Prototype Machine Would Automate Pallet Dismantling;
Patented Concept Features Two Band Saws and Vertical Orientation;
By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 4/1/2002
A few years ago, Ron Waechter, president of Smart Products, a leading supplier to the pallet industry of band saw dismantling machines, received a call from someone who was interested in selling an idea for a different kind of pallet disassembly machine.
The caller’s idea was for a machine that utilized circular saws to disassemble a pallet that was standing on its side.
Ron quickly dismissed the idea of dismantling pallets with circular saws, but the idea of positioning the pallet vertically to disassemble it prompted an idea of his own. "I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What if we tried to do the same kind of thing with a couple of band saws?’ " As he thought about it, Ron envisioned marrying the concept of the guide system of a lead board remover with two band saws beside each other like a scragg mill. The band saw heads would have to be movable to compensate for variations in deck board thickness.
"The more I started thinking about it, the more I thought the idea was workable." That evening he called his business partner, Smart Products co-owner and vice president Tom Waechter. They discussed the idea for about an hour, brainstorming together how it might work. Tom began working on the actual design shortly thereafter, and they took it to a patent attorney to research if the idea may have already been patented. It was not, so they began the process to acquire a patent on the concept, which Smart Products obtained last fall.
Meanwhile, Smart Products has developed and tested a prototype machine of its patented innovative concept -- a machine that potentially could automate pallet dismantling and lumber recycling operations and allow a quantum leap in production of used pallet components. The company plans to demonstrate the new machine at the East Coast Sawmill and Logging Equipment Exposition -- Expo Richmond – in May.
When they initially began the process of developing the machine about two years ago, Ron and Tom were immediately interrupted by an influx of orders for machinery, and they stayed busy for some time, selling and building machinery. "We thought we’d come back to it when we had time," said Ron. In addition, they took on another project, the development of a new dismantler connected by a conveyor to an automated trim saw.
More than a year later, Tom began devoting more of his time and energy to the concept machine. He developed the basic prototype machine although it still lacked a guide system, hydraulics and power. Tom got busy again designing and building systems for customers, and the concept machine sat idle a while.
Ron picked up the ball. He also owns a pallet business, Delaware Box and Pallet in Muncie, Ind., and he created some work space there so he could continue to work on the new machine. They were hoping to have the prototype ready for the pallet recycling seminar in October of last year. Of course, they wanted to be able to test it before that meeting. A week before the seminar, they ran some pallets through it. "They just zinged right through," Ron recalled. Lumber recovered from the machine was of the same quality as ordinary band saw dismantlers. The only drawback was the system did not have a conveyor configured to it yet, and the reclaimed lumber quickly piled up.
Nevertheless, that initial test was an important step. "What it showed me was that this pallet could go through and not have to be manipulated like a normal dismantler requires," said Ron. "The finger guide system, once the pallet got started, could take the pallet through, and the next one, and the next one. In one quick pass through the two band saws, the board and stringers were separated quickly.
"Another thing that was exciting was the production speed," Ron added. "We ran a stop watch. It was just three to four seconds, at the most," to dismantle a pallet. "We started doing the calculations, what a three or four second cycle time translated into daily production...Those numbers are quite exciting."
A two-man dismantling team operating a band saw dismantler, Ron noted, averages about one pallet per minute or nearly 500 per day. "If you average one a minute, you’re doing half-way decent," he said. By contrast, workers on one-man machines may average about 400 pallets per day.
A single operator running the prototype machine potentially could dismantle as many as 2-6,000 pallets per day – a quantum leap in production. Initial production levels likely would be more in the 2-3,000 range, Ron suggested.
The potential high-volume production levels gave Ron reason to pause. There would be a limited market in the pallet industry for such a machine, he first thought. Perhaps only about 25% of pallet companies have recycling operations that are large enough to warrant such a machine, he speculated.
But he soon realized that a high-production dismantler could benefit and appeal to even relatively small pallet recycling businesses. A high-volume dismantler potentially could save labor and other costs for even a small business that operates one pallet dismantling machine all week. A small recycler may only need to operate a high-volume dismantler once a week or even once every two weeks in order to produce the used lumber he needs. "Even if the machine is idle a great deal of the time, look at the money they can save on labor," Ron pointed out. Man hours normally spent in pallet disassembly could be utilized for other tasks, such as repairing or building pallets. "It’s still going to be attractive" to small recycling operations, Ron contended.
For larger recycling businesses, the efficiency and savings generated by a high-volume dismantler would be even more significant. "It will reduce labor by a tremendous amount," said Ron. "If you’ve got eight people running dismantlers, and you can change to a machine that only needs one, and you keep one man on a regular dismantler for odd-size pallets, you’ve saved wages for six people. That’s the kind of potential we’re talking about." Large recyclers also would benefit from the opportunity to reduce the amount of floor space devoted to dismantling operations – freeing up valuable space for other tasks. The prototype machine occupies the area of about two band saw dismantlers although it requires about 12 feet of vertical space.
The machine is similar in function to a two-head band scragg mill that simultaneously removes two slabs from either side of a log. The Smart Products prototype dismantler is similarly equipped: two bandsaws in vertical configuration, mounted in such a way that they can swing slightly. The blades are parallel with enough space between them for the pallet to pass through.
The pallet goes between the blades in an upright position: it is perpendicular, resting on one of its outside stringers. The powered feed rollers are sloped down at an angle of 30-45 degrees, allowing the blades to compensate for warped deck boards. The pallet is guided by sliding over metal rails or ‘fingers’ that fit between the two decks; there are two sets of ‘fingers’ for the bottom half of the pallet and one for the top.
The prototype machine is designed to process stringer pallets that are 30 to 57 inches wide and also has the capability to partly dismantle block-style pallets. Pallets with badly damaged stringers may require disassembly on a conventional dismantling machine.
Ron has been developing peripheral equipment and making some modifications to the prototype. The guide system, for example, must be adjustable and made of cast aluminum or steel because cold rolled steel flexes too much, and the system must allow the fingers to adjust up and down quickly. The machine also will be configured with a pair of tippers to keep a steady flow of pallets feeding into the automated dismantler.
"This machine will eliminate a lot of the back-breaking labor involved with dismantling pallets," said Ron. Instead of picking up pallets and placing them on the table of a dismantling machine and flipping them over to remove deck boards on both sides, the operator simply will maneuver the pallets a distance of 6 to 8 inches onto the guides. The pallets already will be in a vertical orientation when they come off the tipper.
One of the most important aspects is the design of a system to effectively catch reclaimed components and feed the material from the discharge side. "We need a method to turn all the material and run it cross-ways to the path of the conveyor," said Ron, which would present the used components in the easiest manner to be removed from the conveyor at the trim saw station.
Ron and Tom are working to finish the prototype system, and they plan to exhibit it at Expo Richmond in May.
On another recycling note, Ron indicated that changes in band saw blade technology are on the horizon. Blade suppliers he has talked with indicated they are working to develop new tooth geometries that will discourage the blade from cutting into the wood.
"We’re only part-way in our learning curve on pallet dismantling," said Ron. "Now we are going to jump over the hurdles to high-volume production."
For more information, contact Smart Products at (800) 401-0099, fax (765) 284-9543.
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