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CHEP aims to build the better pallet

February 07, 2011

It’s no secret that I grew up in the wooden pallet industry. My father was in the business for nearly forty years before he retired and my first job out of college was working in a pallet shop. Sawdust is in my blood, literally: spend three years at a cutoff saw or a pallet nailing table and you ingest plenty of the stuff.

A lot has changed since I took my last sales trip in 1983. Back then, used pallets were mostly sold by some guy with a flat bed truck; today, used pallets comprise more than half the industry and are sorted, repaired and managed by some pretty sophisticated companies. New pallets were often bought by a guy on the loading dock, usually from his buddy, from specs that were years out of date. Today, there are a number of sophisticated pallet design programs on the market to optimize pallet performance. Back then, no one had ever heard of a pallet pooling or rental program. Today, you can rent wooden and plastic pallets from three major players with a fourth pool in the offing.

The most important change could be the slow recognition that not all pallets are the same, which is one reason a major retailer like Costco has introduced a new pallet spec.

So, are pallets finally getting the respect they are due? That’s one of the questions I had when CHEP announced last week the opening of a new simulation lab to put new pallet designs to the test. 

According to Derek Hannum, CHEP’s director of marketing, the simulator was designed as an alternative to testing new pallet designs in the field, which is slow, expensive and delivers questionable results. “We’ve had an innovation center in place for about 10 years that has been invaluable if you wanted to know about a particular component of a pallet and wanted to do discrete testing in a small way,” says Hannum. “What we can’t do there is simulate real-life usage in the field. But in a business where the durability of a new product is critical to the success of our business model, we can really blow it if we get that wrong.”

The materials handling simulator will include five impact sleds that simulate forklift-truck contact from one to eight miles per hour; a storage and retrieval system station that simulates all typical racking configurations; and a robotic vision system that generates high-resolution images to assess pallet damage, durability and life-cycle after the sleds and storage system do their business.

The facility will also include lift truck and pallet jack stations to manually test the impact of racking, stacking, bulldozing and pinwheeling pallets.

The simulator will feed information from the devices into a system that records all measurements into a database. With that information, CHEP can compress the lengthy field test process from months into a matter of days or weeks, with more reliable data and a greater likelihood of success. Think of it as a CSI lab for pallets.

I think it represents something else, which is the increasing sophistication of the materials handling industry, including the lowly pallet. With the simulator, CHEP is injecting science into what has traditionally been a relatively unscientific segment of the materials handling industry – trust me, I used to build pallets. I know what I’m talking about here.

“We’ve tried to make the case that there’s a whole lot more science and engineering that goes into an optimized pallet design than meets the eye,” says Hannum.

While the lab will initially be used solely to test CHEP pallets, Hannum adds that down the road, CHEP may indeed open it up to test its customers unit loads. “Our customers do tell us that they’re looking for suppliers to help them reduce their operating costs,” he says. “This was designed to help them do that.”

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About the Author

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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