Building the better unit load

Pallets don’t work in a vacuum. Getting the most from your unit load depends on how your pallets, materials handling systems and industrial packaging work together.

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Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Or, so the saying goes. Marshall White would like to build a better unit load. A professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, White spent years researching how to build a better wooden pallet. Today, he is president of a consulting firm, White and Co. , and focused on what he calls a systems-based approach to unit load design.

Just what is a systems-based approach to unit load design? The short answer, White explains, is an approach that understands that pallets, packaging materials, materials handling systems and transportation equipment don’t exist in a vacuum. The design of each of those components affects the performance of the others as a palletized load moves through the supply chain from a factory to a distribution center and on to the end customer for that load.

What’s the outcome of a systems-based approach to unit load design? White says it’s not just a better overall package, but there’s also cost savings to be had. “I can safely say there’s between 8% and 18% in avoidable costs that can be saved from a systems-based approach to the unit load,” says White.

While saving 8% to 18% on the cost of your unit load may sound like a no-brainer, White has to overcome some headwinds to get his message out. The most important impediment could be that most of those components are purchased in a silo.

“Most companies take a component-based approach to design with three different communities involved,” White says. “One is responsible for the packaging. Another is responsible for the pallet, and a third is responsible for the warehouse design and the unit load handling equipment. Each of those groups is under pressure to reduce their costs, and they do that without communicating with the other design community.”

The result: The team designing the conveyor system for a new warehouse may increase the spacing between rollers to save on the cost of the system. What they don’t realize is that the pallet now needs to be built from more expensive deck boards to carry the weight of the load across a wider span without buckling.

In the long run, it may make more economical sense to the enterprise to install a more expensive conveyor now and save big on pallets, stretch wrap and cartons over the long haul. But as long as conveyors, pallets, stretch wrap and cartons are designed and purchased by different teams, with different bonus incentives, it’s hard to get that message across.

“Until we change the business model so that these communities have an incentive to work together, it’s very difficult to do because everyone operates in their own very competitive environment,” says White. ”The owner of the supply chain must provide that forum, and give instruction for those communities to work together.”

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About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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