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.
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.
Launching a pallet protection program might seem like overkill. But those who've done it say it can have a big payoff. Here are some of the potential benefits:
- Reduced costs. If you reduce pallet damage, you lengthen the life of your pallets and cut down on the number of units you have to buy or rent.
- Decreased risk of contamination. Broken pallets (especially chips, sawdust, and splinters from wood pallets) can contaminate your product and/or workplace.
- Improved safety. Employees can cut or injure themselves on pallets with broken pieces or protruding nails.
- Reduced product damage. Pallet damage often leads to product damage, either at the same time the pallet breaks or further along in the supply chain.
- Lower repair costs. United Pallet Services estimates that it costs $5 on average to fix a wooden pallet.
- Improved operational efficiency. Repacking, repalletizing, and cleaning up after a pallet has been damaged adds time (and cost) to your supply chain.
- Reduced risk of equipment damage. A damaged pallet can damage or jam automated equipment, resulting in repair costs and downtime.
INVEST IN A BETTER PALLET
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.
HANDLE WITH RESPECT
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.
The main cause of pallet damage is mishandling by forklift operators, according to the experts. Here are some quick tips for drivers on handling pallets correctly.
- Don't hit the pallet blocks when entering the pallet.
- Don't "shortfork." Instead, make sure the forks are inserted far enough into the pallet entry that the pallet is fully on the forks. "If your tines only go in halfway and you pick up the pallet at an angle, the ends of the forklift tines are actually puncturing the underside of the pallet," says Rex Lowe, formerly of pallet pooler iGPS.
- Don't "bulldoze," or push pallets across a concrete floor.
- Don't "pinwheel," or use the forklift tines to push the pallet/unit load diagonally 90 degrees.
- Don't drop pallets.
- Do slow down as you enter a pallet. "Many operators don't, and they end up slamming into the pallet," says Virginia Tech's Horvath. "When a 10,000-pound forklift hits the leader board of a pallet, it's going to cause damage."
- Do spread forklift tines as far out as possible (but without going too far) when entering the pallet.
- Do keep the forklift tines as level as possible when entering the pallet, so they don't puncture the pallet.
- Do tilt forklift tines back slightly at an angle when carrying the pallet, so that the pallet rests on the forklift mast, recommends Lowe.
- Do stack pallets uniformly. A neat stack of pallets is less likely to topple over or be hit by a passing forklift.
About the Author
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.
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