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Spanish Pallet Manufacturer Relies on Automation and Robotics to Ensure Quality and Productivity
AGLOLAK: Spanish pallet manufacturer pleases demanding customers through automation including robotics and proper lumber sourcing from certified sources.
By Gordon Hughes
Date Posted: 3/1/2013
Serving customers in the port city of Valencia, Spain and beyond, AGLOLAK Pallets has become one of the leading pallet manufacturers in Spain thanks to its automated facility that utilizes robotics. Although robotics has become widely deployed in automotive manufacturing around the globe, it is used in a limited way in pallet facilities. Changes in robotics technology as well as rising labor costs could change this dynamic in the coming years as more robotics are integrated into pallet operations, especially in Europe.
Upon entering the AGLOLAK plant in Valencia, the first thing you notice is a number of KUKA robotic machines. These machines are manufactured in Augsburg, Germany. KUKA is one of the world leaders in robotics for many different components of manufacturing. The addition of these robots allows for a smaller number of employees, increased speed of the lines and increased productivity. The robots, which I have only seen in a video, worked to provide uninterrupted speed and precise placement of boards and blocks. AGLOLAK again utilized the KUKA robots in painting the pooled pallets.
AGLOLAK’s Management Philosophy and Execution
Beyond its automation, AGLOLAK’s people and management philosophy help the company stand out. Roberto Codoñer, the CEO of AGLOLAK, said, “Our customers demand confidence and quality assurance – a guarantee in all aspects of trade. Customer confidence and quality assurance is what differentiates AGLOLAK and provides us a preferred position in the marketplace.”
Situated strategically in the Spanish marketplace, it has become a proven supplier of pooled pallets. AGLOLAK specializes in producing four-way reusable wooden pallets. This includes rental pools and non-standard pallets, along with exchange pools such as the EUR /EPAL or CP Pallets for the chemical industry. AGLOLAK has very quickly become the pallet leader in Spain and one of the most prestigious in Europe.
AGLOLAK is managed by Roberto Codoñer. Very well known in Spain’s wooden packaging industry, he was one of the founders and a past president of the Spanish Association of Manufacturers of Wooden Pallets (FAPROMA). Codoñer helped spearhead the integration of FAPROMA into the European Federation (FEFPEB). He promoted the early implementation of the Europallet in Spain and later the integration to the EPAL system to ensure interchangeability under European freight traffic.
Codoñer is also a member of the National Committee of AENOR, which is responsible in Spain for the adaptation of ISO norms to European standards. And he belongs to ITENE, the Technical Institute of Packaging in Spain. All of these efforts keep Codoñer on top of macro industry issues. This has translated into strategic success for AGLOLAK when it comes to navigating European trends and market shifts.
As far as the daily operations of the company, Marta Codoñer, Roberto’s daughter, oversees the financial side of the business. She started on the lowest levels of the administration department after graduating from college with an education in business management. She has worked her way up to the position of financial and commercial manager of the company.
The other key leader is Joaquin Gay, who is also a partner in AGLOLAK. He joined the company at the lowest levels in the factory, and his first tool he used at AGLOLAK was a broom. Today, Gay is managing the technical side of the company as its quality control manager. He has led the implementation of the manipulators and robots in the production process.
AGLOLAK is recognized as an environmentally friendly pallet company. All of the pallet painting procedures are done in specialized cabins. No drains for the residue are connected to common waste drains avoiding the risk of non-controlled waste residue making its way into the local ecosystem.
Although AGLOLAK does not own a sawmill, it does demand high quality timber for its pallets. AGLOLAK’s purchasing department demands all timber used in its operation be part of the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification in Spain (PEFC).
PEFC promotes sustainability forest management for Spain’s forestlands through its certification program. It is made up of forest product companies, landowners, public officials, professors, public policy experts and others who are promoting sustainability.
Location has played a big part in AGLOLAK’s success. Valencia is the largest port in Spain with three facilities under its control – Valencia, Gandi and Sagunto. It is also one of the largest port facilities in the Mediterranean and the closest to North Africa. It is the closest port for Madrid and the closest to the Suez Canal (Far East) and the Strait of Gibraltar, which is the gateway to the Americas region.
Another major reason for Valencia’s growth is that it is not unionized compared to Genoa and Marseilles, which are both heavily unionized and can have some labor strife from time to time.
Automation Ensures Smooth Production
AGLOLAK has three automatic lines and one manual nailing line. It uses primarily Corali nailing machines, which are very well known and have been a mainstay in Europe for a number of decades. Corali nailing machines are built in Bergamo, Italy.
Line ‘A’ is the Magdel manual pallet line producing 40 pallets per hour. This manual line is used to assemble non-standard sizes and small runs. This line is finished off by a push conveyor and pallet stacker.
Line ‘B’ incorporates two Corali nailers, both with automatic feeding utilizing an anthropomorphic KUKA robot. The hourly capacity is 270 EUR-type pallets. For not as common standard pallet types, the capacity per hour is around 200 pallets.
Line ‘C’ consists of two Corali nailing machines with fast change technology and has a capability of 380 pallets per hour on most standard sizes. On other pallet sizes the rate may go down to 280 pallets / hour.
Line ‘D’ utilizes three Corali nailing machines with automated board and block feeder using a ZIMAC robot machine. The ZIMAC is a mechanical vacuum system utilized to elevate a full deck of boards and place them over the blocks during the nailing process. This line finishes with a paint booth and again utilizes a KUKA robot to paint the stacked pallets. The capacity of this line is 380 pallets per hour.
The total production from all AGLOLAK lines is between 700 and 1,000 pallets per hour, between 5,000 and 7,500 pallets, depending on style of the pallet, per 7.5 hour shift. All pallets are four-way block pallets.
Every aspect of the AGLOLAK production process is controlled and monitored to ensure quality and uniformity. This includes the quality of the timber; the nailing process to identify missing or portruding nails. The pallet control process demands that all pallets pass through rigorous test gauges to ensure that its dimensions meet the quality requirement demanded by automated handling systems.
The pallet lumber used in Europe has always been superior in quality to the lumber used in North America for pallets. Many North American delegates on my pallet tours were always surprised with the quality of the lumber used in Europe. Many remarked that it resembled a piece of furniture when completed. I would guess that the Spanish lumber that I saw being used was #2 or better and sawn and milled within 500 miles of AGLOLAK.
Analyzing the Impacts of Robotics
The company faced a crossroads in 1992 as orders significantly increased for reusable pallets that met new packaging waste laws. At the time, the European Union (EU) began penalizing single use packaging to encourage greater use of reusables. But in order to produce this high quality, standardized pallet, AGLOLAK needed to upgrade its facilities and processes.
AGLOLAK switched from a mostly manual production process into a more assembly line system where quality control and high volume would be required to make the new effort a success. The company moved to producing heavy-duty pallets.
At that time, AGLOLAK was producing 60 pallets per hour. Four workers were placing 26 pieces of lumber per minute. Roberto Codoñer said, “We noticed that the proper training of workers to avoid defects was very important. A defective pallet needing repair took more time than producing four new pallets. As much as we wanted to increase the production, the number of pallets needing repair was also increasing.”
It can be easy for a tired worker to make little mistakes that lead to defects. Customers today expect near zero defect work from suppliers. Codoñer said, “We were looking for ways to increase the production and reduce costs. Automated lines had the capability to produce many more pallets than our manual process.”
As the company looked to boost production in 1998, this goal had to be tempered by the following factors: each worker could only move a reasonable amount of weight during a shift, only two workers are allowed on each line to ensure greater consistency while reducing the manpower needed, and the primary responsibilities of the line workers were to control production and ensure proper function of the assembly line process. This strategy limits the amount of direct contact that workers can have in the actual manufacturing process, such as placing boards, stacking lumber, etc.
The above conditions would require a higher degree of automation than most pallet plants deploy today. AGLOLAK opted to use mechanical transporters with a vacuum system and robots – similar to what is widely used in the automotive industry. Despite all the attention put on the automated equipment, the biggest challenge was the quality of timber needed to make the new system work properly.
Codoñer said, “We had to work with timber suppliers to obtain uniform material that would work well in a ‘blind’ handling of the boards. This is one of the major reasons for our commitment to buying only certified timber that is held to a high standard where we know the chain of custody.”
Over time AGLOLAK has looked for ways to further automate its operations. Automatic material feeding systems were introduced. This boosted throughput from 11 pieces for a worker to 72 pieces for a KUKA robot to 100 pieces for the automated feeding system per minute. Any easy and repetitive movement was analyzed to see if automation could eliminate unnecessary workers or even if a better automated process could improve production. For example, the system automatically paints and stencils pallets.
AGLOLAK’s automation has improved the quality of its operations while boosting production from 1,200 pallets on an area of 20,000 m2 to 5,000 pallets per shift on an area of 50,000 m2.
Graph 1 shows the company’s progress in terms of production and defects. Production is way up while defects are cut in half. The data shows that robotic and process automation has paid off for AGLOLAK.
Codoñer said, “Without automating our facility in this way, we would not be as strong of a company as we are today.”
Heat Treatment Facilities Solve Pest Concern
With wood pests having been a concern in Europe, AGLOLAK’s plant heat treats finished pallets in two kilns manufactured by Silvino Lindo Ibérica, of Rebordosa, Portugal. This well-known manufacturer of HT kilns for pallets has installed two 5000 unit kilns at AGLOLAK. These two trolley or track kilns lines offer ease of entry of non-certified pallets and exit of heat treated pallets. These kilns are 19.80 meters long (70 feet), 8.70 meters wide (28.5 feet) and 5.75 meters in height (18.8 feet).
The heat source power is 2,000,000 kilocalorie. One kilocalorie equals 4184 joules. The kiln utilizes 75 kilowatts of electrical power to treat the pallets to 56° for 30 minutes to the core of the board. Total heat treatment time from start to finish is about three and a half hours.
AGLOLAK’s Growth Is Impressive
During my recent visit, the plant and holding area was almost twice as large as what I could remember from the past. The actual space is 50,000m2 or 538,195 sq. feet, completely paved
and with space on the east side to store 250,000 finished pool pallets of at least three different pool programs along with new white board pallets and one of the two Silvino Lindo Ibérica, S.A kilns.
The space on the west side of the plant has a capacity to stock 20,000 m3 or 8,475,520 board feet of sawn timber. Most of the supply is heat treated and precut along with a huge supply of composite blocks. The added space allows for the movement of many large size trailers. It is common to unload 20 trucks of timber and load 30 trucks with pallets. In peak season, it is typical to load 50 trucks per day with pallets for delivery.
Codoñer said, “All our efforts to develop a world-class manufacturing operation as well as our strict wood procurement standards and certification process make our customers confident in the quality of what we offer. Some of these decisions were hard at the time, but we stand behind them and have proven that robotics can work in automated systems for high-volume production.”