Plastic Pallets Keep Evolving
Plastic Evolution: Plastic pallets continue to evolve in performance, variety, as well as the marketing approaches by manufacturers and vendors.
By Staff Writer
Date Posted: 5/1/1999
CHICAGO — Plastic pallets continue to evolve in terms of performance and variety, as well as in the marketing approaches by manufacturers and vendors. Among the most recent trends: improved rackability at more competitive pricing, new leasing options, and some ground-breaking approaches to improving fire safety.
If you want to see what is available in the world of plastic pallets, there is no question that ProMat is the place to be. Most major plastic pallet vendors displayed their newest product lines at the recent ProMat 99 material handling trade show.
In another move designed to help plastic pallet and container vendors more effectively compete among each other, the Reusable Plastic Container and Pallet Association (RPCPA) announced it will issue standardized testing procedures in order to help customers to compare plastic products.
Plastic can have desirable properties with respect to dimensional consistency, impact resistance and low density, but rackability of plastic pallets long has been a limitation. To achieve effective rackability, there were significant, negative trade-offs: increased pallet weight and cost. Previously, in order for plastic pallets to achieve significant rackability, large volumes of raw material were used. The result was pallets that weighed more and cost more. As an alternative, higher-priced stiffening materials — such as glass fiber — could be added to the relatively inexpensive polyethylene (HDPE) resin. In the last year or so, however, the limits to rackability appear to have been overcome. Several companies such as Orbis and Cookson Plastic have developed rackable plastic pallets that perform better and are reasonably priced, compared to similarly-performing rackable plastic pallets. Most rackable pallets are made of HDPE, using the process of low pressure injection molding or structural foam, which fills the mold with expanding foam resin. The porous parts result in an enhanced stiffness to weight ratio.
"Rackability is not a new issue," said Leta Hogg, senior product manager at Orbis. Her company introduced the Rackstar in 1992, a plastic pallet that was rackable to 2,000 pounds. The 2,000 pound rating was useful for many customers, but it was not directly transferable to much more broad, multi-purpose grocery applications, where a 2,800 pound edge rack rating has been an accepted standard. The "holy grail" for plastic pallet manufacturers, according to Leta, has been to produce a 4-way entry plastic pallet that conforms to the GMA in size and meets or exceeds GMA rack performance. Orbis has reached it: its new Rackstar II, an injection molded, high performance rackable pallet weighing 58 pounds, was formally unveiled at ProMat99.
Cookson launched its "rackables" structural foam line last year with its "Boss" pallet. With an edge rack load capacity of 2,800 pounds and a dynamic load capacity of 5,000 pounds, Cookson hailed the Boss as "the first truly rackable, automation-friendly, fully recyclable plastic pallet." Designed to compete head-to-head with the industry standard GMA pallet, it weighs 57 pounds and has a block-style design similar to the GMA.
Cookson recently introduced a new fire resistant rackable pallet made of a new plastic resin called Noryl that was developed by General Electric Plastics. "The resin, coupled with a fire retardant additive, gives the resin burn characteristics equal or better than wood," said Bill Tomes, a partner at TVA Fire and Life Safety Inc., a fire safety consultant to major warehouses and warehouse-style retail chains.
In the injection molded arena, Rehrig Pacific Co. has brought out a new 40x48 general purpose plastic pallet. Along with a beverage pallet it introduced earlier, the general purpose pallet marks the second addition to the company’s line of rackable, stackable plastic pallets. The pallets feature extra large bottom deck coverage to enhance their effectiveness for stacking. The feature makes them especially attractive for sensitive loads such as palletized soft drinks, which is not surprising: Rehrig Pacific has a long history in beverage applications and is known for its plastic beverage crates.
Twin-sheet thermoformers also market rackable pallets. In the twin-sheet process, a steel frame may be encapsulated in the pallet to improve stiffness. Newer twin-sheet designs, however, offer greater stiffness without needing steel for reinforcement. Newer designs also have improved perimeter or sidewall durability and more effective non-slip surfaces. The improved twin-sheet pallets perform better, weigh less, and cost less.
TriEnda’s new FD3240 is the first all-plastic, twin-sheet thermoformed rackable and conveyable double-deck pallet. It comes standard with Grip-Lok Plus anti-skid coating. Made without steel inserts, the FD3240 shifts frame strength to the pallet’s outer skin through a single-unit construction process.
When providing a cost analysis of rackable plastic pallets for customers, a threshold price of $60 seems to be significant, according to Leta. "Under $60, cost justification can usually be met," she said.
When comparing performance ratings, however, plastic pallet sales representatives caution that it is best to have accurate information about actual test conditions. They also suggest that potential buyers conduct their own tests geared for the intended application. Factors such as ambient temperature (pallets are stiffer at colder temperatures) or type of load can influence pallet performance in tests.
Aside from product performance improvements, plastic pallet manufacturers hope to increase sales by a variety of measures. These include new lease options, the development of common testing procedures, and enabling customers to meet fire code and insurance requirements.
Equipment leasing programs target customers that want plastic pallets in a closed loop or captive system without the associated up-front investment. Cookson launched a lease program in late 1998 through Citicorp Global Equipment Finance, the largest bank leasing company in the U.S. Cookson’s lease program enables customers to treat pallets as an expense rather than an asset on the company’s balance sheet, leading to an improved return on investment.
Standardized testing is another marketing issue, especially with the number of new companies manufacturing plastic pallets and containers over the last five to 10 years, according to Jim Favaron. As senior vice president of new product development at Cookson’s material handling division, Jim has been working with the RPCPA engineering committee to develop common testing procedures. Standardized tests will allow customers to evaluate different plastic pallets and containers. "When you use the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) tests you can put your product into any kind of light," Jim told a ProMat99 workshop. "Competitors can look at it one way, and you can look at it another. So you can go to your customers and tell them that this pallet or bulk box has this rating; it doesn’t really mean anything."
The RPCPA decided to put together some guidelines that would be more related to plastic and would take into account differences in materials and construction. There are no performance specifications or benchmarks, Jim stressed. The test is performed and the customer is informed of the rating achieved. "That’s what you tell the customer, and he makes his decision," said Jim. "There is a fairly large commonality between them and the ASTM testing. We’ve taken the ASTM tests and said, ‘Okay, how would we modify these to work with plastic.’ " The tests are only in guideline form. "The intent is for the members of RPCPA to go to their customers and say that their products were tested using these guidelines provided by the Material Handling Industry of America, and these are the results."
Official standard setting organizations are becoming more involved with plastic, Jim noted. "ASTM has been looking at plastic product testing as well as the Automotive Industry Action Group and ISO a little bit," he said. "So we decided that if we have an engineering member of the committee, we tend to work with them to get only one standard."
"What we have found specifically with ASTM is that a lot of the people who are actually developing the standards aren’t manufacturers," Jim added. A great deal of standards development comes from only the use side, he said. "That’s okay, but rather than sitting back as manufacturers and saying, ‘You guys came up with a standard we can’t make for you,’ we are getting more involved."
Five guidelines have been issued; five more are in progress. Standards already in place include pallet free-fall, maximum allowable load in a static rack, dynamic load floor stacking and fork tine deflection, dynamic load capacity of containers, and container free-fall. The standards committee also is working on a number of tests for bulk boxes; guidelines will be available from Material Handling Industry of America.
Fire safety has been another "hot button" topic for plastic pallet and container vendors. Most fire codes designate certain plastics — including those used to make most plastic pallets and containers — as high hazard commodities. "This has caused an uproar in the code enforcement community and the insurance underwriting community regarding an accepted method of protecting these containers and products," said Bill.
His company, TVA, has been providing consulting services in the area of fire safety to warehouse and warehouse-format retail clients. At a presentation Bill gave at ProMat99 on fire safety issues, several representatives of plastic container companies admitted they sometimes had difficulty closing sales because of customer concerns about fire hazards; their concerns related to requirements from fire officials or insurers for additional, expensive fire suppression systems.
Insurers and fire officials prefer the placement of fire sprinklers in storage racks, but Bill emphasized that this type of costly retrofit has not been looked at as an acceptable remedy by many operators of warehouses and retail warehouse stores. As another approach, specialized high pressure ceiling sprinkler systems — such as ESFR (Early Suppression, Fast Response) — were developed without in-rack sprinklers, but they are problematic because of the need for costly, complicated pumps. TVA has had success, however, testing new sprinkler heads with extra-large orifices that can put out more water at less water pressure demand; often, they may be installed with minor modifications to existing sprinkler systems. TVA also is testing other new sprinkler heads. "All indications are that these sprinkler heads are even more effective" than the extra-large orifice type, he said. It appears that new sprinkler head designs will enable businesses to modify their fire suppression systems — at a more acceptable cost — in order to meet requirements for plastic pallets and containers.
Plastic pallets continue to evolve as the companies that manufacture and market them refine them to overcome objections of users and make them more attractive. One thing is increasingly clear. Plastic pallet makers are not interested in capturing small, niche markets. Their focus on supplying products that meet or exceed the peformance of the GMA indicate they have much larger markets in mind. For the time being, however, price likely will limit them mainly to applications where plastic pallets can be effectively controlled and recovered in closed loops.
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