March 18, 2013
material handling update

How to reduce pallet damage

How to reduce pallet damage

The cost of pallet damage can add up quickly. Fortunately, there are some inexpensive steps you can take to minimize the problem.

By Susan K. Lacefield

Pallet damage can add significant cost and waste to your supply chain. And it's not just the cost of repairing or replacing the pallet itself; you also have to factor in the expenses your company will incur if the product loaded on that pallet is damaged as a result.

"Whenever the pallet is damaged, most of the time, the product on top is also susceptible to damage," says Skip Miller, vice president of global quality for pallet pooler CHEP. "Even if it's not damaged at the same time the pallet is, it's more susceptible to damage during the rest of the trip through the supply chain."

And the damage to the pallet doesn't have to be serious in order to create problems down the road. According to Laszlo Horvath, director of the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech, even minor damage can compromise the integrity of the pallet, which can lead to product damage.

So what can you do to reduce pallet damage? For starters, you can look into products designed to protect pallets—like the PointGuard, a plastic shield that screws onto the ends of a wood pallet. Another option, Miller notes, is to invest in forklift attachments that act as energy-absorbing bumpers, like the Blue Guardian or the Product Protector.

But to truly reduce damage, you need to start with the basics: choosing a better pallet and doing a better job of training your employees.

It may seem obvious, but if you want your pallets to last longer, you have to choose sturdier units in the first place. But how do you know if you're buying a well-made pallet? You can start by making sure your pallets meet the standards laid out by MHI and the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA).

As for what else you can do, the industry experts interviewed for this article offered some additional advice on pallet selection. What follows are some of their recommendations:

  • Choose pallets with strong blocks. According to Horvath, most pallet damage occurs when a forklift driver or pallet jack operator hits the pallet's blocks with the machine's tines while trying to enter the pallet. Reinforcing the outer blocks of a wood pallet can extend the unit's life by four times. Reinforcing the middle and inside blocks in addition to the outer ones can lengthen the life of the pallet by a factor of 10 to 15, he says.

    Block strength is also an important consideration when buying plastic pallets. Horvath advises companies to be wary of plastic pallets that don't have solid blocks. Some plastic pallet makers are experimenting with blocks that have an outer shaft or shell and an inner shaft. But if the inner shaft or core of the block is compromised, it can reduce the stiffness of the top deck, causing the weight of the load to be unevenly distributed. This can result in product damage, he explains.

    Horvath also urges companies to exercise caution when buying injection-molded plastic pallets made of two pieces that snap together. When buying these types of pallets, make sure they don't snap together in the middle of the block, Horvath advises. "This can reduce the durability of the plastic pallet to the same level as a wood pallet," he says.

  • Don't scrimp on nails. If you use wood pallets, make sure they use good quality nails. "Nails [account for] 5 percent of the cost of the pallet and 50 percent of the durability," says Horvath.

  • Look for strong leader boards. With wood pallets, Horvath also recommends choosing units that have one or two leader boards (the boards at the front of the pallet by the entryway) right next to each other that are six inches wide and made of a hardwood. "This increases the durability of the pallet significantly," he says.

  • Consider using pallets with beveled entryways. According to Curt Most of the plastic pallet maker Orbis, a beveled entryway is more forgiving than a square one. That's because if the forks hit the beveled edge, they're more likely to shimmy over it and not puncture the block.

  • Choose the right pallet for your application. Different types of pallets work better for different applications, says Most. Questions to consider include: What type of product will be on the pallets? How do you plan to use them? Will they be stacked on the floor or racked? Do they have to be compatible with automated equipment in your DC? Do you anticipate automating your operations in the future?

    A good pallet supplier can help you choose the right pallet. For example, many wood pallet providers will perform a pallet design system (PDS) analysis for their customers using software licensed by the NWPCA, says Callen Cochran, who handles business development for United Pallet Services Inc. This analysis can tell you how much weight the pallet can hold if racked or stacked, the projected life of the pallet, and how many trips the pallet can be expected to make before it needs repairs. Pallet makers can also use the software to demonstrate the effect a slight design change could have on the strength and durability of your pallets.

  • Choose a pallet that is not too customized or that requires special handling. "Make the pallet load as universally acceptable as possible," advises LeRoi Cochran, director of supply chain solutions at pallet recycler IFCO. Otherwise, you'll have to rely on workers at the warehouse to remember that your pallet or unit load requires special treatment, he explains.

    As for what that might involve, it varies with each case. For example, if the pallet is carrying fragile items, it should be strengthened to provide the added protection needed by the product. If it's used for oversized products, you'll want to make sure the pallet is large enough that nothing hangs over the edge.

    If you can't design the pallet to avoid the need for special handling, consider segregating these products and pallets in a separate section of the warehouse to reduce the chance of handling mistakes, Cochran adds.

Preventing pallet damage isn't just a matter of picking the sturdiest and most suitable units, however. You also have to make sure your employees are handling them correctly. No matter how tough your pallets, if your workers push them across the floor with a forklift truck, or fail to insert the forklift or pallet jack tines all the way, or throw them around, you'll still end up with a lot of damaged pallets in six months' time. "Whether it's a $24 wooden pallet or a $65 plastic one, it will last a lot longer if more care is taken in the way you pick them up and use them," says Rex Lowe, former president of plastic pallet pooler iGPS.

Industry experts agree that most pallet damage is caused by forklift trucks or pallet jacks. So you'll want to make sure that these equipment operators in particular are well versed in correct material handling procedures. (For a list of dos and don'ts for forklift operators, see sidebar, "Pallet handling tips for forklift drivers.")

In many cases, your pallet vendor or pooler can provide you with training materials like videos and posters or come in and talk to your employees. (Or you can simply run a search for "proper pallet handling" on YouTube.) Miller recommends using videos as part of the training for new hires as well as posters for reminders and reinforcement.

It's not just the workers on the warehouse floor who might need some instruction on the rudiments of pallet handling. Horvath recommends making sure that whoever buys pallets for your company understands the basic principles of unit load design. He says he's seen too many cases where companies noticed a sudden jump in pallet damage and unit load failure after the purchasing department switched to a cheaper pallet in an effort to cut costs.

Although often taken for granted, pallets nonetheless play an important role in the supply chain—protecting the product. They can't do that job, however, if they're getting damaged themselves. Companies that start with a well-made pallet, educate their employees on proper handling, and use pallet protection products as appropriate will see results that even senior executives will notice: lower supply chain costs and higher efficiency.

About the Author

Susan K. Lacefield
Editor at Large
Susan Lacefield has been working for supply chain publications since 1999. Before joining DC VELOCITY, she was an associate editor for Supply Chain Management Review and wrote for Logistics Management magazine. She holds a master's degree in English.

More articles by Susan K. Lacefield

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