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Integrity of Unit Loads Gaining in Importance
Automated storage will continue to take hold, but it is more sensitive than ever to pallet or unit load failure.

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 8/1/2000

Many years ago my first boss used to remind me that integrity was everything. (Get over it right away, or you’ll never climb up that corporate ladder in this business, he joked). Cheap quips aside, he tried to be a man of principles, and he had the right idea, at least about business ethics.

Principles lay the groundwork for good business. If you operate your company with integrity and transact business with similar-minded companies, you reap a lot of efficiencies. Resources are not squandered needlessly on trust-related issues. The rules of the game are visible. People in organizations work hard because they know they will be justly rewarded. Corporate focus is not distracted.

While my first warehouse manager distilled into me the importance of integrity, the unit loads we were handling in those days were often not quite so ‘upstanding.’ Over the course of my 20-odd year career in warehousing, I have seen too many collapsed loads of produce and fresh meat on a daily basis to doubt even for a moment whether a more rigid walled container — such as a returnable plastic container (RPC) — would provide a positive payback or to question the value of an extra turn of stretch wrap in holding together a perilously leaning load. The future of the RPC is still in question, but the need for unit load integrity grows daily.

Warehousing has become time focused and synchronized. We see this especially in automotive assembly, where parts are delivered in sequence to the assembly line. Components may be arriving in trailer quantity from across the country. Nearby sequencing or staging centers organize parts as required and load them to meet daily production schedules at the assembly plant.

As is often the case with success, others grab a hold of a good idea. Now other industries are quickly catching up when it comes to employing synchronized assembly strategies.

To illustrate this point, in a produce warehouse I am involved with, only about one-half of the product loaded out to retail outlets is actually picked there. The rest is "cross-docked."

Cross-docking is used to describe a lot of different scenarios. In my case, the warehouse receives trailers containing pallet quantities of perishables that are bound for various destinations. Pallet-loads of perishables are taken from these trailers and combined promptly with the orders that are being assembled by order pickers. For example, trailers of fresh meat, dairy products and eggs are backed into the dock, and pallet quantities are removed and combined with assembled produce orders to create loads for specific locations.

As more and more items are required to be cross-docked, and with transportation optimization software requiring last-minute sequencing changes prior to presentation of pallets at the produce warehouse dock, a nearby sequencing center is needed to pre-mix the various cross-dock pallets together in order to minimize the complexity at the dock.

These operations must run in harmony. Filled trailers must be pulled promptly from the dock in order to replace them with new empty ones as well as a new wave of cross-dock trailers from which to draw product. A disruption of trailer replacement caused by pallet-loads that have fallen has the potential to quickly fill up the floor with picked orders, forcing the order selectors to stop picking.

With loaded trailers having increasingly tight windows for delivery times, loads leaving the distribution center late mean that retail staff scheduled to put them away upon delivery will be left idle and waiting. Their hours will run out before they have time to stock the shelves. Like everywhere else, retail hours are also cut razor-thin. If those hours are positioned correctly, then the strategy works.

Unit load failure on the trailer, at the sequencing center, or on the warehouse dock, can screw all of that up. Unit load integrity has always been an issue, but in synchronized environments, the cost of failure is much greater than ever before.

In storage, also, the integrity of unit loads has to be an "automatic." Newer warehouses are taller. Racking is becoming more prevalent for commodities such as produce, which previously have often been stored on the floor.

And like everywhere else, tight receiving schedules demand that product be quickly pulled off and put away. Spilled pallets screw up the plan.

As warehouse receiving managers scramble to hit their targets for pallets "put away" per hour, the falling or leaning pallet is one aggravation they simply do not want. In automated warehouses, such problems simply are not tolerated. Electronic eyes and visual inspection detect problems upon arrival, but loads that fail after put-away can be serious problems.

The distribution center is under greater pressure to perform increasingly complex processes — time-sequenced processes that are being ever-finely calibrated in order to increase overall supply chain efficiencies.

Automated storage will continue to take hold, but it is more sensitive than ever to pallet or unit load failure. As sequencing and automation continue to grow in magnitude over the next few years, unit load integrity is changing from an annoyance factor to a show stopper. Predictably, this should drive demand for adequate pallet and container quality and effective pallet wraps.

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