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‘Nailing on the Fly’ Repair System Increases Efficiency, Pallet Yield
Applies Assembly Line Process to Pallet Repair

By Jim Doyle
Date Posted: 8/1/2003

‘Nailing on the fly’ is a catch phrase that I coined to describe the continuous motion assembly line repair of a pallet. Although the name is used to describe a specific process within the pallet industry, the overall technique is an application of the assembly line process made famous by Henry Ford in the early 1900s.

The concept came about primarily as a result of my need to address challenges that I faced in my pallet recycling business in the early 1990s. Labor costs were rising dramatically, and actual production was not increasing. Training workers to repair pallets was taking five to six weeks to get them up to speed and productive. Logistically, I had forklifts running all over my shop, serving 20 stations that were repairing pallets. Accountability was difficult to get a handle on; it seemed that builders and forklift drivers were conspiring to report more pallets repaired than actually were.

Repair processes were abysmally slow and inconsistent because each of my 20 builders had to make decisions and perform all the steps involved in repairing a pallet. These steps included: 1) pull the pallet off the stack and position it on the repair table, 2) decide which stringer needs repair, 3) repair the stringer, 4) decide which boards needed repair, 5) remove boards, 6) depress nail stubble, 7) replace boards, 8) place repaired pallet in stacks to be returned to the pallet pool.

If too many boards needed to be replaced, which would take additional time, the builder would send the pallet to the tear-down area because he was paid on piece work and wanted to make more money. I once estimated that I was losing up to 200 pallets per day that could have been repaired instead of dismantled.

All these factors resulted in a slow and extremely labor intensive repair process, to say the least.

The ‘nailing on the fly’ system begins with a high speed de-stacker or tipper that determines the flow of pallets. Odd size and ready-to-go pallets are sorted immediately and either sent to a stacker or stacked by hand. Damaged pallets are then sent via conveyor to a lead board remover-Deckmaster, where the operator decides which boards need to be removed. Pallets are entirely prepped at this work station, including depressing nail stubble.

The pallet then travels upside down by conveyor to the repair area, where replacement boards are attached. A flipper turns the pallet over so the top face may be repaired, and then the pallet is graded and sent to the appropriate high speed stacker.

This system of repairing pallets overcame all the challenges I was facing. I was able to put all the decision-making in the hands of one or two people at the lead board removing station. This allows builders to concentrate on one task -- replacing boards -- so my production increased greatly. Since the pallet never leaves the system and automation removes most of the lifting, my costs related to labor, workmen’s compensation and absenteeism dramatically decreased.

Sam McAdow Jr. of Buckeye Recyclers commented, "We haven’t had a workmen’s compensation claim or back injury in over three years since putting in our ‘nailing on the fly’ system."

John Swenby of Paltech Enterprises said, "My profits have increased, and I’ve had no workmen’s compensation claims since my ‘nailing on the fly’ system was installed over two years ago. I can even work my people a couple of hours of overtime with no complaints because there is no fatigue factor."

George Frack, general manager of Nazareth Pallet, said, "We aren’t worried about finding staff any more. We’re working smarter. We aren’t losing people because the work is far less demanding, and they stand to earn more money by the higher output numbers. In fact, we can hire people with less strength or who may be older because the work has become easier."

Training time was reduced from several days to several hours because builders only have to replace the missing boards. Accountability increased dramatically because I had my best personnel in the decision-making positions -- at the lead board removers -- so that pallets would stay on the line for repair instead of being sent to the tear-down area. Now, stackers with counters and pallet tracking software enhance this process even more.

I was able to institute teamwork pay that, along with automation, ultimately increased production as well as improving pallet quality. Since individual pay is largely determined by how the team does, everyone has a vested interest in getting the pallets repaired properly the first time. The overall team performance becomes more important than any individual’s performance. This helps to eliminate the ‘prima dona’ builders, who generally are concerned only with themselves and not the team as a whole.

Logistically, I was able to remove a forklift and the driver. Now, instead of delivering pallets and retrieving finished pallets to and from 20 builder tables, the forklift was only needed to move or retrieve pallets from two locations -- the de-stacker on the front end and the stackers at the end of the line. This reduced congestion tremendously.

Production and efficiency increased remarkably. An 11-man team replaced 20 builders at tables, and pallets per man-hour increased by almost 100%.

With these kind of improvements, ‘nailing on the fly’ systems can pay for themselves in 12 to 18 months. In the case of Carthage Pallet in Missouri, president Terry Brake said, "Your system has increased our production and quality and lowered our labor costs, making a one-year payback possible." Tim Welch, president of Pallet World in Ohio, remarked, "The financing of my system did not increase my operating budget at all, and I actually increased my production and decreased my labor costs."

In summary, I realized four major advantages over other systems out there. First, employees could be managed as and work as a team. Peer pressure fostered a spirit of teamwork, and it weeded out unproductive employees.

Second, employees could be paid as a team. Since all of the builders are paid the same, the more they work together to increase production, they all benefit.

Third, the ‘nailing on the fly’ system almost completely eliminated the lifting of pallets, so workmen’s compensation claims plummeted to almost zero.

Finally, I realized more pallet yield. Before implementing ‘nailing on the fly,’ builders who did not want to take the time to perform multiple repairs on a pallet would simply send it to the tear-down area. With the ‘nailing on the fly’ system, the builders do not care how many boards have to be replaced. And more pallets are repaired, which results in more pallet yield and more income for each member of the team. That’s a win – win for everyone!

(Editor’s Note: Jim Doyle is a consulting and sales representative for Automated Machine Systems, Inc. (AMS). He is the former owner of Pallet Supply Company and Machine Specialists Inc. (MSI) and has over 25 years of combined experience as a pallet recycler and designer and builder of automation for the pallet industry. He may be reached at (901) 757-0032 or by e-mail at jimdoyle@amssystems.com.)

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