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Family and Quality First: A-1 Pallets Turns to SMETCO for Sortation Automation
Family Ties: Amrik Randhawa is a true American immigrant success story who has created a growing pallet company in the West for his family. The right automation from SMETCO, Viking and others has helped the company boost productivity as it seeks to maintain proper inventories to stay competitive in the market.
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 4/3/2017
Amrik Randhawa is a true American immigrant success story who has created a growing pallet company in the West for his family. The right automation from SMETCO has helped the company boost productivity.
For Amrik Randhawa, the pallet business begins and ends with family. He first started in the business thanks to a family connection, and he continues to run A-1 Pallets Inc. to provide his family with a strong future and give customers a service provider that is reliable and dependable.
Amrik Randhawa, the owner and president of A-1 Pallets, is the prototypical American immigrant success story. He said that he started a pallet company to create a good business where his family could have opportunities, and he began with a truck and a few employees. Today, he works in the business with his two sons, Jobhan and Gurshan, his wife, Jasvinder, and some other extended family.
Since its small beginning in 2002, the company has grown to become one of the largest pallet providers in Washington state. And the Randhawa family has continued to invest in the business through better technology. One of the latest additions is a mid-speed sortation system by SMETCO.
A Better Way to Sort
Jobhan Randhawa, plant manager for A-1 Pallets, explained, “We used to have a big problem when truckloads of recycled pallets came in because they would sit until someone would get to them at the repair stations. With the SMETCO sortation line we get to it right away. As we unload a truck, we put the stacks through the sortation line and get the good pallets out immediately, so our inventory always stays full.”
Amrik added, “The SMETCO equipment has worked great. Since we bought it in 2015, we have processed 400 or more pallets per hour on the line with two employees including a forklift driver.” This new process where the sortation takes place at the beginning allows the repair tables to focus solely on repair.
Incoming pallets are placed on the line in stacks by a forklift operator. These stacks move down the line where the SMETCO Continuous-Feed Upender positions the stacks so that an operator can inspect each pallet one at a time. Pallets are visually inspected and sorted by one operator who hits a button telling which stacker to place each pallet in at the end of the line. Pallets move down the line and are stacked so that the forklift operator can pick up finished stacks and move them to the repair tables or the appropriate storage location.
Amrik explained, “We have five stackers. Each one is for something different.” The line operator will pull off rental pallets and move those to a manual stack. Usually, the forklift operator moves off rental pallets, such as CHEP and PECO, if there are a lot of them in a load before placing stacks onto the sortation line.
The SMETCO mid-speed sorting system has been on the market for about three years and is a more simplified version of its traditional high speed sorting system. According to SMETCO, this mid-speed version can sort 400-500 pallets per hour and comes with continuous feed operation and adjustable pallet stackers (within the limits of the transfer conveyor size).
Pallet stackers are a long “wedge” design that permits stacking any pallet condition. Benefits of the SMETCO mid-speed system include: high hourly production rate, reliability, rugged construction, stacker adjustability, and an attractive price point. This system can run using either a push button or barcoding to ensure proper pallet stack placement through the line. Read more about selecting the proper sortation line in the sidebar on page 18.
Immigrant Success Story
With all the debate in the news about immigration policy, Amrik and his family are an example of how the United States can be a place of opportunity for those who immigrate legally. He came to the country in 1979 from Punjab, India where he had been a farmer. But his opportunity grew here as he jumped into the fledging pallet repair market. He actually began in the San Francisco Bay area of California locating there to be near some family.
Amrik hauled pallets and helped run the trucking side for a pallet company owned by one of his relatives. But he decided to move to Washington state in 2002 to be closer to some family in Canada. And then he began A-1 Pallets, which focused at first on recycled pallets. Amrik’s brother-in-law and sister wanted to move to the area, and they helped him start the new pallet operation in 2008.
Amrik stated, “I got into new pallets to give opportunities for more members of my family, and it has worked out well.”
Young Leadership, Family Ties
Amrik has trusted the future of his business to key members of his family, and he enjoys having them work with him. They are young for the pallet industry. Jobhan, 20, also works with his younger brother, Gurshan, 19, who helps run both facilities.
Although it isn’t your typical job for a young adult, Jobhan said that he likes working in the pallet business even though it is not a high tech industry like software or aviation, two fields that are well established in the Seattle area.
Jobhan explained, “There’s something new every day in the pallet industry. You have different challenges, or certain things you have to do on a regular basis. But each day brings some new challenges, and the job never gets boring.”
In many ways the two sons have grown up around the industry. Gurshan recalled, “I have been working around the pallet shop since I was a young teenager, and I have done a lot of different jobs here.” Gurshan said that he likes working in the pallet industry because you meet a lot of new people. He works in the family business part time as well as going to the University of Washington where he is majoring in business administration.
Family is a major focus for the Indian culture, and it has worked well for the future of the business too. Amrik smiled and said, “It is important my sons
work in the business because I really need them. And when I am away,
they take care of things. Plus, they like working here and add a lot to the business.”
Amrik’s wife, Jasvinder, also works in the business managing spending, tracking orders and handling overall financial management.
Two Facilities Give Flexibility and Focus
A-1 Pallets operates two facilities that give the company added operational flexibility and focus on specific aspects of the operation. Between both plants, the company is about 30% new and 70% used pallet production.
The main plant is the Kent location that houses the recycling, automated new pallet production and heat treatment and finished dry pallet storage facilities. This location also serves as the corporate headquarters.
New pallet production takes place on a Viking 505 Turbo that is designed to produce quality pallets at a stiff pace. Previously, Amrik had worked on a Viking line while in California and liked its performance. And as the company has grown in recent years, he decided to upgrade to a new Viking 505 Turbo in 2016. The aim was to boost its production without adding lots of staff.
Jobhan commented, “The Turbo 505 is a great machine. And if you want to get high production out of it you need to run boards that are the same width.” The Turbo 505 requires two operators and can be changed over from one design to another fairly quickly.
A-1 runs its Viking line early in the morning, usually from 4:00 a.m. to noon. The operators are compensated based on piece work. So the schedule and run order can vary, but they will ensure the job gets done because their pay is tied to production. A-1 uses the Pallet Design System ™ to produce computerized designs for customers.
Some finished pallets are heat treated using a Kiln-direct chamber. Jobhan commented that the heat treatment system has worked well for them to offer export certified pallets to customers. Once challenge in the rainy climate of the Pacific Northwest is moisture content, which can lead to mold growth. The company recently built a large covered shed area to house heat treated and dried pallets to prevent re-wetting of pallets.
The recycling part of the operation starts with the SMETCO sortation system covered earlier in the article. Forklift operators take stacks of repairable pallets to 20 repair stations where boards are removed and pallets are repaired by hand. Workers hand stack finished pallets that are picked up by the forklift operators. Pallet repairers are paid on a piece work basis.
Some odd-sized or broken pallets are dismantled to provide recycled lumber. The company recently added a new Smart Products dismantling and trim saw line to boost productivity. It includes two band dismantlers and a conveyor system that feeds a trim saw for cutting recycled boards to size. Amrik said that the new system creates a better workflow and less handling.
Jobhan explained, “With the old approach, the operator would dismantle the boards and they would be left on the table. Then another worker would have to throw them into a pile. Another worker would come and pick them up and put them in the trim. In this new approach, the boards fall down into a conveyor and goes directly to the trim saw where an operator ensures they are cut to size. This approach has created less work, and our people get more done in the same amount of time.”
The dismantling line used to require four people, now it only requires three. Two people operate the dismantlers and one person oversees the trim saw. Forklift operators take stacks of recycled boards to be used for producing repaired pallets. Less than 10 minutes drive away is the company’s second facility.
The Auburn facility has a lumber processing area and produces specialty pallets. Two older SMETCO stackers receive finished pallets that are made by workers at three hand-nail stations. This facility also stores and processes lumber. A-1 obtains most of its material from in-state sources including Weyerhaeuser and big brokers. It buys primarily Doug fir.
Lumber processing involves taking lumber and trimming it to size. The Auburn plant has a Morgan trim saw used to cut 2x6x10 and make into 40 inch boards or other sizes. Those are fed into a Producto resaw to cut the 2x4s into 1x4s. Those boards are then hand inspected and stacked. On another line, the plant has a custom made trim saw that cuts 104 inch boards to make 48-inch or 46-inch stringers. After trimming, the boards go to a turn table where #2 and #3 material is removed. Only the #1 material goes on to be notched in a Morgan notching system. Each stringer board is inspected at the end for quality and hand stacked.
From its centralized sortation and inspection for used pallets to its lumber production and consistent inspection through the line for new pallet production, quality is a key value for A-1 Pallets.
Pallet Production Relies on People
A-1 Pallets and its related companies employ about 65 workers and offers competitive benefits. The Seattle area is a tough job market. Jobhan said that the company is planning on offering health care insurance and retirement benefits to attract and retain workers.
Amrik added, “That hiring truck drivers is one of the company’s current challenges.” The company primarily uses its own drivers and will use a limited number of contractors as needed. But the driver shortage does put some constraints on growth. If you can’t deliver a product, you can’t sell it.
Another key to success has been managing the inventory to avoid too much or too little supply. Compared to some other facilities in the country, A-1 runs a pretty lean inventory.
Amrik suggested, “A lot of other recyclers are stuck with a ton of inventory right now, and we try to be careful to manage core supply.” Amrik knows that cores can tie up money that you can use other places. Excess supply can harm cash flow.
Overall, Amrik summarized, “Good people, tight control over core and lumber supply and the right automation have been key drivers to our success.”
Selecting the Right Sortation/Repair Approach for Your Needs
If you go into various pallet recycling facilities, you will see a number of different approaches to repair lines. Some systems have the repairer do everything from sorting to grading to repair. Others sort at the beginning on a specialized line. And while there may not be one right approach for every situation, some good rules of thumb can be universal.
Start with the production numbers you want to hit. How many cores do you have coming in on a typical basis? What is the size and type mixture of your flow? How might this change in the next 3-5 years?
How is your operation currently set up? You may have some constraints in terms of your building and available space. You may have some concerns in terms of recruiting workers and creating a more automated approach can reduce worker strain.
Where are you currently using forklift drivers and how does that create inefficiencies or bottlenecks in your operation? The right conveyors, tippers, stackers and other automation can remove lots of unnecessary handling in your plant. How do you intend to track production and how can your sort/repair system be integrated?
Some systems look great on paper but in reality cause too much extra work.
Ken Butler of SMETCO commented, “Repair systems take many shapes and forms. Our most recent thinking on repair lines, is to keep it simple. Meaning, rather than ‘prep’ pallets, or feed all tables from a single device, feed each table with pallet stacks, but convey pallets from the tables to the stackers. A grader can then select each pallet type for sortation.”
Presorting pallets, versus not presorting, is a common theme people talk about in the industry. Butler suggested, “When the percentage of ‘good-to-go’ pallets is very low, it probably doesn’t pay to pre-sort. It creates double handling more than anything. In cases where there is a higher percentage of ‘good to go’ pallets, there is a payoff when the repair tables are not handling, or getting paid for pallets that don’t need anything.”
This specialized focus keeps repairmen repairing pallets and not sorting them, which can boost production. A-1 Pallets has used this approach, and it works well for them.
Key Questions to Ask
• What is the number of pallets you want to process per hour?
• How many employees do you currently use? What is a realistic goal to reduce labor requirements?
• What is your current flow? Where are there bottlenecks?
• Where are you double handling or using forklifts too much?
• What is your budget for automation and equipment?
• Do you have any facilities challenges or limitations? Power availability?
• How can you reduce strain and improve ergonomics and safety?
For an expert consultation, contact SMETCO at www.smetco.com or call 503-678-3081 or 800-253-5400.