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Valley Pallet Automates to Support Its Recycling Growth: SMETCO Sorting and Repairing Line Added to Salinas Plant
Valley Pallet Expands with SMETCO Sorting/Repairing Line: Valley Pallet in California has grown to become one of the largest West Coast pallet companies. Starting as a pallet recycler, Valley has added a high speed SMETCO sorting/repairing line to automate its Salinas plant.

By Ed Brindley
Date Posted: 4/1/2009

Salinas, California

            Like most pallet companies, Valley Pallet started small, worked hard, and grew to its current level of accomplishments. Like a growing number of pallet recyclers, Valley Pallet has automated its main plant to improve both quality and efficiency.

            Frank Shean started Valley Pallet out of the back of a station wagon in 1987. Valley Pallet, headquartered in Salinas, Calif., started by buying used pallets and recycling them for a produce company. Valley Pallet was established to satisfy the needs of the fresh produce industry in the Salinas Valley. Frank grew his company by obtaining more used pallets and selling reconditioned ones to a growing variety of customers. After five years, Valley Pallet had grown into the heart of the winter vegetable industry in Yuma, Arizona. It has expanded to become a leading pallet company operating in six locations throughout California (Salinas, Sacramento, Terra Bella, and Colton) and western Arizona (Phoenix and Yuma).

            Valley Pallet expanded its recycling locations to include pallet manufacturing as well. The company’s customer outreach has expanded to service industrial, commercial, and agricultural accounts, dealing with supply, repair, salvage and transportation. It is big enough to handle any volume and versatile enough to respond at just a moment’s notice if necessary. Frank said, “As our company grew, the words reliability, dedication, and expertise became synonymous with our name.” Its annual capacity is over six million pallets.

            Frank proudly says that any revenue generated stays within its local community. Valley Pallet supports many local charities, such as Boy Scouts of America, Untied Way, and Salinas YMCA.


Pallet Repairing Automation

            From the beginning, Valley Pallet focused heavily on recycling pallets. It uses Stanley-Bostitch hand nailers and collated nails.

            One of the most significant pieces of machinery used in pallet repairs is a pallet dismantler. Because of its overall business size and multiple locations, Valley Pallet has developed a pool of approximately 60 bandsaw pallet dismantlers. Most of Valley’s dismantlers are band style machines that it manufactured itself. At one time, Valley was in the bandsaw dismantling machine business, but Frank decided to get out of that as a business. Every business has its own unique opportunities and risks, but Valley Pallet decided to focus on pallet recycling. Valley buys Simonds bandsaw blade coil stock and welds its own blades.

            In the fall of 2007, Valley Pallet automated its pallet sorting and repairing operations for white wood pallets in Salinas. It selected SMETCO as its machinery supplier. SMETCO designed, built, and installed an integrated repair and sorting system for 48x40 GMA pallets. This state-of-the-art automation boosts productivity, reduces labor, improves worker safety, and improves quality control.

            This system begins with a 40’ infeed conveyor and an upender-continuous feed, high speed, auto-sort inspection station. This SMETCO line is integrated with an Innovative Data Systems Pallet Track® bar code system. The bar coding system enhances quality control by tracking the pallet core to its supplier and the repair to the exact repairman. This supports greater accountability and allows the quality control manager to inspect each finished pallet before it is stacked. It also allows for continuous training of repairmen.

            The system operator generates a bill of lading for an incoming load of pallets. At the prep station, a kiosk scans the paperwork for a load. The operator inspects and directs pallets into three main categories: repair, scrap, and “stringer-outs.” The inspector sees both sides of the pallet before making a determination of its status. This upender/continuous feed auto sort system can feed pallets at a rate of 15 pallets/minute if required.

            If a pallet is scrap or odd-sized, the inspector pushes it across from his station into a scrap/odd-size pallet stacker. All repairable pallets are sent along the upper tier of the two-tier transfer conveyor system, which conveys pallets past each repair table. “Stringer-out” pallets are transferred automatically to two bandsaw dismantlers. The operator selects this destination by the push of a button.

            Most pallets entering the line need some type of repair. After repair, they are graded into four finished product categories. Pallets on the upper conveyor are automatically staged at each repair table. As soon as a repairman slides a pallet off the upper conveyor, the system automatically moves another one into the empty position. The system has eight repair tables and two dismantler stations. Pallets with stringers removed are pushed along a short section of gravity conveyor behind the first two repair tables on the line. At these two tables, operators replace stringers that have been removed and perform typical board repairs.

            The upper conveyor is zoned to automatically fill any empty spot where a pallet has been previously removed, thereby always keeping a repairable pallet at each table.

            Each operator drags a pallet off the top conveyor and pushes a repaired pallet onto the bottom conveyor where it moves to the stackers. Each operator repairs pallets using conventional repairing techniques to upgrade as best he can and places a bar code that indicates the pallet’s grade on the leading stringer of a finished pallet.

            Repaired pallets are pushed off the repair tables onto the lower conveyor where they are scanned at the Innovative Data bar code reader. The bar code tracks the grade, identifies the repair table individually for piecework records, and includes all pertinent information connected with the pallet.

            The bar coding software interfaces seamlessly with the SMETCO main control panel, which sends each pallet to the selected pallet stacker. An automatic pinch-gate meters pallets before the bar code and allows for the spacing required to track pallets into the stackers. The Valley Pallet line has four SMETCO PS48 pallet stackers at the end of the repair line. Valley Pallet repairs between 3500-4000 pallets per shift on this line.

            Because any wood scrap is ground into useable fiber, 100% of each reconditioned pallet is recycled in some form to provide a green, earth friendly operation. Scrap nails are recycled as well. The wood dunnage is ground up into landscape material, OSB stock, and clean burning co-generation fuel.


Professional Services and Support

            Valley Pallet’s professionalism and support are shown by its involvement within the industry. The company is a member of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, where Frank has served on several committees. Networking benefits have gotten Valley Pallet involved with more national exposure and support. Relationships with other leading pallet companies around the country are particularly important because the pallet industry serves customers locally with products that travel throughout the country, and even the world. It is increasingly important to know who to speak and interface with about industry wide issues. Valley also holds a Pallet Design System (PDS) license for the software that it needs to provide professional design services for its customer base.

            Many pallet users feel more secure working with a company that strives to do things right, work within the law, and provide products and services on which they can depend. Valley has monthly inspections conducted by Timber Products to certify its IPPC 15 heat treating services. A growing number of pallets need to be heat treated for international shipping, and many believe that more required heat treating for domestic pallets may be on the horizon. Valley has voluntary OSHA inspections to be proactive when it comes to safety. Other inspections include yearly fire marshal visits, insurance company inspections, and air resources board inspections. Major manufacturing plants that are visible need to march to a more professional drum beat; in the California and Arizona markets competition from less regulated pallet companies, particularly recyclers, is a difficult issue.

            Valley Pallet is wired to use electronic communication and business services both within its company and with its customers. All of Valley’s plants are networked together with full email communication. It can accept purchase orders and ordering requests via email. It can scan and email invoices and accept payment EFT. The company is linked with a number of its customers via electronic portal.

            In today’s business world, few things are more important that friendly, caring customer service. Valley Pallet has a team of dedicated employees lead by Mary Moreno, their customer service manager with17 years of experience in the pallet industry. Valley offers email reminders for ordering, inventory management, a call support service, product usage reports, and 24 hour service access.


Transportation and Logistics

            Transportation and logistics services account for about 10% of Valley’s business. Valley owns and operates a late model fleet of company trucks. Having control of their own vehicles allows Valley more control over its own destiny when serving customers. A full truck load of 782 pallets (the larger loads) allows Valley to save its customers money and is environmentally friendly through fewer deliveries, less fuel consumed and less total pallet unloading time.

            Valley provides transportation and logistics services for manufacturers, such as hauling corrugated boxes and containers, as well as pallets. An unusual logistics service unfolds every winter when produce companies shift their operations from California to winter harvesting in Arizona. Valley Pallet helps them make the move.

            “The fresh produce industry migrates to follow the growing seasons,” noted Frank.

            In winter months all of the fresh produce is grown in the Imperial Valley in southern Arizona. In order to process the crops, they pick up their harvesting equipment and processing plants and move to Arizona. We play a big part by moving the equipment and supplies, everything from slicers to conveyor lines to forklifts. Our trucking business evolved from working with the pallet business.”

            Besides manufacturing and recycling pallets, Valley Pallet manages pallet supply programs for major retailers, such as Pets Mart, Costco, and Albertsons. For its big retail accounts, Valley provides pallet management services. Frequently a Valley Pallet employee will be stationed at a retailer’s distribution center. He will sort through pallets that arrived with shipments and take pallet inventories. The DC requires some pallets for its own internal use; surplus and broken pallets are purchased by Valley Pallet and transported in one of its trucks back to a Valley plant. Sometimes Valley will deliver pallets to the shipper’s location for reuse.

            Reliable transportation is essential to Valley’s success. It runs a fleet of 29 heavy-duty Peterbilt 379 tractors under a full-service lease through Salinas-based Coast Counties Peterbilt PacLease, the local franchise of PACCAR Leasing Company.

            Valley did not always lease its vehicles. Earlier Valley owned its own trucks. The company moved from a single pickup truck to a flatbed truck, then double-axle trucks. Over time Valley’s fleet grew to more than 20 trucks of different makes and models. The fleet grew to 28 trucks. The company bought used trucks and its fleet suffered from age. Out of service trucks and the cost of maintenance grew excessive.

            PacLease approached Valley about leasing its trucks as a solution to the high cost of ownership. Valley Pallet’s trucks were only averaging about 4.5-5 miles per gallon. The fleet was aging, and maintenance costs were climbing, averaging $1000 a month per truck.

            Valley Pallet switched to leasing in 2002, sold most of its older trucks, kept the seven newest ones, leased 18 trucks and ended up with fewer trucks that were more productive because downtime was reduced.

            Frank said, “Instead of owning 21 trucks with several broken down at any one time we keep all of our trucks on the road. Plus, we’re paying licensing, insurance, and permits on fewer trucks.”


New Pallet Manufacturing

            As the company grew, Frank saw the need to expand into manufacturing new pallets as well. It now supplies pallets to manufacturers, including such industries as building supplies, stone products and fertilizers. Valley has a total of over 300 industrial, agricultural and commercial customers.

            New pallet manufacturing now accounts for about half of total sales, reconditioned pallets represent another 40%, and transportation and logistics services account for the remaining 10%. More than 70% of the business is in standard 48x40 GMA pallets.

            Valley’s largest location in Salinas occupies 13 acres, including three buildings covering about 100,000 sq. ft. This plant has five nailing machines. Its second largest facility is a 30,000 sq. ft. building located on eight acres in Yuma, a plant that is equipped with five nailing machines. Valley does its machine nailing on Viking 504, Viking 505, Viking Duomatic, Viking Champion, and GBN Explorer nailing machines.

            Bulk nails for its Viking and GBN nailing machines are supplied by Garnett Company. It uses Stanley-Bostitch power nailing tools and fasteners throughout its various locations to perform pallet repairs and assembly pallets by hand.

            Valley’s equipment includes West Salem Machine grinders, several High Point two-head and a single-head band-resaws, L&M Equipment package saws, Producto saws, Baker chop saws, and four Morgan resaws.

            Valley Pallet has grown to become one of the largest and most highly recognized pallet companies on the West Coast. It is a good example of the progressive management thinking that is taking place in the pallet industry.

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