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Unique Pallet Designs Focus on Easing Customer Pain Points
Pallet Designs: Recent innovation in wood pallets focuses on plastic/wood combos, pallet coatings, unique design patterns, wood composites and more. Find out if these developments will impact your market or could add to your business.

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 6/3/2018

The search for the perfect pallet has been an ongoing process since the shipping platform was first invented more than 80 years ago. Some leading researchers are working on new designs using wood and composites that could be game changers in some regards. These pallet designs may not take over the market. But, they do show what is possible and how companies are pushing the boundaries of unit load technology.


GT Pallet Seeks to Reduce Unsaleable Product Damage

When Gerardo Tornel of GT Pallet first thought about pallet design back in 2012, he began by evaluating customer issues. One supply chain pain point in particular caught Tornel’s attention – the issue of product damage. When he found out that the amount of unsaleable products attributable to pallets was $3 billion annually in the United States, Tornel began to build a pallet that would provide better product protection and value for pallet users.

The issue of product protection was a driving force behind grocery industry acceptance of pallet rental in the 1990s and remains a major selling point to this day.

Tornel’s innovation process started with identifying user problems based on customer feedback. The resulting pallet, branded as the GT Pallet, is definitely something a little different. It is a composite pallet, wood with a top deck of 100% recycled plastic (a copolymer of polypropylene) and fiberglass. It offers a high coefficient of friction as well as the absence of fasteners which could damage product.

Tornel’s fresh approach to the design challenge was evidenced by him experimenting with diagonal top deck board placement. An earlier version, which I saw in January at the WPA Annual Meeting, included a surprising wood top deck board placement that ran diagonally to the stringer boards rather than perpendicular. In the current iteration, however, the wood top deck has been replaced by the composite plastic and fiberglass deck, which offers better performance and ease of manufacturing.

The GT Pallet also features a unique top frame and cantilever block design. The blocks are solid, one-piece components. Grain is oriented vertically to provide extra strength, and locked into position by the frame. Options for the bottom deck include perimeter as well as full coverage (82%) wood configurations. The latter is targeted at bagged products such as cement and sugar. GT Pallet incorporates 30% recycled stringer pallet material in the manufacture of new pallets, which is used in the pallet frames.

Tornel reported that the GT pallet ran for 20 cycles in testing at Virginia Tech’s Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design with “absolutely no damage.” Remarkably stiff, he stated that the GT pallet holds 24,000 lbs with a deflection of only 0.77 inches, versus a regular block pool pallet which would hold less than 3,000 lbs at a deflection of 0.89 inches.

GT Pallet continues to look for opportunities to license the production of its pallet in the United States as well as to rent pallets. “We are the owners of this technology,” Tornel said. “There are a lot of different options we can go with,” he said.

For more information or to license the GT Pallet design, contact Gerardo Tornel at gerardotornel@gmail.com.


Different Sizes, Different 48x40s Required for Automated Systems

Unique or at least custom designs remain vitally important to the pallet industry, according to Ralph Rupert, manager of unit load technology for Millwood Inc. He cited the recently announced survey produced through a collaboration of NWPCA, Virginia Tech and USDA Forest Service. Survey results indicated that 39% of pallets fall into the 48x40-inch category which increased slightly over previous surveys. He noted that standard beverage pallets, including 36x36-inch and 37x37-inch, are decreasing in importance as more beverage products move through standard retail distribution on 48x40-inch pallets. Military, which standardizes on the 40x48-inch size, is also increasingly using the 48x40-inch footprint. He emphasized that custom sizes remain important, as well as unique design requirements for standard footprints as well.

“We are seeing more and more diversification of design, even within the 48x40-inch footprint,” Rupert said. “The reason for this is usually stiffness for automation.” One such project for Millwood was for a frozen food facility in Washington state, which was featured in Modern Material Handling magazine.

“I’m doing two other projects right now where the company has put in drive in racks,” he explained. Having moved from placing product on the floor to setting them in drive in racks, the existing A Grade recycled pallets they were using were no longer doing the job. “Even a standard three-stringer pallet isn’t designed to support 2,500 pounds in drive in rack,” Rupert said. “So, we went to a four-stringer design.”

“Basically, automation is demanding customization, even on a 48x40-inch footprint,” he emphasized. “It’s not just custom sizes, it is also custom 48x40s.”


New Materials to Make Long Lasting Pallets

For Dr. Mark White, president of White & Company, the pallet innovation that he sees mainly has to do with various materials being introduced for evaluation. After 42 years of pallet research, including 31 years running the lab at Virginia Tech, Dr. White has seen, quite literally, just about everything. We reached him in Ohio, where he had a test scheduled at the Millwood Inc. lab. He usually performs third-party pallet testing at Virginia Tech, but they were booked solid.

Dr. White has reviewed many materials brought in for analysis over the years. “Pallet requirements for a material are tough,” he cautioned, “and people don’t always understand that. You have to have shock and impact resistance but also stiffness. They are opposing properties.”

A number of composite materials have performed well, but it comes down to a question of economics. “People come in with fantastic materials that perform well,” he said, “but at $2 per pound you can forget about it.”

Because there is attrition, either through damage by forklift drivers or loss, annual replacement is required, which may negate the advantage of durability. “You have to accept that there is an annual replacement requirement, no matter how good your material is,” Dr. White said. There is a threshold where the economics no longer make sense.

 “At $2 per pound you are competing with wood at 15 or 16 cents per pound,” Dr. White said. “Come back to me with a material with properties similar or superior to wood for 10 cents per pound, and I’m going to invest in it. And that hasn’t changed in 40 years.”

One approach that has recently been promoted in the marketplace has been in the coating of wood pallets in order to provide ease of cleaning and fire resistance. Some vendors are claiming that pallet durability is enhanced. Dr. White was involved in the testing of coatings many years ago, in the Enhanced Wood Project. “We did coatings,” he said. He noted that coatings could be extremely effective for pallet cleaning, but there were issues.

“Their effectiveness depends on the substrate,” he cautioned. “If the substrate doesn’t have the correct properties, the coating can be damaged, and have limited effectiveness.” 


Engineered Wood Pallets with Coatings

With sanitation becoming an increasingly sensitive issue in food supply chains, pallet coatings have once again come into the limelight from suppliers in Europe as well as the United States.

Netherlands-based Ahrma Holding BV, (www.ahrmapooling.com) launched in 2014. It got a boost in 2017 when BASF announced a €5 million investment in Ahrma shares. BASF supplies the Elastocoat® coating material for the Ahrma pallet.

The polyurethane coating Elastocoat is sprayed on a specially developed wood composite  (medium density fiberboard)  inner structure. Vertical strips are arranged in a crisscross formation and capped by a solid sheet to form the top deck, according to information portrayed in a promotional video.

The Ahrma pallet is equipped with high-end sensor technology for trace and track, measuring temperature and shocks. Tracking technology has been around for years but is just starting to be used in some applications for pallets to create a whole new level of transparency in the supply chain. The company has claimed that the Ahrma pallet is more durable and lighter than other alternatives. It offers optional anti-bacterial and electrostatic discharge coatings.

Meanwhile, the new entrant into the coated pallet market in the United States is Lightning Technologies (www.lightningtechnologies.com), based in Oxford, Michigan. Lightning Technologies is manufacturing and promoting a softwood plywood pallet which is encapsulated in a polymer coating supplied by BASF to make it more durable, easy to sanitize and fire retardant, according to a recent report in Forbes magazine. Looking at pictures of the interior of the Lightning Technologies design it appears to be a single sheet top deck with some kind of stringer boards running underneath. The pallet also includes “an embedded tracking chip.” Both Lightning Technologies and BASF declined an interview request from Pallet Enterprise.

In a press release, BASF and Lightning Technologies claimed Exobond™ spray coating is the first of its kind to produce a hermetically sealed surface protecting against insects, bacteria, mold and other harmful organisms. Proponents suggest this design is stronger, more durable and safer than traditional wood or plastic pallets. According to BASF, the Exobond coating increases durability, is chemical-resistant and improves weight-to-strength performance. 

Another company, Texas-based Gard (www.gardpallet.com), under the leadership of former CHEP and iGPS executive Rex Lowe, is reported in the Forbes article to be selling and leasing the Lightning Technologies pallet.


Plastic End Protectors Triple Wood Pallet Longevity

James Jones & Sons Ltd, one of the U.K. timber industry’s largest and most progressive timber companies, launched its UPALL®-protected pallets to the U.K. market in September 2017. Robust plastic protectors are placed at the points of entry on wooden pallets. This means the pallets last longer, need far fewer repairs and stay in circulation for longer than conventional non-protected pallets.

The protectors are based on the U.S. pointGUARD invention (www.palletpointguard.com), which UPALL® has redesigned and developed for the European market. Tests on the protectors at Virginia Tech show that they increase the lifespan of a wooden pallet by three times and potentially longer. This favorable result is enjoyed because UPALL®-protected pallets experience substantially less damage with significantly fewer wood chippings and debris. This reduces downtime, equipment maintenance and housekeeping, and improves safety.

UPALL pallet-protectors guard key components of the pallets – blocks and bottom boards. The pallet is therefore much more resistant to impact, giving lower damage rates and extending the lifespan of the pallet. The pallets and their protectors are completely repairable to maintain high quality standards. All materials used are fully recyclable.

UPALL is currently being tested with three different European pallet poolers, reported Gil Covey, Chairman of UPALL Ltd.  In preparation for volume orders, UPALL is developing screw fitment automation and robotic fitment systems. As well, further independent testing in the U.K. is planned to demonstrate life cycle cost savings and extended pallet life as well as significant environmental benefits.

“We see great potential for the UPALL pallet protector to reduce whole life costs of wooden pallets and extend their life,” Covey said in an email to Pallet Enterprise. Covey added, “The interest of the pallet pools who are trialing the product is a very encouraging development at this early stage.”


Looking to the Future

As supply chains and the priorities of pallet users change, new requirements will prompt pallet providers to revisit and revise pallet design based on proven technologies. These innovators will also look to the potential of new designs and materials to make economic sense for pallets in the years ahead. 

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