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Pallet King Gears Up to Serve PECO in Northern California: Company Puts SMETCO Automated Repair Line Back into Operation
Pallet King: Company gears up to serve pallet rental company PECO in northern California under new joint venture; Pallet King puts SMETCO automated pallet repair line back into operation.

By Diane M. Calabrese
Date Posted: 10/1/2007

STOCKTON, California — Logistics is taught well in universities, but frontline personnel in actual manufacturing and distribution settings put theory to the real test. 

   In fact, those who assemble and route goods inevitably add to the body of theory with ideas spawned on site, ideas about how things can be done better and more efficiently. Will Bauer is one of those individuals.

   Will has been part of the pallet industry for 30 years. In mid-summer, he joined another 30-year veteran of the industry, George Medeiros, president of Pallet King Inc., in a new joint venture.

   George has owned Pallet King for two years. He and Will are partners in a segment of that business, one that serves as the northern California depot for PECO, a regional pallet rental company. Pallet King recycles the familiar red pallets for PECO. Its PECO territory extends from Bakersfield, Calif. to the Oregon border.

   When Will talked with Pallet Enterprise in early September, Pallet King was gearing up fast to handle an estimated 3,000 pallets per day. The early pace was already brisk.

   “We’re shipping eight truck-loads a day,” said Will, and trailers are being added. He expects to add a second shift eventually.

   Although the depot services for PECO are new, the equipment already has been proven. The company is using a pallet sorting and repair line manufactured by SMETCO. Will has used the equipment twice before in his operations, putting it in mothballs when it was not needed.

   “I have a very good relationship with SMETCO,” he said. The business relationship got off to a great start and has stayed strong more than a decade.

   The SMETCO equipment that has been put back into service is tough. Manufactured in the 1990s, it was not even housed under roof during its first two turns in service. Canopies were mounted to keep the rain off.

   Today, the line is installed in a leased 47,000-square-foot building. “This SMETCO system is the first one ever designed and built,” said Will. The system features a two-tiered conveyor line. The upper tier is a gravity conveyor to move prepped pallets – those with a broken lead deck board removed — to a repair table. The lower tier is a motorized conveyor that carries repaired pallets down the line to the sorting and stacking area.

   In the mid-1990s, Will had a contract to repair pallets at a Target distribution center. “The amount of pallets we had to sort and repair every day, we knew we had to automate,” said Will. “It would take too many people to do it otherwise.”

   With automating in mind, Will looked to a supplier in which he had abundant confidence: SMETCO. “The reason we picked SMETCO is because they had the best stackers, the heaviest stackers,” said Will. The automated repair line was built around the stackers, he explained.

   “My manager, Ron Fulcher, and I built this first-ever sorting and repair system with an up-ender, a 131-foot-long conveyor, a lead-edge board remover and four pallet stackers. The whole idea was no one ever had to pick up a pallet.”

   Design conceived, Will and Ron approached the experts. “We talked to SMETCO,” said Will. Working together, they kept the four stackers, and chose SMETCO-supplied conveyers, a SMETCO up-ender and a SMETCO lead-board remover. A National Pallet bandsaw dismantler was also part of the operations.

   Then it was a matter of connecting everything. “The brains of it all was designed by SMETCO,” said Will. By the “brains,” Will explained he meant the programmable logic controls.

   The line can accommodate a varying number of repair tables. The system is using six repair tables currently and recycling 3,000 pallets per day.

   Although the SMETCO line has been in storage twice, it works as flawlessly as ever, said Will. “We’ve changed some air valves” over the years, he explained. “We haven’t changed any of the design at all.” The original system also had a SMETCO plater although it is not being used now.

   New repair stock for Pallet King is supplied by a mill that Will has owned for about 10 years. The mill is a lumber remanufacturing plant. It buys random length 2x4, 2x6 and 4x6, cuts to length and resaws the material into deck boards and stringers. The mill buys softwood, such as Douglas fir, Hemlock fir, pine, Ponderosa pine and SPF.

   The principal equipment in the mill was supplied by Samuel Kent Baker Inc., including a multi-trim saw, a horizontal band resaw system and a double-head notcher. The mill also is equipped with a gang-rip, two Kantech chop saws and a Hazledine chamfer.

   The mill is certified to provide heat-treated pallet lumber and has three Temp-Air heat-treating systems. “We use propane” as a heat source, said Will, but a simple valve change makes it possible to tap natural gas as an alternative. The auditing agency for the heat-treating processes is West Coast Lumber Inspection Bureau.

   All scrap wood material generated by the mill and Pallet King goes to companies that haul it away for a reduced fee. At Pallet King, pallets are repaired with Stanley-Bostitch power nailing tools and nails. The mill uses a wide variety of vendors to supply and maintain saw blades.

   With three decades of experience in the pallet industry, Will has quite a vantage point to assess changes in the industry and logistics.

   After studying engineering for a time, Will became chief of ramp services for a major airline. “I’m sort of a natural mechanic,” he said, good at “working on machinery.”

   He got into pallets by chance. “I had a very good friend of mine that had a lot of pallet problems,” explained Will. “I said you should do this, you should do that. He asked me to do it. I got it started.” Once the operation got going, Will decided to keep it going. He had applied some of the expertise he gained in ramp operations to the initial plan, but not all of it.

   Will figured he could replicate the best schemes for moving airline passenger baggage to expedite pallet recycling. However, he soon realized that pallet sorting operations could be prohibitively expensive.

   When Will first used the SMETCO automated repair line, it was mainly to recycle #1 GMA pallets. “Target only repaired 48x40s, #1 GMAs,” he said. The SMETCO system was so efficient that Will also was able to buy the #2 GMAs, excess #1 GMAs and odd-sized pallets and to make a good profit. “Unfortunately, someone else came in and said they would do all the repairs for nothing,” said Will, just taking the surplus pallets in exchange.

   Considering Will was paying Target as much as $20,000 per month for cores, it was difficult to understand. “I asked how nothing could be better than getting something, and they said, ‘I don’t have to tell you the story of the big fish and the small fish, do I?’ ” Apparently, a bigger fish had come along, said Will, and reached a contract at all locations for pallet recycling services. “Although we were doing an incredible job,” the contract was lost.

   The SMETCO line went into storage. It came out again a couple of years later when Will got a contract with Rite-Aid® in Lancaster, Calif. His company recycled pallets for Rite-Aid for about five years. “Then, the same thing happened,” said Will. A competitor won the business by offering to provide the recycling services in exchange for surplus pallet cores. Back into storage went the SMETCO line — until 2007.

   Having relied on SMETCO across many years, Will heartily recommends the supplier and its equipment. “For me, I think SMETCO is the way to go. It’s proven. I have the first repair system ever built, and it’s still running. The guys at SMETCO are a great bunch of guys. I don’t know who I’d go to otherwise.”

   To keep pace with the new contract from PECO, Will is delighted to be relying on SMETCO again. “Each one of the (repair) tables has the boards needed for repairs,” he said. To simplify, “There is one line for blocks, one line for top boards and one line for bottom boards, each with its own stacker.”

   SMETCO envisions its equipment being used in the versatile way that Will has exploited it. The SMETCO concept is that components should be easily fitted together, enabling a small company to grow by adding equipment instead of replacing an entire line. Moreover, SMETCO aims to help companies of all sizes reduce overhead.

   Automated pallet repair and sorting equipment eliminates the need for workers to pick up pallets and handle them; it contributes to an ergonomically beneficial environment where fatigue is reduced and injuries are rare. Data from customers demonstrates that SMETCO systems reduce worker injuries and costs for workers’ compensation insurance.

   The PECO contract is just one portion of the business at Pallet King. George also has a contract to provide pallet services to major companies and has an on-site crew at some customer locations.

   Located in Stockton, Calif., Pallet King supplies pallets to many companies in the produce and frozen food industries. Stockton, a town of about 250,000 people, is part of San Joaquin County, which shares its name with the river and delta that make the region so fertile.

   For all his contributions to the pallet industry, Will is known to many friends and acquaintances in a different role. “I’m a fly fisherman,” he said. “I used to have a lodge in Alaska. My motto is, ‘All I ever wanted to do is go fishing.’”

   Will was born and grew up in Missouri. Although he is still fond of the Show Me State, he cannot imagine living inland. “Fly fishing is my life,” he said. Will designs flies – crabs, shrimp, baby lobsters are some of his creations — and has a fly fishing getaway in Belize.


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