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Changes in Machinery, Automation Reflect Development of Recycling in Pallet Industry
Patented dismantlers began with vertical orientation

By Staff
Date Posted: 4/1/2002

When Ron and Tom Waechter of Smart Products began work on developing an innovative new pallet dismantling machine, they consulted with an attorney to determine if their concept was already patented. Research showed it was not. They began the process to obtain one, and their idea for a machine to dismantle pallets in a vertical position (see accompanying story) was patented last year.

In the process of researching existing patents on pallet recycling machinery, Ron and Tom, co-owners of Smart Products, learned some interesting things.

Ironically, their idea was similar in one respect to the first patented pallet dismantling machine. The first dismantler to be covered by a patent -- in 1980 -- also was designed so that the pallet was oriented in a vertical position. Three mechanisms consisting of abrasive saws would slide in between the deck boards and stringers to cut the nails as they progressed down. The recovered board and stringers would fall down onto a conveyor. The machine could only accommodate one pallet size, however.

The first band saw dismantler was patented in 1993. That particular machine involved a two-step process. The pallet was squeezed out of square in one direction and then another in order to loosen the joints before using the band saw blade to sever the boards from the stringers.

A disc-type dismantling machine was patented in 1994 that used four disc blades. The machine could separate all top or bottom deck boards on a single stringer in one pass.

A band saw dismantler with guides received a patent in 1997; the innovation eliminated the need to raise the pallet and insert it into the blade at just the right place.

Pallet recycling machinery pre-dated the first patented machine. The first type of dismantling machine apparently was developed by the Rogers company in Connecticut prior to 1980, although the company did not obtain a patent on it. The dismantler used hydraulic powered disc blades to spread deck boards apart from stringers. There were drawbacks to the machineís performance, however. It tended to damage all but the best boards and also left nail stubble on boards and stringers. The quality of the recovered lumber made it difficult to use on automated pallet assembly systems. Suppliers to the pallet industry developed other machines to provide solutions to the problems of used lumber containing nail stubble: unstubbers and grinders.

Development of pallet recycling machinery has paralleled changes in the pallet recycling industry, Ron observed. When pallet recycling got its start and for many years afterward, the main thrust of this segment of the pallet industry was repair of GMA pallets. Some pallet suppliers also bought or recovered used pallets, sorted them, and re-sold the good GMA pallets. Most pallets that were badly damaged or odd-size, however, were trucked to landfills or were disposed of in similar ways. Grinding scrap pallets into mulch or other wood fiber products was largely unheard of at the time.

A hardwood lumber shortage in the early to mid-1990s, however, gave increased impetus to pallet recycling. Auto manufacturers and other businesses that required large quantities of pallets relaxed their specifications. Some user companies switched to pallets made of softwood lumber while others began using recycled pallets. "They were desperate for pallets," recalled Ron, who also operates Delaware Pallet and Box Inc. in Muncie, Ind. So the hardwood lumber shortage helped to spawn further interest in and use of recycled pallets.

In addition, both businesses and governments also were becoming increasingly environmentally conscious. State regulators began prohibiting pallets from landfills, and grinding scrap pallets for disposal and conversion into other usable products came more into play. "There was a lot of pressure from a lot of places" to recycle, said Ron.

In 1994, for example, Ronís pallet company began looking for sources of pallet cores, and he approached General Motors plants in Indiana. He learned, however, that the automaker would not let recyclers remove excess pallets if they were eventually to be sent to a landfill; GM required, at worst, that its excess pallets be processed by grinding into some type of consumable product. GMís history of fighting lawsuits over clean-up of landfills was enough to scare them away from putting their excess pallets into landfills, according to Ron. In order to work for GM, Ronís pallet company invested in a grinder.

These factors combined to put greater emphasis on recycling pallets beyond simply repairing GMA pallets. Increasingly, pallet recyclers were dismantling pallets to recover good lumber. The recycled lumber was used for both pallet repairs and building Ďnewí pallets from recovered deck boards and stringers -- new pallets of various sizes and footprints, other than GMA pallets. Pallet manufacturers that may previously have been reluctant to add recycling operations expanded to include these products and services for their customers and to compete with pallet recyclers who sold used pallets for less.

On the machinery front, band saw dismantlers addressed the issue of nail stubble in used pallet parts. The biggest obstacle to their growth, however, was their appearance: they looked unsafe. Many recyclers continued to rely on disc-type dismantlers. Gradually, though, by word of mouth, the efforts of machinery suppliers, and as pallet suppliers began to scrutinize and evaluate band saw machines, the dismantlers gained acceptance in the recycling industry. "When the notion that they were not as dangerous as they appeared became known in the industry, more and more people started jumping to bandsaws," said Ron. They efficiently removed 100% of recyclable material, he noted.

Advances in saw blade technology related to used lumber also moved recyclers forward. For years their trim saws, used to cut recovered boards or stringers to the appropriate length, were equipped with ordinary saw blades. Because of the presence of nail stubble, trim saw operators had to inspect each piece in order to cut it where there were no nail fragments. It added time to the process and also made for inaccurate trimming. Some companies used shear-type trimmers that would squeeze boards and result in broken ends.

In the mid-1990s, International Carbide & Engineering developed some trim saw blades for Smart Products. ICE borrowed from the technology of blades for saws used by firefighters and rescue personnel to cut through vehicles to remove accident victims.

ICE supplied a few of the blades to Smart, which developed a simple trim saw, much like a chop saw. "We were amazed," Ron recalled. "We could cut through nails, and they didnít break up the carbide." Other blade suppliers quickly followed suit.

"That made trimming used boards much more feasible," Ron noted. "And it sped up the process." The new blades eliminated the concern over nail stubble when trimming used material. They could cut through the nail fragments, so it didnít matter where the nails were. Recyclers could put deck boards on a chain-fed trim saw or cut them back on a chop saw without paying attention to the nail stubble.

In recent years the industry has witnessed increased automation in recycling, particularly in the moving and handling of pallets and materials. In the past, at a small recycling operation with one or two dismantling machines, recovered boards and stringers typically were retrieved by the machine operators and placed in a basket or stacked on a pallet. The full basket or pallet eventually was moved via forklift to another work station for trimming Ė one station for deck boards and one for stringers. Now however, it is more common for dismantling machines to be positioned next to conveyors that automatically move the material to the next work station, such as a trim saw. "It just keeps getting more and more automated," Ron observed. The use of conveying equipment to move material automatically reduces forklift and labor costs, he added. Band saw dismantling machines also are more sophisticated and efficient; for example, some dismantling machines are designed for one-man operation instead of two.

Smart Products can supply a small-scale recycling operation with a one-man dismantler, conveyor and trim saw for under $25,000, according to Ron. "Thatís a basic system that saves you the cost of one employee and makes a company revenues. Itís easy to justify even a small level of automation." The number of machines and equipment and the lay-out can be configured for pallet recycling operations of varying size, he noted.

Smartís automated recycling systems "work quite well," Ron reported. In some cases the company has obtained Ďbeforeí and Ďafterí video of customer recycling operations -- video taken before a customer automated and after the addition of Smart equipment. The differences are notable, he said. The automated systems require workers to perform less walking, lifting and handling pallets while also reducing time that a dismantler is idle.

For more information about Smart Products or its pallet recycling machinery, contact the company at (800) 401-0099, fax (765) 284-9543.

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