PPL Systems Gets Off to Fast Start With Machinery from Kent Corp.
Opportunity for pallet manufacturers still abounds-even in the very heart of pallet country.
By Staff Writer
Date Posted: 1/1/1999
ST. LOUIS, MO. In spite of its perception of maturity, the wooden pallet manufacturing industry continues to offer opportunities for many people.
Richard Duff, owner of PPL Systems Inc., is someone who sees opportunity in wooden pallet manufacturing. Those who wonder if the potential for success in our industry is a thing of the past should take a look at his start-up and rapid growth.
Rich has supplied industrial products to his customers for a number of years. Since pallets are one of the most expensive industrial products purchased by many companies, they were a natural to eventually attract Rich. In late 1997, one of his best customers was not happy with its pallet supply situation. Rich went to work, made some pallet connections, solved their problem, and saved his customer money in the process.
After about six months of wholesaling pallets, PPL Systems began pallet manufacturing in the spring of 1998. Located in the metropolitan St. Louis area, PPL is well situated to supply pallets quickly and in all quantities needed. While Missouri is known as a major pallet manufacturing state, most pallets are hauled from at least 50 to 100 or more miles out of the southern part of the Missouri into St. Louis. PPL can deliver small orders as well as tractor-trailer quantities; about 75% of its orders are in full tractor- trailer volumes.
Rich started the companys pallet manufacturing operation using cut-to-size material as his raw material. Seeing a number of benefits from being able to cut his own stock, Rich studied what is involved in lumber processing and began cutting his own pallet stock in late 1998.
"The pallet business can be a good business," said Rich. "I suggest, however, that anybody who is not knowledgeable about lumber processing learn how to cut lumber before depending on his own lumber production. There is a learning curve to just about anything. In pallet manufacturing, lumber supply is too important to take lightly. If I had to do it over again, I might hire a consultant. I will say, however, that Sam Baker of Kent Corporation was extremely helpful with his machinery and manufacturing recommendations."
From its pallet manufacturing start less than a year ago, PPL now has 15 people working on two shifts. "We can get plenty of people," said Rich, "but getting the right ones is not easy. I was new to the business. This work is physically demanding. On top of that, I did not know what I could realistically promise people. That just added to the difficulty. I have tried to be tolerant, which has helped us to develop a work force. Some of our best people have been people on parole. But everybody in the pallet business knows that getting and retaining good people is one of the biggest challenges."
PPL builds about 3,500 stringer pallets per week starting with cants that come from southern Missouri. Most are hardwood, but the company also builds about 250 pine pallets weekly. Pallet sizes range from 30 inches to 120 inches long. PPL has avoided pallet recycling so far, but being located in a major metropolitan region makes it a possible option in the future.
When Rich began to consider investments in machinery, he contacted Sam Baker, president of Kent Corporation, and they spent a productive evening discussing his cutting options. "He had a lot to explain," Rich recalled. "I needed help because I had virtually no background in lumber processing. I felt comfortable with Sam and followed his recommendations."
PPL started with a Kent single-head notcher. Rich did not see the need for higher speed notching at first, but it has not taken long for him to decide that he needs a Kent whole pallet double-headed notcher, too. He is considering becoming a local cut stock supplier and knows that he will need more notching capability to satisfy the market.
Rich likes 4x6 cants, but he also buys 6x7, 6x8, and three-sided cants. PPL uses a Kent chop saw to cut the cants to the desired length. Three Kent single-head horizontal band saws two with returns and one without are used in-line to process the cut-to-length cants into pallet material; the cants are resawn on the three band saws to achieve the desired lumber cuts, and the cut stock is diverted to a turntable to be stacked.
"I have had only two problems with our lumber processing line of machinery," said Rich. "Sam and a technician came up to help me with the first problem. The technician handled the second one by himself. Both times it was simply a matter of my not knowing enough to completely understand how to get the best results from my machinery. The problem was not with the machinery."
PPL does most of its nailing on semi-automatic nailing systems that use coils of collated nails. The company first bought a used GAP nailer and then a new Pallet Chief nailer. "Our Pallet Chief works fine," said Rich. "A friend of mine has one. It looked simple and good for training." The company recently bought and installed a second Pallet Chief.
The company also uses both Paslode and Stanley-Bostitch hand nailers and nails. Rich said he has been pleased with RV Evans, a St. Louis Paslode supplier that provides the hand tool service that is so valuable to the pallet industry.
Six months is not a very long time to place all the productive elements of a pallet manufacturing operation into effect. PPL is putting its sawdust in one container and scrap lumber in another. A trash removal company picks them up and hauls them to a landfill. Rich knows that in the future he will need to explore more cost-effective solutions to handling waste.
PPL uses common carriers to deliver most of its products, which simplifies this aspect of the business for the time being.
Pallet manufacturers often say that there are too many people chasing too little business. But then there are people like Rich Duff who are new to our industry and enjoy the challenges. He has shown that opportunities are still there for the right people with the determination to provide the service required by our customers.
And opportunities are still there for machinery suppliers like Sam Baker who take the initiative to provide the kind of support that a person who is new to our industry really needs.
Entrepreneurship is still alive and well in the pallet industry.
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