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Leading Brit Recycler Aided by U.S. Machinery Supplier;
Automated Line Supplied by Pallet Repair Systems Helps U.K. Recycler

By John Mead
Date Posted: 2/1/2002

Avonmouth, ENGLAND - Hambrook Pallets is a major force in the United Kingdom pallet recycling market. With some 200 customers buying 140,000 pallets per month, the company has annual turnover (sales) of £7 million ($10 million U.S.).

Hambrook also undertakes specialist manufacture of new pallets. For example, it makes unique pallet-base crates for one customer that are used to ship hot air balloons around the world. A growing aspect of the company’s business is waste wood collection and grinding.

Martin Bond is the owner of Hambrook Pallets. The company was started by his father in 1973. With one wagon (a small, 20-foot flatbed truck), he collected and repaired recycled pallets. The company grew steadily with Martin’s mother and brother, Kevin, coming into the business.

Martin joined the company in 1980 with initial responsibility for vehicle maintenance. At that time the operations were still on the original cramped site in the village of Hambrook.

The company continued to grow and bought a sawmill in 1982 in Somerset, some 30 miles away. Martin’s parents retired in 1989 after moving the company to its present site two years earlier. The sawmill operation was hived off (sold) in 1991 and is now owned and run as a separate business by Kevin.

Martin grew the company further in the 1990s. Hambrook Pallets now has five sites and operations around the country, handling both new and recycled pallets, and about 100 employees. The company’s facilities are located in Avonmouth, Bristol; Newton Abott, Devon; Newport, South Wales; Dartford, Kent; and Pontefract, Yorkshire. The most recent one in Yorkshire, an acquisition, will be significant in establishing a company presence in Northern England. Martin’s wife, Michelle, is a director of the company and has responsibility for activities across the river Severn in Newport, South Wales.

Hambrook was a founding member of the National Association of Pallet Distributors, a pallet industry trade association. The organization has 24 members, including all the major pallet recycling companies of the United Kingdom. The association has been very active in standards-setting activities and contributed significantly to the European Standards Committee; the committee developed the first draft standard for pallet repair, which is scheduled to become the ISO world standard.

Avonmouth is a heavily industrialized port town. It is situated on the river Severn in Western England and has extensive docks and related handling companies. Chemical and fertilizer factories abound. There are aerospace companies and a specialist vehicle company (Bristol Cars) in the catchment area. Within a few miles there is a large regional shopping complex, and there has been large growth in housing estates in the region. Avonmouth is adjoined by the historic city of Bristol, which also has much industry and commerce, including a long established tobacco factory at its center.

The headquarters site of Hambrook Pallets is located on three acres in the heart of Avonmouth. It was started with no buildings and now has 14,000 square feet of covered space. The Avonmouth facility handles recycled pallets and repairs all types of pallets for resale. The company also performs contract repairs at the Avonmouth site, and wood waste collection and grinding are key elements of the headquarters operations. Martin’s office overlooks the yard, and he can view the entire yard through security cameras linked to his computer monitor.

Collecting pallets for recycling remains the corner stone of Hambrook’s business, although overall national activity in used pallets recently showed signs of declining, Martin noted.

Hambrook uses 32 flat and curtain-sided trailers with five tractors and eight rigid lorries (small flatbed trucks) for collecting pallets. Contracts allow trailers to be left on site at customer locations and exchanged when full.

The Hambrook depot at Avonmouth serves a region within a radius of about 50 miles. All the transport comes under the eagle eye of Roy Cron, who is also the yard foreman. Roy has a major job finding space for the 60 sizes of pallets; only about half of them are of a saleable size. Pallets are off-loaded, sorted and stacked in the yard. About 50-60% of the incoming pallets are in good condition and can be resold immediately.

About 75% of European pallets are of block construction. The most common pallet that Hambrook deals with is the 1200x1000 mm block pallet followed by the 800x1200 mm Europallet. Other sizes of significance are 1300x1000 mm, 42x42, 45x45, and 48x48.

Incoming pallets are sorted by size and condition – whether they can be resold immediately or require repairs. All 1200x1000 pallets are stacked, good and bad together, for sorting and processing on an automated line that was supplied by Pallet Repair Systems (PRS). Scrap and unsaleable pallets are added to the feed pile for grinding.

Europe uses only softwood for pallet lumber. European pallet manufacturers generally buy components ready for assembly or material that only needs to be cut to the appropriate length. In Hambrook’s case the company purchases long-length material that is cut to length on a Trim Track saw.

Hambrook does not dismantle pallets in order to recover usable lumber. It is equipped with an Industrial Resources disc-type un-nailer that is used in the company’s contract repair operations to remove damaged deck boards.

The tasks of manually sorting and repairing damaged 1200x1000 pallets were a serious challenge at the Avonmouth depot. The hard physical work involved made it difficult to keep repair employees, which in turn held back growth. Jobs are plentiful in the region, which enjoys the second lowest unemployment rate in the country. It is hard to hire workers to repair pallets when they can make easy money filling supermarket shelves. Some of the Hambrook employees travel 35 miles from across the Severn to work. This persistent problem drove Martin to consider mechanized equipment to handle and move pallets.

Hambrook was already familiar with U.S. machinery, having the Industrial Resource un-nailer and also an Industrial Resources Trim Track saw. The company also receives Pallet Enterprise, so its staff was aware of the type of equipment that is available from U.S. suppliers.

Martin and operations manager Peter Oldacre attended the 2000 East Coast Sawmill and Logging Equipment Exposition in Richmond, Va. Among the many pallet machinery suppliers exhibiting at the trade show, Martin and Peter met Jeff Williams, president of PRS. Jeff arranged for them to subsequently visit a pallet recycling company in New Jersey where PRS had supplied and installed an automated repair line. Hambrook also evaluated other suppliers. Martin later decided to order automated pallet handling equipment from PRS and have the Hambrook staff install it.

Peter made a trip to the PRS plant, working with PRS staff on the design of the system. He has additional responsibilities in matters of compliance with government health and safety regulations and training for employees. The United Kingdom and the European Union have strict laws and regulations pertaining to workplace safety, and accident records and compensation are becoming serious issues. Peter’s assistance helped ensure that the PRS equipment had appropriate guards to protect workers in accordance with the United Kingdom worker safety regulations.

After the PRS equipment arrived, it was about two months before the Hambrook staff had it installed and fully operational. PRS dispatched an electrical engineer to England to bring the system on line, and then Hambrook conducted test runs for a few days. Then Jeff and his father, Lonnie, traveled to England to help the Hambrook staff make a smooth transition to the new system.

The PRS line is comprised of powered in-feed rollers that feed stacks of pallets automatically to a tipper. Once tipped, an inspector directs good pallets downwards to a set of rollers that feeds five stackers and out-feeds. Damaged pallets remain on a top set of rollers and are conveyed to the four repair benches. Only one grade of repair is produced. Repaired pallets are fed onto a lower conveyor that takes them to a stacker; pallets are stacked two high if there is a back-up from the repair tables. Quality control is maintained by Jamie George, who inspects the stacks of finished pallets when they are removed from the line.

The PRS line is performing as Martin expected even though available floor space in the plant limited somewhat the ideal lay-out of the equipment. It has made a significant improvement compared to the company’s previous operations. Hambrook had relied on an inefficient system of manual labor and forklifts to sort, repair and move pallets in its yard. The PRS automated repair line processes 1,800 pallets per shift with three workers: one to run the tipper and two at the repair tables. About 70% of the pallets are in good condition and the other 30% are damaged and require repairs. Since the line has been in operation, Martin has found that his staffing problems are somewhat better although he still has shortages that are hard to fill.

"It is working very well and is very reliable," Martin said of the PRS system. "I am very pleased with the line." In fact, Martin was so impressed when the PRS equipment first arrived that he ordered additional PRS stackers for Hambrook’s new pallet manufacturing facilities.

Hambrook performs contract repairs for a major brewery that uses a two-way 1320x1200 mm pallet. Broken deck boards are removed by the Industrial Resources un-nailer. For replacement parts, Hambrook buys new long-length Irish spruce material and cuts it to length. An eight-man team handles the brewery pallet repairs; the team’s output averages 800 pallets per day.

A major and expanding part of the company is its waste wood recovery program. Hambrook is in increasing competition with other companies, however, and is making contract arrangements with customers to maintain its position in the market. It recently acquired a small competitor in order to strengthen its market position.

Businesses are willing to pay Hambrook to have waste wood removed from their premises because it is cheaper than costly charges to dispose of it in a landfill. Hambrook has 64 skips and 12 trailers located at customer sites to collect and retrieve scrap pallets and waste wood. The scrap pallets and wood waste are end-tipped into the yard; then the material is handled by a small shovel bulldozer and a mobile crane fitted with a crab claw hoist. A Doppstadt grinder processes the material at the rate of 20 tons per hour. The grindings are fed over Bruks screens; larger material gets a second pass in the grinder. Magnetic equipment is used to separate scrap nail fragments from the wood fiber.

The waste wood recovery program produces two grades of product, noted Peter. Fines are sold to other companies that combine the wood fiber with peat and manure. Chips are sold under contract to a chipboard mill that requires close adherence to 50 mm size with no rubbish; the contract contains penalty clauses to enforce quality control. Chips are conveyed directly into 40-foot Chipliner trailers.

Hambrook plans to continue expanding into wood waste recovery. It has a new plant for processing wood waste in Northern England and has added a grinder at the site.

Hambrook uses a legal services company for advice and to stay up to date on regulatory changes. Particular attention has to be given to employment application forms and health matters. For example, Hambrook employees receive on-the-job training, and they are required to sign a form indicating that they have received appropriate training.

Hambrook staff performs some light maintenance work but specialty tasks are contracted out.

Martin believes in as much local control as possible for his managers. Collections and pallet sales are delegated to them, but a central sales staff complements their efforts as needed. All administration, such as accounting and other tasks, is handled at the head office; information is downloaded by modem every night from the other locations. The company performs inventory accounting on a monthly basis.

Martin has good reason to be pleased with the company he has grown, but it demands a lot of his time. He plays golf from a 14 handicap, which says much for his love of the game, but the business leaves him little time to play.

He and Michelle have three children still under 20 years old, and they are not involved in the company.

Martin and Michelle hope to retire in a few years to their apartment in Marbella, Spain. Perhaps then he will be able to sell his dynamic business and realize his dream of working on his handicap in the sun.

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