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French Pallet Maker Committed To Excellence and Improvement: Corali Nailing Machine Is Workhorse of Assembly Operations
Leading pallet manufacturing company in France is committed to excellence and improvement; Francepal relies heavily on automated equipment for assembling and painting pallets.

By By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 8/1/2005

ANGERS, France — Excellence in manufacturing and careful investment in equipment that improves production are key factors in the success of a pallet manufacturing business.

Such is the case at Francepal, a very impressive pallet manufacturing business owned by the Faber Halbertsma Group. Francepal is situated about 22 miles northeast of Angers — about 160 miles southwest of Paris. I was fortunate to be invited to tour Francepal during a recent visit to pallet companies in Western France.

I was warmly greeted at the front door by Florent Joliveau, the director general of Francepal. Ushering me into a conference room, he gave me — in English, thankfully — a quick white board outline of the plant’s layout and the carefully thought out material flow from start to finish before commencing the tour. Florent, whose background was in electronics manufacturing for a large multinational company prior to joining Francepal, clearly runs a well organized plant. He walked me through the arrival of raw material, the flow of material and operations through the plant to pallet assembly, painting, drying and storage.

"At this moment," he said, "we have launched a ‘continuous progress approach,’ using ISO standards, in three directions: product and process quality, environmental improvements, and healthy and security improvements." While the company has not targeted specific implementation dates, its goal is to eventually achieve ISO 14000 and ISO 9000 certification.

Francepal has been a member company of the Faber Halbertsma Group,
the largest full service supplier of
timber packaging in Europe, since 1994. The Faber Halbertsma Group’s history began in the 1930s in the Dutch town of Assen, where Frederik Faber started a cooperage.

Some 40 years later, the company turned entirely towards wood pallet manufacturing. A number of acquisitions followed in the 1980s, reaching a high point when the company acquired Halbertsma Pallets, resulting in the formation of the Faber Halbertsma Group. It entered the pooling arena in 1997 with the introduction of the Pallet Return System (PRS) for the chemical industry.

The Faber Halbertsma Group now includes 10 pallet production operations and three rental companies, including IPP Logipal, whose French head office welcomed me earlier in the day. Francepal belongs to several trade associations, including EPAL, the body which regulates the 800x1200 standard Europallet, as well as FEFPEB, the European federation, and a French pallet industry association.

Signs in foreign languages were very noticeable as I began the tour. With
lumber sourced in Germany and Eastern Europe, truck drivers from Eastern Europe are definitely a part of the business environment, and Francepal recognizes the importance of clear communication with them.

Another thing that was obvious at the outset was the immaculate yard. It was as tidy and well organized as the plant was inside.

Francepal is located on almost 15 acres. About 4.5 acres are paved, including a 65,000-square-foot production area and storage sheds amounting to another 21,000 square feet. This allows for ample storage for lumber as well as finished stock, which the company keeps on hand for key customers. The company has plenty of room to expand and is considering adding a second dry kiln.

Francepal has a daily production capacity of about 11,000 pallets. It normally keeps between 100,000 to 150,000 finished pallets in inventory – about 200 types for roughly 100 customers, which allows it to provide just-in-time service. An authorized producer of EPAL pallets, Francepal has manufacturing customers in such industries as
glass, packaging, pharmaceuticals and chemicals.

Annual production is more than 2 million pallets with sales over $17 million. The company has roughly 54 employees, including administrative, production and maintenance personnel. About 11 employees work in administration and five perform maintenance.

The plant has two automated nailing lines and two semi-automatic nailing machines. They give Francepal a nice combination of high-speed pallet assembly equipment for major accounts while providing the flexibility to efficiently produce custom orders.

The workhorse of the nailing operations is a Corali machine, a sophisticated automated nailing system manufactured in Italy. Operated by four workers, the Corali machine assembles half of the company’s pallet production. It is used for assembling four-way entry pallets ranging in size from 800x800mm to 1200x1400mm. The Corali can assemble up to 350 pallets per hour, depending on the type of pallet. Changeover time averages 30 minutes. The Corali performs block cutting, block and board placement and nailing, corner cutting, branding, nesting and stacking. The operators are rotated during the course of the day.

The second automated pallet assembly system is an ASPAL machine, which runs parallel to the Corali. Purchased in used condition from a CHEP facility in Great Britain, this machine accounts for close to 30% of Francepal’s production. It can assemble up to 220 Europallets per hour with three workers. Like the Corali, it is a heavily automated system that
performs block cutting, nailing, chamfering, corner cutting, branding and stacking.

The two semi-automated lines include one for oversize pallets and one for small pallets. The Gunn Vanderloo semi-automatic machine is run with two or three operators per team. It is used to assemble two- and four-way entry pallets, including nonstandard pallets, up to 1400 x1800mm. Production capacity is 65 to 80 pallets per hour with changeover time typically about one hour.

Situated next door to the Gunn Vanderloo is the proprietary Minipal line, which can produce 600x800mm, 600x1000mm and other small pallets. Capacity is about 50 to 100 pallets per hour, and changeover time is about an hour. On the day I visited it was being used to assemble half-pallets for IPP Logipal, a pallet rental company in France that is also a subsidiary of the Faber Halbertsma Group.

Francepal also assembles some custom pallets by hand and has pallet repair operations that are equipped with a Cekamon bandsaw pallet dismantler.

The company usually buys cut stock although it also purchases some longer material that is remanufactured for custom pallets. "We prefer to buy boards cut at the right length," Florent explained.

Lumber supplied by German sawmills is cut to length with a multi-trim saw and a slower, manually operated saw. Low-grade lumber that is unsuited for automated nailing is used for pallets that are assembled manually.

Francepal is equipped with a Nardi dry kiln for drying and heat-treating pallets. It can hold 1,440 Europallets per charge. The kiln, supplied by an Italian company, can dry a charge of pallets in about a day and can heat-treat about two charges per day. Scrap wood and sawdust is used to fuel the kiln.

Francepal recently added a Finiture robotic pallet painting line, which is used mainly for painting pool pallets. The painting system was supplied by another Italian company, Finipal, which specializes in automated painting equipment for a variety of applications. Francepal’s Finiture system can paint about 700 pallets per hour. It features seven painting jets attached to a robot in an enclosed cabin. The painting system can be programmed to paint specific pallet components, such as a single block, or an entire pallet. Francepal paints up to 900,000 pallets annually.

Francepal manages its lumber inventory with a proprietary yard management system, including barcode tagging, which facilitates ‘first in, first out’ use of stock.

Aside from his duties managing Francepal, Florent, along with Jean de Vulliod, my tour guide, is an active member of Rotary and attends meetings regularly.

Jean, who owns and manages Europal.net, is a 30 year veteran of the pallet industry and is also a former university professor who taught work organization. "I think that Francepal is one of the best pallet manufacturers that I know," said Jean. Florent joined the company with no previous experience in the forest products industry, he noted. "He organized Francepal without any preconceived idea. The technical organization is perfect, and all of the circulation of material is exactly organized."

The tour ended with a traditional French lunch at a local restaurant, which Florent admitted to having only once or twice a year because it takes so much time. We were joined by Jean and Pierre Gerardin, who oversees material sourcing and logistics for Francepal. It was a pleasant way to end my whirlwind pallet tour — and extremely warm pallet industry hospitality – in Western France.

Hospitable French Host

The first stop was Jean’s historic three-story home in the downtown area. He arranged a meeting that evening at his home, including representatives of several leading pallet companies in the region and local government officials.

Aside from sharing industry related news and gossip, the main purpose of the gathering was to begin discussion on the feasibility of sponsoring a pallet program in the engineering department of the local university. They discussed it at some length, including some possibilities for funding such a program. The pallet manufacturing and repair work force is highly unionized in France, and one idea for funding was to seek financial support from the unions. After the meeting Jean hosted a wonderful dinner for the visitors and their wives at a nearby hotel.

As a testament to Jean’s stature in the region’s pallet industry, he and Rick were greeted warmly the next day at several pallet businesses, including the head office of IPP Logipal, a pallet rental company, and leading pallet recyclers and manufacturers, including Francepal, which is featured in the accompanying article. They also visited SODEME, a manufacturer of packaging and pallet assembly equipment, including a high-speed pallet assembly system not yet marketed in North America, and the Europal.net offices.

Jean enjoyed careers as a military officer and a professor of work organization at the University of Le Mans before becoming involved in the pallet industry in 1973. While working with the Chamber of Commerce in Le Mans, he connected with another person in the pallet industry, and the result was the formation of Codix, a pallet equipment company that Jean sold a few years ago. During the 1980s he was involved in the formation of a Chinese joint venture, and in 1993 he founded the Logipal pallet network, which was purchased by Netherlands-based Faber Halbertsma Group in 1999 — known now as IPP Logipal.

Jean’s main interest these days is running his very popular Europal.net and Planetpal.net Web sites, which include a comprehensive plastic pallet catalogue. Jean also manufactures and markets Europal kilns.

Rick LeBlanc, contributing author for Pallet Enterprise, was welcomed to Angers, France, a city with a population of about 250,000, by Jean de Vulliod, a multi-faceted veteran of the French pallet industry. Jean, a youthful 60, was waving the latest copy of Pallet Enterprise to catch Rick’s attention as his high-speed train pulled into the station. After a five minute drive to Jean’s house across the street from city hall, he provided a whirlwind tour of the pallet industry in that part of France over the next day and a half.

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