Get the most from your unit load

Pallet and unit load design systems minimize the cost of maximizing your unit load

By ·

Pallet and unit load design software systems have been around for nearly 40 years now. Today, there are a number of different tools on the market. While each one attacks a slightly different problem, they are all designed to allow an end user to get the most out of their unit load packaging materials. Here’s a look at four of the tools on the market and how to put them to use in your operations.

Pallet Design System: PDS, the wooden pallet specification and design tool, is quite possibly the granddaddy of them all. First released by the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (, the U.S. Forest Service and Virginia Tech back in 1984, PDS recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Fundamentally, PDS is a pallet design tool, explains John McLeod, director of the pallet design system for the NWPCA. “We can design almost any type of new wooden pallet, from a block to a stringer design, and from with a limited number of deck boards to a solid plywood top,” says McLeod. “We can also take into consideration any lumber product used around the world to manufacture pallets.”

The catch: PDS can only be accessed by wooden pallet manufacturers who are members of NWPCA. End users cannot purchase the software on their own.

While the system can’t be used to validate used pallets, it can be used to design newly assembled pallets manufactured from recycled components or a combination of new and recycled components.

In its present iteration, the system allows users to input a pallet design, the load specifications and how it will be handled and supported. For instance, will it be moved on a conveyor or by a lift truck? Will it be stored on the floor or in an unsupported rack? Will it be stacked? The system will then tell you how the pallet will perform, whether it will bend or deflect in racks, how many trips you can expect before repair, and what components you’ll need for repair. You can then do what-if scenarios to see how altering the specs can affect the performance.

Coming next, the system will also perform an analysis of the stress on the cartons or containers on the load and how the load unitization materials might affect performance. “You’ll be able to specify and draw the entire unit load, including whether you’re using stretch or shrink wrap or corner posts,” says McLeod. “You’ll be able to analyze the stresses that will be on the boxes and containers as a function of the pallet design.”

PalDRAW: Like PDS, PalDRAW ( is designed for pallet design. While it is available to anyone for purchase, the typical user is a pallet manufacturer designing a pallet for a customer, says Jamie Doyle, vice president of Automated Machine Systems, the supplier of PalDRAW.

A CAD-based system, the program includes a wizard that walks an end user through the pallet design process with a few clicks. The system generates a 3D view of the pallet as well as a list of the components required to manufacture the pallet. It does not, however, validate the design in terms of load capacity or pallet failure. “Our typical end user is a pallet manufacturer putting together a design and a quote for their customer,” says Doyle.

Cape Pack: Cape Pack, the load design program from Cape Systems (, works in conjunction with a product like PDS. It is primarily used by consumer packaged goods manufacturers, retail chains and manufacturers of packaging materials used in shipping, such as glass and plastic bottles and corrugated boxes.

Cape Pack is not used to design pallets. However, once you have a pallet design in place, it can determine the most effective way to palletized and unitize a load. “The system allows people to evaluate their existing packaging materials and their method of pallet building or unitization,” says Brad Leonard, vice president of packaging innovation and sustainability. “If they find there are inefficiencies of load failures, they can do what-if scenarios to optimize the load. If that doesn’t work, they can use the tool to redesign their packaging.”

While the system does not do pallet design, there are some 270 common pallet designs preloaded into the program and it can differentiate between plastic, steel, domestic U.S. pallets and European pallets. The system also includes a feature to evaluate the compression of the load based on number of factors, including the compression strength of the corrugated or whether the load will be double stacked inside a trailer or on the warehouse floor.

“We’ve been optimizing the pallet fit for about 40 years,” says Leonard. “What’s changed is that unitization is getting more attention because people understand that the more you can get on your pallet load, the more optimized your supply chain and sustainability efforts are going to be.”

Tops Engineering: Tops Engineering ( offers two different load design programs, according to Eva Lee, senior business manager.

The first is Tops Pro, a product that, like Cape Pack, is used to design the most effective way to build a unit load on a pallet, especially for homogenous items – that is, every item on the load is the same. The emphasis is on stacking information: the system will provide stacking and stress information to determine whether or not product on the bottom layer will be damaged. “A customer shipping computer monitors, for instance, can decide what pattern will be the most stable, but they can also design the load to minimize shipping costs or to be sustainable,” says Lee.

MaxLoad Pro is used to create stable, mixed SKU pallet loads, an increasingly common requirement for the grocery industry. “One of our customers uses the program during order fulfillment,” says Lee. “When orders come into the system from the ERP, we run the order through our system to figure out the best way to palletize the order,” says Lee. “We can send that information to the palletizer. We can also interface with the ERP or warehouse management system that is going to direct picking.”

Pallets and RFID
Some end users putting RFID and pallets to work to track work-in-process and finished goods in their facilities and supply chains

Is another pallet pool in the offing?
The new Costco spec could open the door for an independent pallet pool from NWPCA members



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.

Subscribe to Modern Materials Handling Magazine!

Subscribe today. It's FREE!
Find out what the world’s most innovative companies are doing to improve productivity in their plants and distribution centers.
Start your FREE subscription today!

Latest Whitepaper
The Overlooked Competitive Advantage: Connected Teams
57% of surveyed manufacturers believe they could reduce downtime by 10-30% by unifying their workgroup communications. What does a minute of downtime cost you?
Download Today!
From the January 2018 Modern Materials Handling Issue
PFS built one of the largest and most automated AS/RS freezers in the world in Washington state. Next up is a new design for automation. Automated Storage/ Automated Retrieval System, Cold Storage.
Lift Truck Series Part 1: Lift truck technology connects pickers to productivity
Breaking Through On Yard Visibility
View More From this Issue
Subscribe to Our Email Newsletter
Sign up today to receive our FREE, weekly email newsletter!
Latest Webcast
Emerging Technologies for Your Distribution Center
Come get an insider's view of the latest technologies for inside your Distribution Center. You'll learn which technologies are being piloted, which are having success and moving from concept to implementation and into production on the maturity scale, and what's coming on the horizon.
Register Today!
Trinchero Family Estates: Pallet handling in the vineyard
The second-largest family-owned wine company in the world turns to automated pallet handling and...
System Report: Rocky Brands Sees the Light
Confronting an aging materials handling system and new channels of business with new customer...

Top 20 industrial lift truck suppliers, 2017
The top lift truck suppliers list is changing with industry acquisitions causing a dramatic...
Lodge Manufacturing: Distribution Cast in Iron
In a new facility, iPhones and a new WMS allowed cookware manufacturer Lodge to double its business...