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Can Sorting Increase Efficiency In Pallet Recycling Operations?
To Sort or Not: If you recycle pallets, should you sort them? Should the pallets be sorted before they go to the builders or after? A look at the ins and outs of pallet sorting operations.

By Clarence Leising
Date Posted: 5/1/2006

    To sort or not to sort incoming pallets — that is the question pallet recyclers ask themselves every day. Sorting can increase your production and make your operation more efficient. In short, it can make you more money.

    But the reverse is also true. Sorting can become an expense, difficult to handle, and a nightmare to supervise. The answer to the sorting question is not simple. It leads to a lot of other questions.

    Before getting into the benefits of sorting, there may be reasons why you should not sort. The first consideration should be your daily pallet volume.


Smaller Volume Operations

    If you are doing less than 1,200 pallets per day, you should not consider sorting them. The extra cost of paying a worker to sort pallets, whether done with or without equipment, is not justified. If you are doing a low volume, it makes more sense to deliver the pallets from the truck straight to your repair workers. Another option: send your builders to the dock to sort for a couple of hours, then bring the pallets into the shop for repairs.

    Some large, successful pallet recyclers will not sort, regardless of the method. They believe their people are the key: if the builders are trained well and do their job properly, they do not need to sort pallets. Unfortunately, not all recyclers have this luxury.

    Since it is easier to turn a pallet into a B rather than an A, some builders consistently will produce more B pallets. The boards do not have to be in as good a shape. If you leave this decision up to the builder, some will choose to make a B out of what could have been an A. With the price difference between A and B pallets, you lose money whenever they make that choice. With a trailer-load of 440 pallets, a 10% increase in the number of A pallets per load means an additional $132 per trailer-load in revenues.

    Training is what it is all about. Training has to be a never-ending process.

    The better a builder is at building a pallet, the more ways he will know how to cheat. If your manager is not out there, some employees may cheat. If you are paying piece rate, the more pallets they get credit for, the more money they make, so they have an incentive to try to slip a few extra pallets by you. By paying an hourly wage, you remove this temptation, but if a builder gets paid the same whether he makes 200 or 300 per day, there is no incentive to build more than 200. You need a constant management presence in the shop.

    If you buy cores from ‘pallet pickers,’ do not sort these incoming pallets. Require the people you buy them from to sort the pallets as a condition of payment. Store them in the yard until there are enough to keep your builders busy for a day. That will save you a day’s sorting costs.


High Volume Operations

    With a large volume, sorting probably becomes necessary. But there still are a couple of questions to answer. Do you sort manually or do you automate? Also, do you sort before the pallet goes to the builder or after the pallet is repaired? What about plating?

    When you buy equipment, you turn it on and you turn it off, but you have to pay for it seven days a week — whether or not it is running. When you pay a builder by piece rate, if he does not build any pallets, you do not pay him.

    People in the pallet recycling business will tell you the most important thing is to save labor, and many say this is what the machinery can do.

    But pallet recycling is labor intensive work. It is hard, rough, work, and you cannot escape the fact. At some point, somebody has to handle the pallet — to turn it over and make a decision about what to do with it. No amount of equipment will change this.

    I think it is better for one person to make sorting decisions instead of many different people. The more people you have making the decisions, the more opportunities you have for mistakes.

    The traditional method of sorting pallets has been to put a man out in the yard to sort and stack them by hand. One man can sort about 1,000-1,200 pallets per day. It is a very physically demanding job, especially in hot weather.

    By adding a couple of stackers and some gravity rollers, sorting becomes much easier and more efficient. With one man feeding the rollers and another man stacking, the pair probably could sort about 4,000 pallets daily, depending on your volume.

    If you sort pallets before they go to the builders, the decision-making process is greatly simplified. You just need to identify and train one or two workers to sort them. You simplify the process when you limit decisions to one or two well-trained sorters.

    Sorting first also will result in an abundance of odd sizes that are ‘ready-to-go.’ I have found that in an average truck-load of pallets, 85% typically are GMA pallets and the other 15% are odd sizes. By sorting first, these odd-size pallets are immediately available for resale. A truck-load of 440 pallets usually will contain about 60-70 odd-size pallets. If an odd-size pallet makes it to one of your builders, chances are it will be torn apart. This alone may justify the cost of a sorting system.


Sorting After Repairs

    Should you invest in sorting equipment? The key is using multi-purpose equipment. Never buy equipment that cannot serve multiple uses. Don’t buy equipment that can only be used on one pallet size. If it cannot handle 90% of the pallets you get, don’t buy it.

    For example, if you buy a portable stacker, you can use it for both sorting and building. Put it out on the dock or in the yard and use it to sort pallets when they come off the trucks.

    I have found that sorting pallets after the builder is done with them is more efficient than sorting the pallets prior to repairs. In order to sort pallets after they have been repaired, you must have a properly designed system of conveyors that moves the finished pallets to a central location.

    This is how it works. The pallets come off the truck and go straight to the builders. They inspect the pallets and make the necessary repairs. The finished pallets are conveyed to a central location to be sorted. At the sorting station, another worker does three things. He picks up each pallet, tips it up, and checks the stringers for cracks. Then he drops the pallet on waist-high dead rollers to be sure the boards are tight. Finally, he puts the pallet into the appropriate stacker or stacks it by hand — hand-stack a pallet size if you only get 15 to 20 per day.

    An important benefit of this approach is that it gives you a quality control check after the pallet has been repaired and before it goes to the customer.

    If the pallet needs plating, the builder turns it upside down. When the sorter sees the upside-down pallet, he pushes it to the plater. If the plater has time at that moment, he plates the pallet and then stacks it; otherwise, the plater stacks the pallet and plates it later.

    Depending on your daily volume, you may be able to have one man both plate and sort. If you are doing less than 1,500 pallets daily, this probably will work. If your volume is higher, you probably will need one man to plate and one to sort. If one man does all the plating, he also has to be able to stack. During periods of high volume or when the sorter has to take a break, the plater must be able to take over and handle the sorting. This allows for interruptions, such as bathroom breaks and phone calls. Somebody always should be at the end to keep the line moving.

    Also, the plater should be downline from the sorter; if you plate before you sort and you get 10 to 12 pallets in a row that need plating, a bottleneck will develop and production will slow down.

    A lot of pallet shops think they have to give every builder a plater, but this is not the case — whether you sort before or after repairs.

    Sorting is an important decision, and you must not make it quickly. There are a lot of factors that go into the decision. Every shop is different, and every situation is different.


                (Editor’s Note: Clarence Leising is a representative of Eagle Metal Products and previously held management positions in pallet recycling companies in the Northeast for 25 years. He also is the author of Pallet Head, a book about how to run a pallet recycling business, and this article was adapted from a chapter in his book. Clarence may be contacted at (800) 521-3245. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of his book, call Industrial Reporting at (804) 805-0263.)

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