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Stroh's Plywood Pallet Program Smoother with Age
Stroh Brewery Company's plywood deck pallet program has gotten smoother with age since 1973.

By Staff Writer
Date Posted: 12/1/1998

stroh4.gif (45766 bytes)The Stroh Brewery Company, based in Detroit, Mich., brews many of America’s best-known beers, including Stroh’s, Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, Old Style, and Mickeys.

And you can rest assured these favorites from America’s fourth-largest brewing company are transported well protected, courtesy of a plywood deck pallet program that has gotten smoother with age since its launch in 1973.

Stroh continues to enjoy the superior product protection and durability its pallet program provides and has expanded it into several operations the brewer has acquired over the years.

Make no mistake about it. When one factors its 25 years experience using plywood pallets with well over 600,000 units in circulation – along with another quarter of a million or so it inherited with the acquisition of a plant in La Crosse, Wis. in 1996 – it is safe to say that Stroh knows a thing or two about pallet selection.

And with a sensitive canned product weighing 2,000 pounds per unit-load, palletized on automated palletizers and often stacked several unit-loads high, it is extremely important to make the right choice.

"The thing we like about plywood solid deck pallets is that they provide a better quality base for our product," said Barry McBride, senior packaging specialist at Stroh corporate headquarters in Detroit and Stroh’s ‘pallet brewmaster.’

"They provide much better protection, distribute weight better, and loads can be stacked three or four high," McBride added.

Weight distribution is very important in stacking pallets of beer. Localized pressure can result in pre-release of openers or twist tops when other types of pallets are used.

"The beer industry is ideal for a quality pallet," agreed Mark Halverson of APA-the Engineered Wood Association. "With aluminum cans, they’ve got the product damage to eliminate and a distribution loop that can be closed if they desire. It’s a no-brainer for them to go to a better quality pallet."

Barry has managed beer distribution plywood pallet systems since 1975 when he started as a corporate distribution and warehousing manager at Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company. When Schlitz was acquired by Stroh in 1982, Barry and their successful program were transplanted to other operations.

Prior to Schlitz, Barry worked for 14 years in parts distribution management for General Motors after graduating from college with a degree in economics. His last assignment for GM was managing a parts distribution center in Chicago.

Now with 23 years experience in beer distribution, he has had numerous titles and myriad responsibilities along the way. Pallet management represents only about 10 percent of his duties, which is not a particular concern because Stroh’s pallet program is well established and does not require much intervention. His other job duties include project management, warehousing, shipping, packaging, pasteurizing operations, efficiency, and kegging, to name some.

In the current climate of corporate down-sizing, little management time is available for running a pallet program that requires a lot of intervention. A durable, dependable system such as the Stroh plywood deck pallet provides good performance without the need for a lot of "hands on" management from the corporate level – exactly what is needed by Stroh.

The brewer’s plywood system encompasses two footprints, a 32x37 and a 32x40. (For plywood block pallets, the first dimension is that perpendicular to the direction of grain on the top panel). Both call for the use of five-ply APA graded plywood top decks.

Stroh used a reversible nine-block pallet with plywood top and bottom until two years ago when it moved to its "fourth generation" design, a plywood deck pallet with a picture frame base. Allowable species for the base include several hardwood species, Douglas Fir and Southern hardwoods. "The new picture frame design is much easier to repair," said Barry.

Another reason Stroh is migrating from a double-faced design is to keep the pallet deck from becoming soiled from contact with the ground during the distribution process. "We have some product packed in a white case, and (on some soiled pallets) this requires putting a cardboard sheet down to keep it clean," Barry explained. With the single face pallet, this is no longer an issue, resulting in reduced labor at Stroh.

Another factor was material handling at the distributor warehouse. The double-faced pallet required forklift handling while the perimeter base design enables the use of more inexpensive pallet jacks for moving unit-loads of beer.

Earlier changes in Stroh’s pallet program were implemented to facilitate the move from rail to truck transport. Blocks previously were recessed to allow for deflection of the edges, which provided greater protection to cans. "In 1979 we moved blocks out to the pallet corners," said Barry.

While design modifications have been instituted to increase efficiencies, early decisions can continue to play a part in any pallet program, and Stroh is no exception. The 32x37 footprint originally was derived by organizing seven cases of long-necked bottled beer on the floor and measuring the footprint around them.

Pallet posts are laminated from plywood although suppliers are allowed to use "off-fall" material. Round or octagonal posts that help deflect fork impact also are allowed. Post fastening systems have evolved over the years, too. The original specification called for a metal tube fastener, "Surlock" system. A bolt-on fastening system ensued with the idea that nuts could be backed off to separate pallet components for repair. "The idea was to get the bolt to back out, but it never worked effectively," said Barry. "It wasn’t cost effective." Getting nuts off was often difficult because of corrosion or residue build-ups, and attempts to use band saw dismantling machines resulted in a lot of broken blades.

With the move to the picture frame bottom on its 32x37 pallet, Stroh also switched to the use of nails for fastening blocks. Three-inch helically threaded nails are used for fastening blocks and 2 1/4-inch nails are used for fastening the top deck. Deck material is APA stamped 5-ply plywood (19/32-inch). Bottom slats for the picture frame include two 3/4-inch-by-3 3/4 boards 29 inches long and two 32 inches long.

Pallet identification and performance evaluation are aided by pallet markings that indicate ownership, manufacturer name and manufacture date. The word "Stroh" is marked one inch high on opposite corners of the 37-inch side, and manufacturer and manufacturing date codes are marked on another block. Blocks are painted black on both ends of the 32-inch side.

While Barry has been responsible for the pallet specification, pallet orders are placed by plant purchasing agents to approved pallet manufacturers. One manufacturer, Cottondale Wood Products of Tuscaloosa, Ala., has been a longtime producer of plywood deck pallets for Stroh and has more than 30 years of plywood pallet manufacturing experience. "The reversible plywood deck pallet built for Stroh was the most superior pallet made in terms of durability," said Hinton Howell of Cottondale.

Cottondale currently nails panel deck block pallets on a Viking Explorer as well as an FMC nailing machine. "We get about half the production on plywood block pallets that we get on stringer pallets," Hinton said. "But you have to remember that stringer pallet production has been mastered to an art while we don’t have the same experience manufacturing block pallets in the U.S." Many North American pallet companies, he noted, are just learning about block pallet manufacture on automated nailing systems although it already is well established in Europe.

"Plywood is growing in popularity for pallet use in all segments (of the pallet market) because of rising hardwood prices," added Hinton, who suggested that increased competition for hardwood raw material from flooring manufacturers has been a contributing factor in addition to the performance benefits of plywood. "We have felt the increase in inquiries for plywood pallets over time," he added. "It’s growing greatly in popularity."

Stroh currently has seven breweries, including La Crosse, Wis., Allentown, Penn., Winston-Salem, N.C., Tampa, Fla., Longview, Tex., Portland, Ore., and Seattle. While most have been converted to Stroh’s program, the La Crosse facility, a more recent acquisition, still runs 32x39 plywood stringer pallets; it has an inventory of more than 200,000 units, Barry estimated.

Pallet control is effectively maintained by a deposit system, a practice that is well established in the brewing industry. Customer reluctance to pay deposits has been a stumbling block for many other industries attempting to establish reusable pallet programs, but Barry indicated it has never been an issue for the brewer. Reusable containers, controlled by deposit systems, have been an integral part of beer distribution for many years. "There is a totally reusable tradition so it’s not a problem," Barry said.

Deposits for pallets are included on the customer invoice. Credit slips for returned pallets are generated by Stroh receiving personnel. Individual plants perform monthly pallet inventories, and reconciliations are made with distributors. The result: Stroh enjoys a very high pallet return rate.

Stacks of returned pallets are inspected by plant personnel, and damaged ones are separated to be sent out for repair. Stroh contracts at the plant level with local companies to perform pallet repairs. "Pallet repair company selection is subjective," Barry said.

Pallet usage for Stroh begins to surge during the late spring and tapers off in the fall, which is the opportune time for taking damaged pallets out of service for repair.

Stroh also handles several other types of pallets as demanded by regional markets. For example, it ships on Chep pallets at the request of a California grocery chain and on Canadian Pallet Council pallets into British Columbia and Alberta beer distribution systems from its Seattle plant. Brewers Retail beer pallets are shipped into the Ontario market and GMA pallets are required by certain customers.

Some plants do not have palletizers that handle the 48x40 footprint, which can require re-palletization onto 48x40 at the distributor level.

Expendable pallets also are used for most export shipments throughout the world. Europallets also are used for some shipments into Europe.

Stroh pallets turn five times annually. In addition, the company replaces only about 7 to 8 percent of its plywood pallet inventory yearly. Factor in relatively modest repair costs and it all ads up to an extremely competitive cost per trip.

Average pallet life is seven to nine years, he said. Stroh still has some pallets that are 20 years old, although Barry suspects they may have been sitting idle in a warehouse for a number of years before being returned to active duty.

Other major beer companies also use plywood pallets. Miller Brewing uses a single-face, nine-block plywood top deck pallet while Anheuser-Busch — the world’s largest beer producer — is converting to plywood, according to Mark. Anheuser-Bush is shifting from the use of a high quality timber pallet to a plywood deck unit in order to improve product protection, he said. When Anheuser-Busch finishes implementing plywood units, over 70 percent of domestic beer production will be shipped on plywood pallets, according to Mark.

When asked why acceptance of plywood by a similar application, soft drink distribution, had been less successful, Mark pointed out the pallet loss problems faced by producers delivering direct to retail — an issue brought to light recently in Washington state. "It seems to me there may be an opportunity for someone to develop a standard (plywood deck) pallet for the soft drink industry and have someone manage it for them, even on a regional basis," Mark said.

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