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Pallet World Turns to Fully Automated Line for Recycling
Automated Machine Systems Helps Ohio Company Design, Integrate
By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 8/1/2003
PERRYSBURG, Ohio---Tim Welch, president of Pallet World, Inc., has been in the business of remanufacturing pallets since 1992. Pallet World sells more than 1 million pallets each year.
After losing his factory job more than a decade ago, Tim got a pick-up truck and collected pallets to repair and sell. He also went to work for a relative who owned a pallet business. Tim quickly became intrigued by the possibilities in recycling pallets and the idea of owning a business.
Today, in addition to Pallet World, he owns a grocery store, a gas station, two golf cart companies and a storage business.
Attention to multiple enterprises demands a huge commitment. But Tim takes a systematic approach to coordinating his business endeavors.
"I used to be a machinist," he said, "and switched later to become a fabricated welder. I understood how machines fit together and worked."
That mechanical expertise helped him design a new pallet repair line so that it gets the most from every employee and each piece of equipment. The automated line, designed with assistance from Automated Machine Systems (AMS), began running this spring. It is housed in a new, two-story, block and steel, 24,000-square-foot building that Tim designed specifically to accommodate the cutting-edge repair system.
The line integrated existing equipment with new equipment from AMS, which is headquartered in Jenison, Mich. The design was a joint effort between Tim and AMS president Kris Chayer. "We spent quite some time looking at other facilities," Tim said.
Ultimately, Kris and Tim developed a layout that works best for Pallet World. Tim knew precisely what he wanted to achieve with automation. His goal was to continue "providing the best for the customer and the employee" while increasing efficiency.
"We wanted complete automation," said Tim, and for every piece of wood in a pallet off-loaded at Pallet World to leave either as another pallet or as mulch. And that's exactly what happens now.
Pallet builders at Pallet World are paid according to a piece rate system. A few ill-timed absences by top-producing workers -- who had already met their weekly quotas -- would negatively impact production, and perhaps on a day when they were needed most, Tim explained. With the new AMS repair line, employees are still paid by the piece, and they still earn essentially the same amount of money. However, there is a big difference.
The builders now function as a team. Each AMS stacker at the end of the line has a counter to tabulate the number of finished pallets. The team divides the total number of pallets repaired each day by the number of people working, and that figure is used to calculate the piece rate. Employees are paid by the piece but also as a team, so each one gets the same share. The arrangement "enhances how they work together," Tim said.
Incoming pallets are moved by forklift to one of two lines, depending on the composition of the stack. Stacks of 48x40 go to the main line that is set up to handle GMA pallets. The GMA repair line begins with an AMS de-stacker, which dispenses pallets at the rate of 15 per minute. Although Pallet World uses its AMS de-stacker to handle GMAs, the forks on the machine can support pallets down to 36 inches wide.
Pallets that do not require repairs are routed to conveyor and to one of three AMS stackers, which come standard from AMS with a programmable logic controller. Badly damaged pallets that will be dismantled to recover usable lumber are routed to another conveyor.
Pallets needing repairs move along the repair line conveyor to one of two AMS Deckmaster machines to be prepped. The Deckmaster, with one operator, removes any broken boards and depresses nail stubble. Pallets are returned to the conveyor with the top face down.
On a typical day, five workers are positioned beyond the Deckmaster machines on both sides of the conveyor to perform repairs. Workers attach replacement deck boards, ‘nailing on the fly’ as the pallets move past on the conveyor. Stanley-Bostitch power nailing tools are suspended overhead, and the workers pull them down as needed.
Tim has tried other suppliers for power nailing tools, but he has always come back to Bostitch. "Their service is untouchable," he said.
The bottom of the pallet is repaired first, and then an AMS flipper turns the pallets over with the top face up; it can handle a pallet every 4.5 seconds. After the top face is repaired, another worker grades the pallet according to quality and routes them to the appropriate AMS stacker. Pallet World sorts finished pallets to four grades: a high grade, medium grade, low grade and No. 2.
The company typically employs about 10 workers in its entire operations, including pallet repair and wood recovery. Some times the number dips to only eight or goes as high as 14 or even 20. "You can shift people around much easier with automation," Tim said.
Pallet World processes odd-size pallets on a separate line for recovering lumber. Odd-size pallets are put into position to be processed with an AMS tipper, and they are fed by conveyor to one of two Heartland Equipment bandsaw dismantlers, each with two operators. If a GMA pallet is mixed in with the odd-size pallets, one of the operators can route it to the GMA line via a connecting conveyor that intersects at a point after the de-stacker.
All material – reclaimed pallet lumber and broken components – travel along a two-tier conveyor system to their respective destinations.
Damaged boards travel on the bottom conveyor toward the first of two grinders. The scrap conveyor is 175 feet long and is inclined near the end of the line to carry the material outside.
Reclaimed material goes along the top conveyor to a turntable that feeds an MSI Trim-Trac II trim saw operated by two workers. The MSI Trim-Trac II can trim up to four different stringer lengths at one time and performs a key function at Pallet World. "It's a very nice piece of equipment," said Tim. The operators trim deck boards to 40 inches and manually stack them on pallets.
The AMS repair line enabled Pallet World to reduce the number of pallet jacks and forklifts, which in turn reduced congestion. Fewer vehicles moving around reduces confusion and allows employees to focus on their jobs.
Tim has been most pleased by Pallet World’s increased efficiency. "The wood recovery is quite an amazing set-up," he said. Three existing lines were integrated into the new AMS system. Even with the investment in new machines, production costs are about the same, said Tim, because fewer employees are needed.
The AMS staff made the design and installation easy, he said, and they deserve significant recognition. "They are great to work with," said Tim. "Kris Chayer and his whole staff at AMS...We are very pleased with the cooperation they gave us."
Scrap material is processed by two grinders into mulch. Scrap material feeds automatically from the waste conveyor into a new West Salem Machinery grinder and then is processed a second time by a Rotochopper MC 166XLT, which is powered by a 400 hp Caterpillar diesel engine. Grindings are fed to the Rotochopper by a dump truck.
The Rotochopper is the second one Tim has owned. "I love it," he said. "I can say the nicest things about their staff."
Ninety-five percent of the mulch produced by Pallet World is colored by the Rotochopper, which grinds and colors. Becker-Underwood colorants are used to produce red, brown and black mulch. Pallet World distributes colored mulch wholesale and retail. Tim is considering adding equipment to bag the company’s mulch.
Collecting and delivering pallets has come a long way since Tim started the business. He now owns five Kenworth tractors and 50 trailers. Empty trailers are dropped at customer sites when full trailers are hooked. The company serves customers with a radius of a couple of hundred miles.
Because Pallet World also makes some custom pallets, it occasionally purchases new lumber and cuts it to appropriate lengths.
Now that Pallet World has a new building, there is space for a full-scale maintenance shop. Tim is in the process of moving all truck maintenance in-house.
Pallet World employs 43 people who work at least five days per week, often more, depending on order volume. There is one shift. There are two repair tables for custom work.
"I have an unbelievable staff," said Tim. "I'm a very fortunate person to have the people that work here." He hesitated to single out individuals because the pallet repair crew works as a team.
Among the office staff, Tim gave special credit to secretary Angel Carillo, salesman Rod Lucas, and controller Stephanie Singer. He also cited Bryan Birkenkamp, the dispatcher who keeps the company’s trucking operations coordinated.
Tim’s parents, Dick and Diane Welch, who now operate the grocery store, have been very important to his business. "Dad came and helped me out" in the first years, he said. "My uncle, Kenneth Welch -- we call him 'unk' -- helped me get started." Tim said it's the "last official year" for his uncle. "He's going to be greatly missed. He has done everything from bottom to top, trucks, invoices, sales, calls..."
A native of Michigan, Tim grew up near Ann Arbor and he is a passionate fan of the University of Michigan football team. He even had his AMS machines painted blue and yellow, Michigan's colors.
Perrysburg is a town with 12,500 residents and located about 13 miles southwest of Toledo. It is within easy driving distance of Ann Arbor, and Tim enjoys taking his children to University of Michigan home games. There is nothing more important to him than spending time with his daughter, Erica, and son, Zackary, he said.
"The pallet business is a huge challenge," said Tim. "You have to be on your toes. I wish I could take time away from it, but I don't. You have to love it -- it's so competitive."
It has its benefits, too. "I like the people," he added. "I like the employees and the customers and the relationships with them."
Tim tries to distinguish Pallet World to potential customers by emphasizing its plant and operations. "We strive very hard to have a state-of-the-art building facility," he said. "We love bringing customers to the building."