Assembly Operations for Lowe's Pallet
By Diane Calabrese
HOLLOW ROCK, Tenn.—Semiautomated pallet assembly operations have worked well for the mix of business at Lowe’s Pallet Co. Jimmy Lowe, the owner of the company, which builds only new pallets, first decided to move toward semi-automation six years ago. He had been in the pallet business for 14 years and had a clear vision of what would speed up production.
"We wanted a machine that wouldn’t require stacking but would still allow nailing," said Jimmy. An advertisement for Bronco Pallet Systems Inc. in Bay City, Texas, caught his attention. He contacted Bronco, liked what he learned about the company’s equipment, and decided to add a Bronco nailing system.
Jimmy did not want to impose the machine on existing employees because he believed they should buy into the change. At the time, workers assembling pallets at Lowe’s were being paid piece rate, 35 cents per pallet. The workers had to stack the pallets manually "and try to keep the stack straight", said Jimmy — no easy task.
Jimmy told the assembly staff that he would invest in a Bronco nailing system that would stack pallets automatically if they agreed to accept 30 cents per pallet. They would be able to build more pallets per hour, he reasoned, in part because the machine would do the stacking. Even though they would be able to assemble more pallets, the Bronco machine would eliminate the heavy lifting associated with manually stacking. The assembly workers liked the trade-off, and they agreed.
The work area of the Bronco nailing system slopes upward at about 25 degrees; the tilted work area is easier on employees than the leaning and reaching associated with the flat surface of a table. The Bronco nailing system has a jig into which the worker places the stringers and then the bottom deckboards. After placing the bottom deckboards, the worker uses a power nailing tool suspended over the work station to fasten the components together. Next, he flips the pallet over, puts the top deckboards in place, and finishes nailing the pallet. He pushes the finished pallet backward into the automatic stacker.
The results have been great. Before the introduction of the Bronco, one employee could make about 250 pallets per day, according to Jimmy. "They started making 325 to 350 day" with the Bronco, he said.
Lowe’s Pallet now has two Bronco machines in service. In addition, Lowe’s recently participated in a field test for a new, improved, automated nailing machine from Bronco. The new Bronco is called the Mustang 4000 Auto Nailer. It combines the stacking capability of the Bronco Pallet Assembly System, four power nailing tools, and a powered nailing gantry. The prototype has already been tested and refined at Lowe’s Pallet, which is adding one of the new machines to its operations.
The Mustang 4000 is adjustable for different pallet and skid sizes, including wing pallets and pallets made of three or four stringers. Finished pallets are stacked automatically when the operator activates a foot-controlled switch. A Rollout Modification and Accumulator Table reduces demand on the forklift operator and causes less interruptions to the operator of the pallet assembly machine.
Bronco is officially introducing the Mustang 4000 Auto Nailer to the marketplace this spring. It exhibited the Mustang 4000 Auto Nailer at the Pallets West trade show in Las Vegas April 6-7.
Morris Self, the son of M.L. Self, the owner of Bronco Pallet Systems, monitored the Mustang 4000 Auto Nailer field trial at Lowe’s Pallet. He took recommendations from Jimmy and the Lowe’s staff regarding modifications to the test model.
Before the prototype of the Mustang was built, Morris talked to many pallet assembly workers and pallet business owners to learn what they wanted to see in an upgrade of Bronco’s system. From this feedback, Morris developed a list of attributes the new Mustang should have. They included many that Bronco already incorporated in its equipment, such as operator safety. "Low maintenance and durability, a small footprint, low utility cost" were also mentioned, said Morris. Pallet manufacturers also wanted a system that would tolerate slight inconsistencies in lumber dimensions and accommodate different levels of experience among machinery operators. They wanted an Aergonomically correct (machine)," Morris explained. They also wanted a machine that could handle larger pallet sizes on its standard configuration and be changed over and set up quickly. Pallet manufacturers were interested in new technologies if they improved efficiency and were "not an inconvenience."
The interest in convenience without complication is one that Morris understands well. It meshes with the approach of Bronco, which is to make "practical and simple" equipment. "A lot of nailers are overbuilt," said Morris.
Bronco wants the Mustang 4000 Auto Nailer to be what its customers need most of the time. Because four power nailing tools can be mounted on it, the operator can work left to right on four-stringer pallets without the need for a return pass, explained Morris. "There is no wasted motion."
Lowe’s Pallet had a lot to recommend it as a test site for the new Bronco Mustang system. For one, Jimmy has a strong understanding of equipment and efficiency. He started out in the sawmill business about 18 years ago. For a time he operated both the mill and his pallet company, which now is 14 years old. Eventually, though, he left the sawmill business to focus on pallets.
Lowe’s Pallet recorded sales of $1.2 million in 1999. "On average, we sell about two truckloads of pallets per day," said Jimmy, who noted that business has been down recently. "When we are running at full throttle, we cut about 45,000 board feet per week."
Lowe’s Pallet also sells some cut stock to other pallet manufacturers, although the amount varies. "It really does vary," said Jimmy. "(We sell) about one to three trailer-loads per week." Some pallet manufacturers have standing orders for pre-cut material while others call with special requests.
Lowe’s Pallet buys hardwood cants in 4x6, 4x8 and 6x8. The company buys "any species," said Jimmy. For the few customers that request pine, Lowe’s buys pine 4x6.
The new pallets churned out by Lowe’s head to manufacturing firms in western Tennessee and some parts of central Tennessee. "All of ours (are) one-way pallets," said Jimmy. "The company ships the goods and they don’t see the pallet again."
Hollow Rock is about 84 miles west of Nashville, the capital of the Volunteer State. The town of 1,000 not only counts Jimmy as one of its business owners, it also elected him mayor one year ago. It was his second try for the office. Jimmy also has served as an alderman.
Carroll County is named for William Carroll (1788-1844), an officer in the War of 1812 who served two non-consecutive terms as governor. Nearby Nashville gets its name from General Francis Nash, a leader in the Revolutionary War.
Jimmy, a native of Henry County, got into the wood products business by a combination of good fortune and necessity. "I was in the building business," he said. "I was a bricklayer in the late 1970s and early 1980s." When the construction business slowed down, Jimmy decided to accept an offer — extended at least three times — from a friend who was in the sawmill business. "(The friend) said, ‘I have all the equipment, come into business with me,’ " explained Jimmy. They worked as partners in the sawmill for a year, and then Jimmy bought out his friend.
That was 18 years ago. Four years later, Jimmy started the pallet business, but the demands of two companies made him realize he would have to choose one, and he decided to stay with pallets. His only regret was that he could not keep both businesses because he enjoyed running the sawmill.
Lowe’s Pallet operates two cut-up lines. Both are equipped entirely with machinery supplied by Morgan Saw Co. Jimmy got his first piece of Morgan equipment by chance, but all the subsequent purchases were by design.
"Morgan Saw Company has been a great supplier to work with," said Jimmy. "They had a band resaw in stock but couldn’t deliver it at the time. My wife and I drove 550 miles to pick it up."
Each cut-up line begins with a Morgan unscrambler that orients cants and sends them to a Morgan chop saw. On one line, the sized cant material is routed to a Morgan four-head horizontal band resaw system. The other resaw line consists of two Morgan horizontal band saws. Each cut-up line has a Morgan de-duster following the resaws. The company also is equipped with a Morgan single-head notcher.
"We don’t have a bit of trouble (with Morgan equipment)," said Jimmy. "(It requires) less adjustment, and there is very little breakdown time." A nearby parts store also makes servicing the equipment easy.
Lowe’s Pallet gives away sawdust and sells scrap wood for firewood. There is an active woodcrafts community in the vicinity of Hollow Rock, and the company also gives away small material for craftsmen who make wind chimes, ornaments, figurines and other items.
Twelve employees keep Lowe’s Pallet operating year around. Usually, eight or nine of them work in the cut-up side of the business. Jimmy contracts out all hauling to his brother. Jimmy’s son, Tim, 23, has been interested in — and helped in — the business since its inception. His two daughters, Pam and Shonda, both helped out with office work before they left home for college and later married.
The smallest pallets Lowe’s makes are 36x36; the largest are 45x109. Some custom pallets are assembled by hand.
As for the Bronco nailing machines and stackers, Jimmy said, "They’re just virtually trouble-free, good machines. They run day in and day out."
The pallet assembly operations and cut-up lines share a 6,000-square-foot building that was constructed in 1999. An older building with about 2,000 square feet is still in service, too, a place for miscellaneous storage and repairs. Lowe’s Pallet does all equipment maintenance itself.
Jimmy enjoys the pallet business. He thinks he might want to buy some timberland one day. Having been in both the sawmill and pallet business, Jimmy has given some thought to the difference between the two. It’s much easier for a sawyer to cut ahead in order to take a break or a vacation, he noted; however, pallets suppliers must be there, ready to build to demand.
When he can spare time off from the business and his mayoral responsibilities, Jimmy likes to golf.
(Editor’s Note: For more information on Bronco Pallet Systems or its products, contact Bronco at 800-458-5462, fax (979) 244-1935, e-mail email@example.com, or Web site at www.broncosys.com.)