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Best Practices for Pallets and Containers in Automated Systems

Posted by IFCO Systems
July 06, 2017

Marketplace growth strategy trends, including omnichannel, are placing newfound pressure on the fast-moving consumer goods supply chain. At the same time, automation is increasing as retailers, growers and processors seek to keep pace with consumer demands.  These changes could increase storage capacity and the cost-effective fulfillment of e-commerce and retail orders. However, experts advise that pallet and container selection should be considered early in project planning to maximize sales and efficiency. Here are some of the insights shared from ProMat 2017.

Wrong way and right way: Pay attention to roller conveyor and pallet interaction

During projects that involve roller conveyors, ensure the pallet bottom configuration allows for smooth passage over rollers. Bottom deck boards should run perpendicular to rollers, rather than just parallel. Parallel bottom deck boards can result in a bumpy ride, with vibration leading to the outward mushrooming of cartons or crates on the pallet. Even if the lower deck is correctly oriented, the excessive spacing of rollers may still result in vibration and require the use of extra stretch wrap to pull the cases back inside the pallet footprint. In these situations, it can be cost effective to invest in more closely spaced rollers than repeatedly pay for the additional stretch wrap requirement over the lifetime of the conveyor system.

Pallets that have deck board coverage in both the length and width of the pallet(i.e. picture frame coverage found on block pool pallets or a cruciate configuration found on some plastic pallets) are more flexible to work in a variety of conveyor systems. This includes belts that require a change of direction.

A stiff pallet may be necessary but the safety factor is already included in pallet design software 

A maximum deflection of 0.5-inch clearance is required for most shuttle carts in automated storage and retrieval systems. If your pallet supplier is using pallet design software to ensure a maximum 0.5-inch deflection, refrain from restricting to a lower deflection limit to build a safety cushion.  2.5 times safety factor is already built into the design software. Choosing to arbitrarily increase the safety factor can result in a much more expensive pallet. For example, prices could increase from $20 to $35 per pallet.

Custom packaging can be expensive: It pays to involve packaging suppliers in the automation design project

Whenever possible, automated systems should be designed to facilitate standard sized containers and pallets for your industry sector. If modification is required, it is prudent to involve packaging suppliers early in the project design phase.  “(The pallet) should be designed with the system,” Ralph Rupert, Manager for Unit Load Technology at Millwood Inc. stated in his presentation, “Unfortunately, pallet companies are called afterward…The pallet is really part of the system and should not be overlooked until after the fact. It all comes back to making sure this multi-million dollar warehouse has the right pallet do the job, to protect the product all the way through the system.”

In the case of plastic pallets and containers, pallet molds can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, with injection molds being the most expensive. To an extent, a project can work with an existing mold tooling.  This can save considerable cost as well as time by going with an established product. An injection molding project can take 18 to 20 weeks. This could be an unpleasant surprise if pallet selection is left as a project afterthought.

Several providers excel at coming up with a solution late in the project

If you have already embarked on your project, it’s not too late. Alternative courses of action are available to mitigate inefficiencies. When packaging and pallets have been given lower priority, some companies specialize in creating “late in the game” solutions. For example, providers may offer thermoformed containers that require less costly molds and shorter development times than injection molds. This is especially attractive for smaller container runs.

Not all automation providers are the same when it comes to packaging and pallets

Some automation providers have specific requirements for containers and pallets to optimize the performance of their systems. While other vendors design solutions that will work with prevalent packaging already found within those supply chains.

When choosing a supplier, whether it’s early or late in the game, it’s important to ask about pallet and container requirements during the process.