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N.J. Recycler Increases Automation in Order to Improve Pallet Quality
Smetco Pallet Sorting System Also Increases Throughput

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 1/3/2005

FAIRTON, New Jersey -- In the days when tomatoes brought a mere $30 per ton to growers, Herb Smith Sr., a vegetable farmer and industrial worker, added a pallet recycling business to his endeavors.

            His three sons, Herb Jr., Dan and Mike, now run the operations side of Fairfield Pallet Inc. while his wife, Frederica, and their daughter, Cecily Riley, run the financial side of the company. Herb Sr. retired 12 years ago and is no longer involved in the company.

            Herb Jr. (Herb), Dan and Mike started working full time for their father when they graduated from high school. Today, Herb and Dan are co-vice president and Mike is president. Frederica is corporate treasurer and Cecily is secretary.

            Fairfield Pallet is very much a family-owned business, noted Mike. It is also a forward-looking business, he added.

            “I still drive truck, forklift, go out and meet customers,” said Herb, explaining that he knows the business from every angle.

            Fairfield Pallet makes any size or type of pallet a customer requires, said Herb. The company makes some pallets as big as 9 feet long and others as small as 30 inches square. The most common footprint is the GMA-style 48x40 pallet.

             For the most part, pallets are repaired and recycled, and ‘new’ pallets are made from reclaimed pallet parts. Fairfield Pallet seeks to reclaim and re-use as much wood as possible from incoming pallets that cannot be repaired. The company also manufactures combination (‘combo’) pallets made of both new and recycled lumber.

            Fairfield Pallet employs about 50 workers. The company owns approximately 80 acres, eight of which are used for pallet operations. Fairfield Pallet has about 15,000 square feet under roof for its pallet recycling and pallet assembly operations. Pallet production varies, depending on orders and the degree of custom work involved.

            Fairfield Pallet made a number of changes to its operations in 2004, increasing automation. The company upgraded its operations with pallet sorting and dismantling equipment supplied by Smetco Inc.

            Fairfield already had been using Smetco pallet stacking equipment for a number of years and was familiar with Smetco’s performance as a supplier. “The reason we went with Smetco is because we had good experience with their equipment,” said Dan.

            When it came to the decision to automate pallet recycling operations with a sorting system and dismantlers, Smetco worked with Fairfield Pallet to make use of the existing Smetco equipment and to develop a plant layout that would enable Fairfield to be more efficient. Fairfield wanted to increase automation in its pallet recycling operations while keeping it simple.

            The pallet sorting system developed by Smetco for Fairfield Pallet “put the decision making” in the hands of a few workers, explained Dan. That was important to the Smiths because they have veteran employees who can readily make the decisions in pallet sorting operations – whether a pallet is a ‘ready-to-go,’ can be upgraded with repair, or should be sent to the dismantler to reclaim used lumber. The Smiths also wanted a system that would make the work easier, particularly for the benefit of older employees, so eliminating some of the heavy lifting and turning was a goal in designing the new system.

            Fairfield Pallet believes that incorporating mechanization where appropriate can increase pallet quality and reduce employee turnover. The company has many employees who have been with the business for 10-20 years, and the Smiths appreciate their dedication in helping to make Fairfield Pallet a success.

            “They (Smetco) more or less custom built” the system for Fairfield Pallet, said Dan. “The selective deck board remover was made specifically for us.”

            Smetco will custom design a system – for pallet handling, sorting or repairs -- for the needs of a particular recycler. In the case of Fairfield Pallet, the Smiths had a particular concept in mind. “The line we have is very similar to nail-on-the-fly,” said Dan, referring to the type of automated repair line in which ‘prepped’ pallets – pallets with damaged deck boards removed -- move along a conveyer, and workers fasten repair stock to the moving pallets. However, the Fairfield Pallet system is not a true ‘nail-on-the-fly’ repair line. “We didn’t want production at the expense of quality,” said Dan.

            The Smiths’ main interest in investing in a Smetco system was to increase pallet quality, not necessarily pallet production numbers, according to Dan. “Customers expect and demand to get better and better quality year after year,” he said. Fairfield Pallet was confident that the new Smetco line would enable it to improve pallet quality.

            Fairfield Pallet’s recycling operations are now also equipped with a Smetco selective deck board remover. The machine can remove lead boards on both ends of the pallet. The bottom face of the pallet is presented to the machine first. The damaged deck board is removed and replaced with repair stock, and the pallet is turned over with a Smetco flipper on the line to make any needed repairs to the top deck.

            Smetco’s in-line pallet turner can turn a pallet over so it can be inspected, and then over again. The pallet turner reduces fatigue among workers who inspect incoming pallets and sort them.

            The inspector then slides the pallet along gravity rollers to the appropriate stacker. Multiple stackers allow the worker to separate and stack pallets by grade.

            Fairfield Pallet decided to retain a gravity roller system for moving pallets down the repair line in order to allow workers whatever period of time they need to perform repairs. “If a pallet requires three times more time, he can take as long as he needs,” said Dan.

            The lumber recovery area is now equipped with two Smetco bandsaw dismantling machines. Smetco bandsaw dismantlers have several features to make them versatile machines that can disassemble a pallet with relative ease. They require very little operator force. The machine has a patented curved fence, and the operator can slide the pallet along a pivotal axis with the push of a finger.

            The Smetco bandsaw dismantler may be configured for use for one or two men. The one-man configuration provides optimum ergonomic benefits while the two-man arrangement increases production. The dismantler tabletop is 63-inches by 74-inches, and the height is easily adjusted with hand cranks on each end. A lead board remover is an option offered on all Smetco bandsaw dismantlers.

            In order to allow pallet companies to put dismantlers where they are needed, when they are needed, Smetco gives customers the option of all traditional power sources; customers can choose an electric motor, or propane, gasoline or diesel power.

            Smetco pallet recycling equipment features a modular design so it can be easily moved and incorporated into a different plant layout. The modular design enables pallet companies to change their system at minimum cost as their business grows or changes.

            Pallet dismantling operations and lumber trimming operations are performed in a separate building. Good lumber reclaimed from the bandsaws drops onto a conveyor that carries it to a 10-foot turntable. Fairfield Pallet is equipped with a Pallet Repair Systems (PRS) trim saw, a Heartland chop saw, and a Samuel Kent Baker Inc. pop-up saw for cutting recycled deck boards and stringers to the appropriate length. The trimmed lumber is sorted and stored in racks until it is needed for repair stock or pallet assembly.

            For new pallet components Fairfield Pallet buys pre-cut stock. The company buys hardwood and softwood cut stock from mills in the mid-Atlantic region and aspen from suppliers in Canada.

            For pallet repair and assembly, the company uses Stanley-Bostitch power nailing tools and fasteners. Saw Service & Supply provides all saw blades. For the most part, said Dan, Fairfield Pallet relies on disposable blades. “They are just as cost-effective,” he explained.

            Some of the lift trucks are equipped to handle double stacks of pallets and have heated cabs for winter use.

            Fairfield Pallet has some customers that buy pallets for export. It currently supplies pallets that have been fumigated with methyl bromide to meet global phytosanitary rules, but the company is also looking at heat-treating options, Dan indicated.

            Fairfield Pallet had its own grinder to process waste material from 1984 until 1996, but it has opted to pay a small tipping fee to send its waste wood to another company that processes it into mulch. Two ‘walking’ trailers are used for moving the waste wood.

            The Smiths regularly scrutinize their operations to look for ways to improve efficiency and profitability. One result of that kind of self-examination is the growing importance of hauling freight.

            “We do all our own trucking,” said Herb. The company has a fleet of nine tractors to keep 100 trailers moving. The company’s fleet makes deliveries, retrieves pallets and hauls freight in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.

            Many customers have regular schedules when they want Fairfield Pallet to pick up a trailer of surplus pallets, noted Herb. “They want us to come at a particular time,” he said. Most of the truck drivers for Fairfield Pallet work the early morning shift, when most pick-ups are scheduled.

            Customers span a number of different industries. They are “pretty diversified,” said Dan, and include distribution, packaging, chemical, and consumer products businesses.

            Fairfield Pallet is based in Fairton, a town of about 1,359 people in southern New Jersey about seven miles from the mouth of the Delaware River.

            Before Herb Sr. started Fairfield Pallet in 1969, he was employed at an industrial plant. Since he grew up on a farm, it was natural that he would also farm tomatoes in his spare time. When the plant needed someone to repair pallets, Herb Sr. took it on as his second extra part-time job, which eventually led to Fairfield Pallet.

            When the company was formally launched, Fairfield Pallet did not even have a forklift. Pallets were loaded and unloaded by hand on the tomato truck. “Basically, just a lot of sweat equity built the company,” said Dan.

            Changing with the times to keep ahead of competitors is important, said Dan. “You have to be an optimist in this business,” he said. “You have to be willing to adapt as customers change. You can’t be closed-minded. You have to be open-minded.” He cited the integration of trucking and hauling general freight for other businesses as an example of the openness to innovation and change.

            “We do not have any full-time sales people,” said Dan. “We focus on getting customers what they need, when they need it. We try to spoil the customer…cater to the customer.”

            At Fairfield Pallet, said Dan, the philosophy is that everyone pitches in to “do what needs to be done. Basically, what we tell employees (is that) we work for the customer.”

            Although “we have our comfort zones we fit into,” said Dan, everyone is willing to move beyond them as needed. That makes the business work especially well.

            The mention of free time draws a laugh from Dan, Herb and Mike. “All of our wives say we work too much,” said Dan. Outside of work, however, all three brothers enjoy spending time with their families.

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