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Automation Spurs Production For New York's D&F Pallet
D&F Pallet Likes versatility, performance of GBN Patriot Nailing System

By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 10/1/1999

FREDONIA, New York — For two brothers who have spent virtually their entire careers in the pallet industry, automation has been the key to increasing production and profits in the 1990s.

Tom and Dick Ivory, owners of D&F Pallet Co. in up-state New York, added a second nailing machine last year. They went with a GBN Machine and Engineering Co. Patriot pallet nailing system.

"They’ve taken the beam-type nailer and improved on it tremendously" in recent years, said Dick, who spoke highly of the GBN Patriot’s reliability and accuracy.

In the past nine years, D&F’s work force has remained the same, about 18 employees. During the same time span, however, production has increased from about 1,200 to about 4,000 pallets per week, thanks to automation.

The brothers started D&F in 1977 as a pallet recycling business although by 1985 it had shifted entirely to new pallet manufacturing. Tom, 49, has worked in the pallet industry his entire life. He worked part-time for a local pallet company while in high school and college, and then went to work for the same company after completing his education at Gannon University in Erie, Penn. He was employed about nine years until he and Dick started D&F. Dick, 48, graduated from Fredonia State University and then worked briefly (three and a half years) for Kraft Foods in the accounting department before the brothers launched D&F.

D&F gets its name — as do several other local businesses — from the two nearby communities of Dunkirk and Fredonia. Fredonia, where the company is located, is near Lake Erie and is situated about half-way between Buffalo (48 miles) to the northeast and Erie (54 miles) to the southwest. Fredonia is a community of a little more than 10,000 residents. Besides the state college, which has an enrollment of about 4,000 to 5,000 students, the largest employer is a food processing company that makes such grocery items as jams, jellies, peanut butter, and ketchup.

D&F Pallet has annual sales of about $1.8 million. The company has customers in the grocery, plastics, automotive, and furniture industries, most of them within about 75 miles. Its market niche is specialty pallets, including block pallets. D&F manufactures very few GMA pallets although it does manufacture a hefty volume of expendable 48x40 pallets. The brothers estimated the company manufactures upwards of 100 different types of pallets. One customer alone, they noted, requires about 18 different kinds. The company places orders for used pallets with a broker.

The men rented a warehouse when they started the company and began repairing pallets. "We lived off bread and water about the first two years," Dick recalled.

The company grew both as the volume for some customers increased and as D&F added more accounts.

They bought their current site in 1980, which has a little over three acres, and constructed a building which since has undergone three additions that have brought the total area to about 24,000 square feet. They began buying machinery the same year so they could begin manufacturing pallets. Among their first pieces of machinery were a Hazlethorn gang saw and cut-off saw. Pallet assembly, however, was still done by hand with nailing tools.

One of the most important factors in their gradual move to greater automation was the purchase of a package saw. D&F invested in a Holtec package saw in 1988. "We were one of the first pallet companies in the region to obtain one," said Dick. "That really made us grow," Tom added. "We had a lot of material that we could cut to length with little effort."

D&F acquired its first nailing machine — a used Doig — in 1985. In 1990 they automated more of their operations with a used Viking Engineering and Development Inc. Unimatic nailing machine, and in 1993 they added a 1987 Viking Duomatic. The purchase of the GBN Patriot in 1998 was the most recent machinery investment. The company has since sold the Viking Unimatic and the Doig.

The pallet manufacturing process at D&F starts with the purchase of 3-1/2x6 and 4x6 hardwood cants and long lengths of 1/2-inch to 1-3/8-inch aspen and popular in 4-inch and 6-inch widths. Most cants are bought from sawmills within a 50-mile radius although D&F also buys some from northwest Pennsylvania and a great deal from sawmills and suppliers in Canada.

Raw material is unloaded in the company’s yard. Bundles are squared on one end with an L&M Equipment package bumper wall, banded, and then taken inside to be cut to length on the Holtec. The sized material then is resawn either on a Wagner gang rip or a Baker Products four-head horizontal bandsaw system — stringers usually are made on the gang and deck boards on the Baker system. "One thing we do, between the Holtec and the other saws, is we usually are cutting pretty much a week in advance," said Dick. Stringers are notched on a Kenwall-Jackson double-head notching machine. The company also has a Garwood block saw for cutting pallet blocks.

Only about 10% of the company’s pallets are assembled by hand, built with Stanley-Bostitch nailing tools. The remainder are nailed on the GBN Patriot or the Viking Duomatic. The Viking is used mainly for large runs — anywhere from 200 to more than 1,000 — of pallets made of three or four stringers. The GBN is used to assemble both block and stringer pallets, including some very large, over-size stringer pallets. "That’s our flexible machine where we can make almost anything," said Tom.

Finished pallets are shipped by L.J. Trucking; owner-operator Leland Johnson has been hauling D&F’s orders since Tom and Dick started the business.

The company grinds wood waste with an Advanced Recycling Systems Challenger 300 machine acquired three years ago. A Cyclone system collects sawdust, and both sawdust and ground wood fiber are combined in a 26-foot by 16-foot storage silo. The mixture is sold to farmers for animal bedding. In winter, the sawdust and wood fiber mix is used to fuel a boiler that was installed in 1994 to heat the plant; the fuel is moved about 80 feet to the boiler via screw conveyors in a system that is fully automated and computer-controlled.

Tom and Dick regularly attend the biennial East Coast Sawmill and Equipment Exposition in Richmond, Va., also known as the Richmond Expo, to research machinery. They begin assessing machinery options two or three years before making a decision to buy, they said.

They considered nailing machines from several machinery suppliers before deciding on Virginia-based GBN.

GBN manufactures stringer and block nailing systems and machines, pallet stackers, stringer feeders, stringer end platers, and pallet lumber stackers. The company also provides custom engineering and manufacturing for pallet assembly and related machines. (For information about GBN machines or services, call the company at (800) 446-9871, fax (804) 448-2684, or e-mail at scampb9999@aol.com.)

An important consideration in the decision by Tom and Dick to buy a GBN Patriot was that the machine can assemble both block and stringer pallets. "We wanted something that would make both," said Tom. In addition, the GBN Patriot is capable of assembling pallets of some unusually large sizes — a capability that was lacking in some other automated pallet assembly systems. "This will make up to a five-stringer pallet," noted Tom.

"These guys (GBN) seem to have a very good reputation, and they’re good on service," Tom said. They got references from GBN and contacted them. The GBN customers were "very happy" with the supplier, said Tom.

The GBN Patriot features fully computerized and programmable logic controls. It is equipped with a modem so GBN staff can connect to the computer controls remotely, perform trouble-shooting, and make adjustments.

The GBN Patriot features GBN’s Tru-Driver™ compensating nail chuck. The cross-beam chucks individually counter-sink each nail to the correct depth, driving each nail with a rapid twist. Operators place deck boards by hand while stringers are fed into the machine automatically. The GBN Patriot has a pallet stacker on the back end.

GBN made a few custom modifications to the system when D&F placed its order for a Patriot nailing machine.

The machine has been easy to maintain and it has performed well, according to Tom and Dick. A few minor problems that cropped up were easily worked out with a phone call to GBN. Both men gave high marks to GBN’s staff for trouble-shooting assistance over the phone and via modem. The machinery manufacturer also has supplied replacement parts on a next-day basis. "They’ve been very good on that," said Dick.

Two D&F employees operate the GBN Patriot; one is the principal operator and the other is the assistant. D&F assembles about 450 to 500 block pallets on its GBN Patriot in a shift, according to Tom and Dick. When used to assemble stringer pallets, the machine produces between 600 and 700 per shift. D&F operates the GBN Patriot with bulk nails supplied by Parker Metal Corp.

D&F production employees are members of a union, Unite, which formerly was the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. The shop was unionized in 1990, when the first contract took effect.

Tom and Dick share both some of the office work and plant duties. Tom generally takes care of sales, purchasing and day-to-day production. Dick’s duties include personnel, payroll and maintenance. Both spend time in the plant, supervising. D&F’s plant foreman, Steve Schieres, has been with the company since 1990.

Both men have family members in the business. Tom’s wife, Merry, has been active since the start and is in charge of bookkeeping. Their 20-year-old son, Joe, a 1999 graduate of Fredonia State University, where he majored in business management, has joined the company as a management trainee. They also have two daughters, 24-year-old daughter Michelle and 16-year-old Sarah. Dick’s wife, Vickie, handles the company’s billing, and their son, Christopher, 19, a college sophomore at Fredonia who also is majoring in business, plans to join the company as a management trainee when he graduates, too. Dick and Vickie have a daughter, Jennifer, 14, who is a freshman in high school.

In their spare time, Tom and Dick enjoy deer hunting together. (A few years ago they went big game hunting in Montana.) They also like to ride all-terrain vehicles and are avid tennis players. They are active in a local Catholic church. As members of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, they participate in the association’s Penny-a-Pallet program.

One of the biggest challenges the company is facing is competition from Amish-owned businesses, according to Tom. "They used to be ‘mom and pop’ mills operated with a tractor or a generator," he said. "They’ve changed their whole direction. They’re operating plants as large as ours with machines just as sophisticated." The Amish are able to avoid some regulations that ordinary pallet companies and sawmills must comply with, Tom noted. "You eliminate all that...it certainly makes it harder to compete."

Tom and Dick are optimistic about the future and are considering adding more production capacity. D&F added a 7,000-square-foot warehouse and loading dock in 1997. The warehouse is used for storing both pre-cut lumber and finished pallets, although Tom and Dick are thinking of converting a portion of the space for production. Most finished pallets are kept in inventory in the company’s yard.

"We’re looking at a couple of possibilities," said Tom. "We may have to add another shift with more machinery. We’re looking at it."

The brothers have no plans to return to pallet recycling, however. "It’s so specialized," said Tom.

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