The once humble underpinning of the industry is now increasingly sophisticated and sustainable.
Pallets used to be crude affairs known as "skids" in warehouses — raw lumber nailed together and sent off to the shipping wars without a second glance.
That has changed, drastically and dramatically. In the words of Lewis M. Taffer, chief marketing officer at Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS) in Orlando, Fla.: "RFID [radio frequency identification] has become an integral component of the most advanced pallet-pooling systems, and it has made tracking and tracing of product shipments much more effective and reliable. Plastic pallets with this technology carry a unique serial number that can be read in various ways. To maximize efficiency, these electronically tagged pallets can be integrated into a company's warehouse management system."
RFID technology establishes a framework for tracking and tracing products throughout the supply chain in real time, according to Taffer.
Another trend in pallet technology, he says, is temperature recording and monitoring. "With new directives and best practice guidelines emanating from the FDA, like the Food Safety Modernization Act, and other supply chain industry organizations' recommendations, such as the United Fresh Produce Association's PTI (Product Traceability Initiative) recommendations," Taffer explains, "best practices in the food and produce industry require recording product and supply chain attributes and chain-of-custody events."
Taffer notes that for perishable items, tracking inventory and managing handling throughout the cold chain is critical, and now there's temperaturemonitoring technology available with RFID-enabled temperature-recording sensors embedded into reusable plastic pallets that can be used to log temperatures, as well as capture product and shipping details for download to an integrated track and trace system, providing temperature monitoring of perishables in transit, with on-demand information accessible for real-time decision-making.
"This breakthrough enables grocery stores and other food retailers to practice more accurate, and ultimately safer, inventory management to optimize shelf life of perishables," Taffer says.
All of iGPS' pallets are built with high-density polyethylene, feature a lip to increase load stability and a slotted top deck to improve ventilation, and have RFID tags embedded in each corner to give the pallet a unique identification number.
Also, with literally millions of pallets in the grocery supply chain at any given time, sustainability and other green considerations are of critical importance. "iGPS has built a significant commitment to a green philosophy in all aspects of our business," Taffer emphasizes. "For instance, iGPS' plastic pallets are 100 percent recyclable, and will not end up in a landfill when destroyed. If a pallet is damaged, its resin is reground and remolded into new pallets. In addition, by requiring less fuel for transport, our pallets reduce pollution and harmful greenhouse gas emissions."
Around the Block
Adrian Potgeiter, SVP of sales at Irvington, N.Y.-based Peco Pallet Inc., notes that his company was founded on the basic principle of reusing pallets to conserve resources, and "environmental sustainability is at the heart of our business."
According to Potgeiter, Peco's pallets are built from "responsibly forested" timber and continually repaired, reused and recycled, and that strict control and maintenance standards extend pallet life to more than 10 years. "When pallets are ready to be retired from the pool," Potgeiter says, "they are recycled into mulch, bark or livestock bedding. Even the nails are removed with magnets and recycled. Nothing goes to the landfill."
Peco is constantly evaluating ways to improve its manufacturing techniques and maintenance standards, observes Potgeiter, who notes that one recent development is the addition of a mold inhibitor to the company's distinctive red paint, which is reapplied to pallets each cycle. Peco also uses standardized clinch nails on top-deck boards in new pallet manufacture to more firmly secure the boards to the pallet, and now incorporates third-party quality control inspections in all-new pallet construction, component manufacture and repair operations.
Potgeiter says that his company's block pallets are "far superior" to conventional stringer pallets, being much stronger and more durable, designed to hold up to 2,800-pound loads, and edge-rackable. In a block pallet, the top deckboards are supported by four to 12 blocks of wood (nine, in Peco's case). On a stringer pallet, there are three long parallel boards called stringers, which support the load on the pallet.
"Block pallets also have better top-deck coverage," Potgeiter notes, "and are safer to use in overhead racks. And because they are built to consistent, accurate dimensions, Peco pallets are ideal for use in today's fast-moving automated production lines."
At Los Angeles-based Rehrig Pacific Co., General Manager Jerry Koefelda says: "Rehrig's pallets are made from 100 percent recyclable materials. The polypropylene, high-density polyethylene, color and additives are all 100 percent recyclable. Also, all of Rehrig's pallets can be produced with up to 100 percent recycled material."
Koefelda says the truly green aspects of Rehrig's products are in their use, which increases the sustainability of an organization's value chain and is what he calls "the real advantage." Rehrig's pallets and related products, he notes, "can assist an organization in reducing spoilage and shrink, eliminating the burden placed on the environment by one-way packaging and pallets, and reducing the number of trucks on the road, all while helping to increase product safety in the case of food and pharmaceuticals, and reducing workforce injuries."
Rehrig's pallets, according to Koefelda, are made from the latest polyolefin offerings available in the resin market, and, when necessary, the company will collaborate with leading resin and additive manufacturers to develop specific grades for an application.
Smart technology is standard on many of Rehrig's latest offerings, Koefelda points out, from a simple bar code; to temperature, shock and vibration monitoring; to advanced solutions like embedded cell phone technology.
Also, Rehrig's new EZ Pal system, Koefelda says, moves product picking to the source — the production facility or distribution center, not the retail storefront. By picking product at the warehouse level, more SKUs can be efficiently handled and delivered from one truck, and productivity can be further increased because more stops can be made per day, which will reduce the number of routes required to deliver the same amount of product.
Systems like EZ Pal demonstrate the strides the pallet industry has made since pallets were little more than part of the supermarket scenery, and taken for granted as such.
"WITH NEW DIRECTIVES EMANATING FROM THE FDA, AND OTHER INDUSTRY ORGANIZATIONS' RECOMMENDATIONS, BEST PRACTICES IN THE FOOD AND PRODUCE INDUSTRY REQUIRE RECORDING PRODUCT AND SUPPLY CHAIN ATTRIBUTES AND CHAIN-OF-CUSTODY EVENTS."
—Lewis Taffer, iGPS
"When pallets are ready to be retired from the pool, they are recycled into mulch, bark or livestock bedding. Even the nails are removed with magnets and recycled. Nothing goes to the landfill."
—Adrian Potgeiter, Peco Pallet