companies will begin to ship on the 48x40 footprint instead of requiring customized pallet sizes. Traditionally, this hasn’t happened because product packaging was designed first. The marketers wanted something unique to stand out. The logistics worked best if a certain number of a particular product could be fit on each pallet. Thus, the pallet was designed to an unusual size that fit the right number per load.
Rupert said, “Systems-based design is increasingly going back to the primary packaging level.”
He added that product manufacturers will keep the 48x40 size in mind when designing the product packaging due to the total savings if a standard sized pallet can be used.
Dr. White agrees that plastics may gain some market share, but for a different reason. White said, “Wood will remain number one. Plastic will remain number two. There will be some marginal growth for plastic. I think it all depends on what falls out in terms of the sanitation discussion.”
Although plastic pallets can be just as contaminated as wood depending on what previously was done to the pallet, plastics can be easier to track and sanitize. Plastics also do not have the inherent moisture content problem that wood does, which leads to mold and mildew problems.
What about composites? Although these materials have been around for years, they have yet to revolutionize the supply chain. A few new designs have recently emerged that hope to deliver on the promises of composite technology.
Gary Garkowski, a spokesman for Flo-Pallet (www.flo-pallet.com), said, “The material properties of composites can achieve performance at a cheaper price than what you would be able to do with normal injection molding of plastics.” Flo-Pallet of Reed City, Mich. has developed a new composite pallet constructed of proven light-weight, aerospace materials that don’t require bromine-based retardants. Flo-Pallet has worked on multiple innovations in materials and design to bring this new pallet to market. It is currently being field tested and has demonstrated the ability to meet the needs of the grocery industry at a much lower cost than a comparable plastic pallet.
Despite its competitive pricing, the composite pallet is still viewed as too expensive compared to the typical wooden pallet cost. Of course, that all depends on the reuse factor and the number of trips provided before repair. Garkowski said, “In the pooling world, the economics are locked in, and they are based on the cost of wood.”
“Customers desire plastics or composites, but they don’t want to pay for them,” said Garkowski. The higher cost of alternative technology is also negatively impacted by the fact that poolers have given away the retail leg of rental trips, which means that portion of use is free. Compounding this concern is the fact that some rental providers have a hard time getting these assets back from major retailers.
If neither an all wood nor an all plastic is the perfect answer for the ideal pallet, what about a hybrid wood and plastic pallet?
Bede Whiteford & Associates of Australia is launching a hybrid pallet that uses a basic wood frame with composite blocks and plastic leader boards on the outside of the pallet.
Bede Whiteford, a plastic design expert and the developer of this product, estimates that his design can last up to five times longer than a typical wooden pallet used in a major pool.
Some industry professionals question the effectiveness of combining plastic and wood especially considering the way that wood can expand and change shape. Whiteford contended his design compensates for these concerns althought it has yet to be thoroughly field tested.
Currently, Whiteford is looking for commercial partners that will help launch the pallet in North America. The management of this process is being handled by Steve Brodhead who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Regulations May Drive Sanitation Concerns
Unless you haven’t been paying attention, it was hard to miss the impact that sanitation, recalls, and unfounded fears of product taint or contamination had on the pallet industry over the last year or so. It all started with drug recalls by Johnson & Johnson that the pharmaceutical company blamed on tainted pallets produced in Puerto Rico. Never mind the fact that the chemical in question isn’t used in the United States. It didn’t take long for market fears to grow. This all took place at a time that iGPS pushed its research on pallet cross contamination, and the federal government undertook the development of new food safety legislation. Although pallets are not a major focus of federal regulatory efforts, new laws aim to cover all aspects of the supply chain from farm to fork. Thus, pallets are increasingly likely to be impacted by reporting, storage and best practices requirements.
Dr. White said, “Pallet sanitation is going to be one of the next big issues. Food safety will continue to grow as a significant issue, and I think it will all trickle down to the pallet.”
A key consideration for wooden pallets is the moisture content. By reducing the moisture content, you can improve the stiffness of the pallet, which increases compression strength while reducing mold/mildew concerns. While many of the conventional heat treatment systems used today kill pests and pathogens, they may not effectively reduce the moisture content of the wood to optimum levels. Also, merely heat treating a pallet may bring the moisture to the surface of the wood, which can actually foster conditions for mold growth. Dr. White suggested that a new pallet dryer system may be the best answer, and he pointed to research conducted by Dr. Brian Bond at Virginia Tech as one place to look for drying insights. The advantages of dry lumber may also foster greater use of kiln-dried softwoods in pallets.
Going beyond just mold, sanitation also involves mitigating the risk of cross contamination from previous loads. Potential changes include storage and sanitation best practices as well as enhanced tracking to identify tainted lots and improve recall capabilities.
Food and drug markets may be one area where pallet-level tracking really takes off. Although RFID and other technologies have been touted for years, they have yet to catch hold in the materials handling world when it comes to pallets. But new developments may truly make packaging supply chain smart.
Loreto Saccucci of Advanced Asset Tracking Systems Inc. has developed the Blue Rover (www.bluerover.ca) tracking and monitoring system if you want to know the location, security, temperature, G-force impact, humidity level, rate of speed, and exposure to gases or toxins of a particular asset. The Blue Rover system has been modified to work with the Flo-Pallet to enhance pallet tracking. Saccucci said that they are working on the ability to detect product taint or contamination without having to take it back to a lab for analysis. Saccucci said, “We are focusing on the cold chain sector and can provide certification for HAACP compliance.”
Flo-Pallet is not the only company trying to market solutions for “cold chain” distribution channels. TempTRIP®, LLC. (www.temptrip.com) of Broomfield, Colo. has developed a system to monitor time/temperature data of unit loads. This will enable companies to make smarter decisions to positively impact shelf life, food waste, expenses and brand equity.
The end result is simple-to-access online information which provides a complete cold chain record of a product throughout the lifecycle of the pallet load, regardless of how many trucking firms, distributors, wholesalers or retailers have handled it.
As companies seek to reduce recall, quality control and theft problems, increased tracking may finally become a more desired function or at least one that companies are willing to pay for beyond complying with retailer mandates. TempTRIP’s capabilities have been field tested, and the product is being launched simultaneously in North American and Europe.
Crystal Ball – Looking Toward A Sustainable Future
Maybe more important than what the pallet of the future will look like is how the market will view pallets and what will be important to end users. Rupert commented, “Sustainability has become a bigger issue over the last five years with pallet users.”
Is sustainability really a major concern for major corporations? A recent survey of pallet users by Modern Materials Handling found that green/environmental factors rated as the 6th most important criteria for pallet decisions.
Rupert explained, “If you define sustainability as only the environmental aspect then it is not the most important factor in the supply chain, but true sustainability is damage reduction, lower cost, better economic value.”
Rupert stated, “We are starting to see more and more end users looking at the total system of a unit load to see how they can improve the materials handling efficiency, reduce damage and reduce packaging costs. That is all being driven by that sustainability aspect.”
Maybe sustainability is one of those things that you can use to get various departments to work together that previously had little reason to collaborate. Rupert said, “You play the sustainability card and in today’s environment everybody has to jump into that discussion.”