Optimizing Trailer Space Gives Pallet Suppliers Another Edge with Customers
Load Optimization Has Become More Routine
By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 11/8/2004
Stronger, lighter, fumigated, heat-treated, bar-coded, and four-way pallets flow from the specific needs that pallet users have communicated to pallet
With oil settling firmly above $50 per barrel in early October, fuel prices continue to trend upward with no cap in sight. As a result, both shippers and transport companies have more incentive than ever to optimize the loads moving across highways and all other routes, including air, rail and water.
Load optimization has become routine over the last decade. Software to assist with getting the job done grows easier to use and simultaneously shows more sophistication and cost-effectiveness. Consequently, a pallet manufacturer conversant in optimizing theory and practice can score points with customers. (Note: To take a web tour of some of the vendors offering optimizing software, start with the samples at the end of this article.)
The essentials of optimization begin with the pairing of faster and smarter methods of putting loads together and then moving and offloading them. At any juncture, costs can be cut. One way is to speed the processes of palletizing, loading palletized units, and offloading unit loads by combining automation with highly trained employees.
Money can also be trimmed from transport. The most obvious costs of transportation are tied to fuel. But haulers also incur costs for wear to tires and suspension, breakdowns, and other deterioration that can be directly tied to shifting loads and loads that are not uniform in weight. Ultimately, those costs are passed along.
The increasing use of optimization puts more responsibility on the pallet manufacturer, who must be able to meet specifications precisely. No overhang from a palletized unit load is acceptable because just the smallest fringe of product can throw off the entire optimization model.
Tilting pallets are a bane to optimized loads. Obviously, customers that optimize expect pallets to have the highest integrity. A damaged deck board that causes a unit load to sag or shift cannot be tolerated.
In the short term, the most important thing a pallet manufacturer can do to support optimization is to make a quality product that has structural strength and reliability. In the longer term, becoming part of the optimization team will be the norm.
It is becoming more important to be able to sit down with customers that are optimizing trailer loads and design pallets to meet their needs. Integration all along the line, from making the product to putting it in the hands of a consumer, is key to maximizing savings. (Some day, even produce may be engineered genetically to grow into the most easily packed shape, a cube. In 2001, for instance, a square watermelon was introduced in
Industrial engineers provide the serious mathematics that supports the theory of load optimization. Engineers like Benita Beamon of the
Bringing the fleet into the equation makes sense. After all, if loads are truly optimized, they are arranged for deliveries that reduce backtracking. And the loads are configured for last on, first off.
Just two findings of Beamon and Deshpande illustrate the complexity of participating in a pallet design session with an eye on optimization. For example, a palletized unit that is too large can slow loading and offloading, so some trailers are optimized when each truck is not at full capacity.
Challenges of matching theory and practice play themselves out in an infinite number of ways. At distribution centers, for example, unit loads of a single brand or type of soft drink need to be broken down to create unit loads of mixed soft drink products for delivery to retailers. Jane Smith and Jim Jones live in the same city, but they order different computer components from the same vendor and expect delivery the same day.
With increasingly automated systems deployed do everything from shrink-wrapping to de-strapping pallets, the pallet size that automated material handling equipment can accommodate must be considered. In effect, pallet
Training already is available in a systems approach to unit load design. For example, the Center for Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech University (www.unitload.vt.edu) now offers short courses on unit load design that are geared to pallet suppliers. The next session, which is co-sponsored by the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA) and International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) will be held in April 2005.
Optimization costs money. A double investment must be made to figure out the best way and to implement the best way. So, say experts, one challenge for shippers is to figure out how much optimization they can afford.
Better loading of a single pallet or a single trailer is not the goal of optimization. Instead, the objective is to optimize across pallets and the fleet. Ideally, say experts, it would be necessary to reconfigure the way trailers are loaded every day, looking at the pick-ups and deliveries to be made during the next 24 hours, in order to optimize fully. Today, some end-users of optimization software, such as those in the express transport industry, take an approach that is similar to this.
The algorithms, or know-how built into computer software, are there to allow shippers to do just about anything they want. And many companies that sell optimization software and expertise can tailor systems to a client’s needs.
Although cubes are easier to pack tightly and configure quickly, companies that produce optimization software design it for all shapes. The programs can build optimal loads layer by layer with uniform subunits, such as shoeboxes, or by using a three-dimensional approach with non-uniform items.
Many shippers have taken to putting ancillary packaging around non-uniform items to square them up. The extra packaging is expensive, however. So software that can arrange everything from large canisters to sofas on a unit load -- without adding padding -- is valued. It is also available.
Software developers, such as ILOG in
The planning guarantees the fewest, most cost-effective raw materials are used to unitize. In effect, pallet
The benefits of optimization stem from many levels of enhancement. A company may save money on fuel because of better load dispersion en route. Optimization may result in fewer rearrangements – and savings -- during a long haul with staggered drop off points.
The potential for increased efficiency and savings sells; the potential of optimization to cut costs is attracting attention.
Future Is Here
According to experts, most types of optimization software have the same basic capabilities, irrespective of vendor. That is, the software can set certain parameters, such as types of containers available, weight restrictions, and so on, and go from there.
Differences in software manifest themselves in price, service contracts—on site or off, upgrades, ease of integration with existing software, such as bar-coding, or other supply chain and inventory management offerings. Most vendors have been selling optimization software for a minimum of 10 years, and they sell internationally.
Some vendors provide optimization software that asks what sort of space a shipper has available. Standardized software does not look at the contents and specify the fleet or pallets that would optimize the use of space.
In the past, the biggest obstacle to adoption of optimization has been that most companies already are up and running when they take the plunge. It was not feasible to purchase all new vehicles and redesign all pallets and ancillary machinery.
However, things have changed with the competitiveness in the marketplace and shipping costs. Three years ago, a representative of one large transporter who asked not to be identified, discussed the future of optimization. “The majority of our use of optimization work relates to building movement networks, looking at expected movement requirements and building routes for aircraft and ground vehicles that have the capacity to move all the volume in the necessary time constraints at the cheapest cost,” he said. “In a way, you could say that we are redesigning the shelf space, given what has got to go on the shelves.”
Everyone along the materials handling chain now is involved in determining how to fill those “shelves” at the lowest cost. And that includes pallet suppliers.
Because of timed studies or personality or a combination of both, Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) gave something of a negative connotation to the concept of efficiency. In part, it explains why the word “optimization” stands for efficiency in modern contexts.
For a time at the end of the last century much of the talk about the information age suggested that technology would go off in one direction and leave industrial pursuits in the dust. But technology is the partner of industry, and the changes going on in the early part of this century demonstrate that consumers can no more live without vegetables than manufacturers can thrive without the software that gets those vegetables to their destination in the most expedient way.
Optimization is fundamentally about the genuine melding of theory and practice, technology and design, information and industry. Software designers have been speaking the language of pallet suppliers for many years. Now, pallet
It’s not exactly a revival of Taylorism—and if it were, many would resist calling it that. But it is in part of vindication of
Introduction to Optimization
Check out the following websites (just a sampling of vendors) to sample what’s available and also to see great 3-D illustrations of optimized loads.
Do you want reprints or a copyright license for this article? Click here
Research and connect with suppliers mentioned in this article using our FREE ZIP Online service.