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Industrial Resources Develops New Pallet Sorting Systems
Supplier Develops New Approaches to Automated Pallet Sorting Systems

By Staff
Date Posted: 7/1/2004

            Industrial Resources of Michigan has developed new approaches to automated pallet sorting systems recently.

            “We have some ideas and solutions that have really put an exclamation point on new sorting systems,” said Dan Collins, director of sales and marketing.

            Industrial Resources of Michigan is a full service supplier of pallet management systems, pallet repair equipment and pallet handling equipment. Dan and Gerry Dykstra, vice president, discussed the evolution of pallet handling and sorting, and the leadership role of Industrial Resources in developing new pallet sorting systems.

            In the “prehistoric” area of pallet recycling in the 1980s and early 1990s, mechanical sorting developed from two directions, according to Gerry. One was businesses that used pallets and the other was pallet repair businesses. Pallet-using businesses sorted pallets in order to segregate unwanted pallets and provide them to pallet recyclers. Pallet recyclers, although heavily dependent during that period on manual labor for their operations, also sorted pallets. Generally, pallet repair businesses sorted incoming pallets first to identify those that required repairs or processed virtually all pallets for repairs and sorted them afterward.

            “If you visited one of these shops, it was like someone kicked over a mound of termites,” Gerry explained. “There were a lot of people running around, carrying pallets.”

            “Every time you went to a pallet recycler or a pallet repair company back then, you went out in the yard, one of the few universal truths about the pallet industry was that they sorted them.”

            When visiting pallet recyclers in the early days, Industrial Resources staff typically would ask: How many pallets can your people carry 100 feet in a day? The owner typically did not know. When in fact, that’s what his employees were doing all day, Gerry noted. “We started adding up the number of feet they walked, carrying pallets.” Some workers might be carrying pallets five miles during the course of a shift.

            Industrial Resources realized it was an area where the whole process of pallet repairs could be improved. The company’s focus as a supplier initially was on pallet repair operations -- improving the sorting and handling of pallets to facilitate repairs.

            “The pallet repair industry essentially was a handling environment,” said Gerry, but it relied on inefficient systems and manual labor for sorting and moving pallets.

            Recyclers began to recognize the need to change – to reduce the footprint of their operations as well as the walking and carrying of pallets. “So they threw a conveyor through the yard and put three guys on the other side of the conveyor, and each guy was responsible for two or three different kinds of pallets,” Gerry recalled. “Workers were still ‘hand-bombing’ pallets but it took some of the walking out.” At the time, pallet repair businesses typically pre-sorted incoming pallets prior to repair. They also dealt with many different kinds of pallets – sorting as many as two dozen categories. However, the highest volumes generally were No. 1 and No. 2 pallets.

            “Well, why don’t you just repair them on a line,” asked Gerry, “put two stackers at the end for No. 1 and No. 2 pallets, and add stackers in the future when volume grows?” Even that simple approach eliminated bending, lifting and a lot of the manual handling of pallets, allowing pallet repair workers to focus more on repairing pallets.

            “It became a common paradigm,” said Gerry. At the end of the line, an array of stackers allowed the company to stack popular categories. Typically, a worker was stationed at the stackers to perform a quality control inspection of each pallet and route it to the appropriate stacker.

            “We’ve got a long history in post-sorting,” said Gerry.

            The advent of pallet pooling businesses changed the dynamics of pallet recycling, according to Gerry. “Now, users have to sort them, too.” Recyclers became involved in handling, sorting and segregating pool pallets.

            “This engendered a need for other types of sorting systems,” explained Gerry.  In addition to being segregated, pool pallets had to be sorted – quickly – according to what kind of repair was needed or the condition it would be finished to. Pallets had to be sorted by many different types -- pool or white wood, block or stringer, ready-to-go or type of repair required. Requirements for through-put changed, too. Because of the need to return rental pallets quickly to service, sorting processes had to be accomplished rapidly.

            In looking at old sorting systems, some characteristics that they had in common were that they were linear, which in turn required a very long footprint for the equipment and operations, noted Dan. The long linear footprint was actually a deterrent to pallet recyclers, he said. “For recyclers with large volumes, space is always at a premium,” Dan pointed out. In addition, some businesses require that pallets be stored under roof at all times. Pallet suppliers considering expansion were faced with the difficult choice of investing in a building over equipment.

            Cost was a critical point, too, Dan noted. Large pallet sorting systems were costly. “That really limited market development. Not everyone could afford a sorting system like they can today.”

            Early pallet sorting systems also were very costly on a per-pallet basis as there was a considerable price disparity between small and high-volume systems. A rudimentary sorting system that relied heavily on manual handling but with overhead hoists could process about 1,000 pallets during an eight hour shift and would cost between $10,000-$30,000, according to Dan. To go from that level to a system that could accommodate 3,000-4,000 pallets per shift would cost about $300,000-$400,000. “There was nothing in the intermediate range,” added Gerry. “There was a real need for that.”

            The high cost of large-scale sorting systems retarded their development in the pallet recycling industry, Dan noted. The cost “had an anesthetic effect on market development. People were not willing to put that kind of money out.”

            In addition, there was a lack of affordable sorting systems for mid-size recyclers – pallet suppliers who wanted to repair, say, 2,000 pallets in a shift. “They were in a quandary,” said Gerry. “They didn’t want to mortgage their whole business for an investment like that.” Companies that wanted to expand with another overhead hoist also had to factor in the added cost of another forklift and a manager. “The economics didn’t work out,” said Gerry.

            Industrial Resources has made a considerable effort to help pallet recyclers bridge that gap as well as helping both small recycling operations and high-volume companies. In its consultations with customers and prospective customers, pallet recyclers were focused on about 10 criteria they wanted in pallet sorting systems. The top three were: small footprint, target volume of 2,000-3,000 pallets per shift, and price.

            The top three criteria were noteworthy, Dan explained, because price usually is the number one issue for pallet suppliers considering an investment in plant and equipment.

            Two other important criteria identified in talks with recyclers were safety and labor issues. Recyclers increasingly found themselves under the searching eye of OSHA inspectors, Gerry observed.

            The labor issues were multi-faceted, Gerry explained. Automated systems could control and reduce labor costs. At the same time, they could expand the pool of available labor because, in eliminating the constant manual handling of heavy pallets, the door is opened to more workers who may not be capable of heavy lifting – including women. “There’s no need for a ‘pallet gorilla,’ ” as Gerry put it – hiring only big, strong men. The use of automated systems also opens the door to disabled and handicapped workers. “With many systems, you do no more than push a button,” noted Gerry. Accomplishing those objectives has become a much higher priority for pallet recyclers.

            Industrial Resources uses a modular approach to the design of its sorting systems. That is, they can be easily and affordably expanded with additional ‘modules’ of equipment. “We can add or subtract, customize for every recycler,” said Dan. “They offer infinite adjustability. Someone who starts at 1,500 pallets a day, a year later, if they want to be able to do 2,500, their system can be expanded to accommodate the change.”

            The company’s engineering also has been able to reduce the cost of sorting systems per 1,000 pallets. “We have value-engineered a lot of our products,” explained Dan. “We are manufacturing and supplying a better product for the same price.” Industrial Resources adopted ‘lean’ manufacturing practices for greater efficiency and has passed along the savings to customers in the form of stronger, more durable materials and other improvements. “The result is we have been able to provide better sorting systems than before for less money,” said Dan.

            Pallet sorting systems supplied by Industrial Resources may be operated by one or two people. “Most are operated by one person,” said Dan. If a particular recycler requires other tasks to be performed, another person may be added strategically so they are fulfilled.

            Industrial Resources has improved the information technology associated with its pallet sorting systems. “Data collection has been improved,” said Dan. Recyclers can collect data related to date, types of pallets, volume of pallets, individual workers, and much more. The information may be downloaded to a desktop computer for such purposes as payroll and inventory management. “The data has more usability for our customers and their pallet-using customers,” said Dan.

            Although it took a leadership role in developing pallet sorting systems for mid-size recyclers, Industrial Resources designs and supplies system for low and high volume producers, too. Small recycling businesses that rely on manual labor for pallet sorting operations can benefit from an affordable, automated pallet sorting system, said Dan. “You don’t have to be a high volume depot to utilize a sorting system anymore,” he said.

            “It really comes down to three little letters,” added Dan: R-O-I, or Return On Investment. “Our sorting systems are designed to provide a fast return on investment. If you cannot demonstrate a rapid return on investment, no one is going to invest in the capital equipment that you manufacture.”

            “If a recycler has more than two people involved in manually sorting pallets and is sorting more than two categories of pallets, he’s making a mistake,” said Gerry. “He should be investing in equipment.”

            Industrial Resources’ pallet sorting systems can be divided roughly into two types: end feed or center feed.

            An end feed type system typically begins with an in-feed conveyor, tipper and landing deck. It allows the worker running the system to inspect both the bottom and top faces of the pallet quickly. The system can be equipped with a gravity roller conveyor, enabling the operator to slide the pallet to the appropriate stacker, or an automated conveyor that routes the pallet to the correct stack with the push of a button.

            The center feed system is more compact and has a smaller footprint. The top face of the pallet is presented to the operator in a vertical position. Like the end feed system, it can be equipped so that the operator pushes the pallet on a roller conveyor to the stacker or for automatic routing and stacking.

            After manufacturing the equipment for a pallet sorting system, Industrial Resources sets up the system, tests it, and runs it in its factory prior to shipment. Pallet sorting systems are set up, tested and run in the factory by the same Industrial Resources team that will install the system and bring it online at a recycling company. “That’s why they can do it so fast,” said Dan. “It’s already been tested, and it’s the second time they are setting it up.”

            Most pallet sorting systems can be up and running in a day, according to Dan. “That minimizes the amount of time a recycler’s shop is down. That’s critical for them.” An operator can be trained on the new system and have it running to maximum production in just a few hours.

            All Industrial Resources equipment is manufactured in the United States. Machine tags and safety stickers are bilingual – in English and Spanish.


Industrial Resources -- a Full Service Supplier

            In addition to supplying pallet sorting systems, Industrial Resources of Michigan is a full service supplier of pallet management systems, pallet repair equipment and pallet handling equipment.

            Industrial Resources of Michigan has over 28 years of engineering experience in heavy machine design and manufacturing. It offers complete product engineering, manufacturing, and installation services under one roof. Consulting services include time and motion studies, cost analysis and plant layout.

            Industrial Resources of Michigan offers a complete line of conveyor and handling equipment and pallet repair process equipment. The company also is able to rapidly develop custom equipment.

            Industrial Resources of Michigan has installed equipment and systems for pallet recycling operations throughout the U.S., Canada and seven other foreign countries.

            For more information, contact Industrial Resources of Michigan at 800-748-0306, e-mail sales@industrialresourcesusa.com, or visit the Web site at www.industrialresourcesusa.com.

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