Do-it-yourself corrugated pallets

In-house assembly of corrugated pallets is another option in the evolution of logistics.

Corrugated pallets are marketed mainly on their professed advantages over wood pallets. Those advantages relate to costs and efficiencies throughout the supply chain, especially as they relate to transportation, storage, handling, safety, and sustainability. True of all pallet types, advantages come with disadvantages, necessitating that decisions be based on case-specific considerations within a systems approach. Now companies deciding on the use of corrugated pallets have an additional decision: whether to bring assembly in-house.

DIY assembly inherently is more practical for corrugated pallets than for wooden ones, for at least three reasons. The first is that corrugated is an engineered material, not subject to defects such as knotholes, rot, and bark, relieving some aspects of inspection. The second is that corrugated pallets don’t require nails nor staples, nor the tools to apply them, making their assembly less complicated. The third is that the components of corrugated pallets are less heavy than the wooden counterparts, and therefore, less physically demanding on assemblers.

The aforementioned notwithstanding, the decision might come down to whether a company has a better use for the personnel and the space that would be assigned to in-house pallet assembly. The competitive advantage, therefore, accrues to the supplier whose system requires the fewest personnel and the smallest footprint──commensurate with desired quality and desired quantities.

Quantities deserve further comment, for in-house assembly implies a threshold level. The degree to which that level is exceeded serves as justification for the degree of automation installed. At the lower end of the continuum are assembly tables, their features accommodating to those of the corrugated pallet’s design. A flat-surface table, for example, conceivably suffices for the assembly of stringer and block pallets. In contrast, the assembly of a pallet made from a pair of die-cut blanks, having interlocking tabs and slots, is better served by a table with certain surface protrusions that restrict and orient.

At the higher end of the continuum are various types of automated equipment, varying in in-feed, assembly, fastenings, and cycle-times, in addition to operator requirements. Energy use can be another differentiator. Yet another one can be that of flexibility: the equipment will be geared to a particular pallet design, but can it handle different sizes?

Regarding acquisition, different suppliers offer different opinions. One is outright purchase and ownership. Another is to be charged monthly, in accordance with computer-recorded cycles-runs. In all instances, the appropriate accounting tools related to capital equipment should be utilized in the analysis.

It’s not a given that the corrugated components will come from the equipment supplier. One business model is for the equipment supplier to design the dies and then provide them to corrugated manufacturers, utilizing that well-established infrastructure. It makes for local sourcing, for example, allowing a company to order corrugated pallet components from the same facility that supplies its corrugated shipping containers.

The DIY corrugated pallets industry competes against the industry of pre-assembled paper pallets, whether consisting of corrugated, solid fiberboard, honeycomb, or a hybrid. But that’s a competition that, at most, will yield modest growth. The overwhelming majority of the billions of pallets in service around the world are made of wood; therefore, the competitive strategy for DIY corrugated pallets needs to be geared to gaining market share at wood’s expense.

Corrugated pallets best lend themselves to fast-moving retail goods, where pallet loads are in the light-to-moderate-weight range. Falling into that category are foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals, personal-care products, cosmetics, household chemicals, small hardware products, toys, automotive care products, and (rightfully) DIY products. While not an exhaustive list, it represents the majority of goods sold at retail.

It follows, therefore, that retailer acceptance (the likes of Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco, Kroger, Home Depot, etc.) is critical to the success of corrugated pallets (although retailers are unlikely to care whether the pallets are DIY or preassembled). Who needs to woo the retail industry? Is it the pallet supplier or the pallet user? The answer is both. Among the various pitches that can be made to a retail chain is that of revenue: corrugated pallets can be compacted, along with corrugated boxes, and sold to recyclers.

It’s not that user industries are so enamored of wood pallets that they’re blind to their shortcomings. So what enticements must the DIY corrugated industry offer? Whatever the specifics, they should not gloss over the most ruling concerns about corrugated pallets, two of which are hereby discussed.

Any pallet──first and foremost──is a load-bearing platform; therefore, potential buyers need to be convinced that corrugated performs in that capacity. A corrugated pallet that can’t bear more than a 1,000 lbs. is quite limited in its ability to make inroads against wood, even taking into account the aforementioned list of product categories. Load-bearing is a dynamic, multi-dimensional concept and manifests itself at different times in a supply chain. One example concerns the design of storage racks, specifically the amount of center support accorded a pallet. Insufficient center support can cause wood pallets to bow, and the effects on corrugated pallets can be even more compromising.

Being made of paper, corrugated is hygroscopic, a trait that gives potential buyers pause, particularly those whose supply chain is of the cold-chain variety. But regardless of the type of supply chain, the effects of hygroscopicity can vary along seasonal and geographical lines. The moisture-resistance of corrugated can be increased with coatings and impregnations; however, a possible trade-off is a reduction in recyclability of such treated corrugated. Whatever the industry’s best achievements against moisture/wetness, it’s unlikely that the industry will recommend outdoor storage nor direct exposure to inclemency.

Equipment suppliers of DIY corrugated pallets have their means of contending with the concerns of potential buyers, while emphasizing areas of savings and efficiencies. The information provided should be the type that empowers potential buyers to crank their own numbers. It’s the difference between being led and being guided.

There are, nonetheless, logical steps to be followed along the path to a supplier-buyer relationship. First, performance requirements need to be established, and as stated at the beginning of this article, a case-specific, systems approach is key. Then, performance requirements need to be translated into specifications, detailing the pallet design and materials. The latter includes properties of the facings (i.e. basis weight), types of flutes, and adhesives. Also to be specified is whether the corrugated is to be virgin Kraft, or if recycled content is permitted, the percent and other restrictions. Next should come testing of prototypes, under representative conditions; after all, the pallet should be easily integrated, without causing disruptions anywhere in the supply chain. Then there’s tool-making (dies, for example) needed for full-production quantities. Last, there are delivery, customer service, and all the tangibles incidental to an enduring relationship.

There’s a DIY Network channel on cable television, dispensing how-to advice, but don’t expect to see a feature about in-house assembly of corrugated pallets. But as to the future of those pallets, as that old television saying goes: Stay tuned.

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Sterling Anthony, CPP, is a consultant specializing in packaging, marketing, logistics, and human-factors. His contact information: 100 Renaissance Center, Box-176, Detroit, MI 48243; telephone 313-531-1875; sterlinganthony1@sbcglobal.net; www.pkgconsultant.com

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