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Markets In Transition: GMA Footprint Optimized Both Rail and Truck Freight
During World War II, the Navy specification had called for a 48x48 two-way entry pallet, but it was not the optimal pallet size to serve both truck and rail truck shipments. Reducing the width to 40 inches allowed two pallets to be positioned side-by-side in a truck trailer while two could still be positioned end-to-end in a rail car.
By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 5/1/2007
Wooden shop skids date back to the late 1800s and wooden pallets to the early decades of the 20th Century. However, the intense logistics efforts of the U.S. military in World War II were pivotal to achieve critical mass for the emergence of a viable pallet industry.
The end of the war was by no means the end of the story, though. Important advances continued to shape the emerging world of pallets through the latter part of the decade.
The late 1940s were a time of unbridled optimism for the pallet industry. Trade magazine case studies of that period heralded the impact of pallets in drastically reducing manual material handling and improving warehousing and distribution operations. New facilities were designed specifically to accommodate palletized handling.
At the same time, the 40x48 pallet footprint was emerging as the size of choice, and corrugated pallets already were being introduced, yet punitive freight rates and union resistance still stood in the way of broader acceptance of palletized shipping.
In 1949, members of the National Wood Pallet Manufacturers Association, which had been formed in 1946, were invited to visit a Navy facility in Bayonne, New Jersey. The Navy had prepared a special pallet exhibit that was running in conjunction with a Navy supplier logistics conference. The purpose of the pallet exhibit was to show off the new 40x48 standard Navy pallet.
During the War, the Navy specification had called for a 48x48 two-way entry pallet, but it was not the optimal pallet size to serve both truck and rail truck shipments. Reducing the width to 40 inches allowed two pallets to be positioned side-by-side in a truck trailer while two could still be positioned end-to-end in a rail car. Four-way entry design facilitated pallet handling since a forklift or pallet jack could be inserted from all sides. The 40x48 footprint also matched the size endorsed by the U.S. Department of Commerce for the food industry.
Pallets made of hardwood, softwood, plywood, steel wire, sheet steel, aluminum, and wood and metal combinations were tested under Navy testing procedures for pallets. By 1949 the Navy had decided on a 40x48 hardwood wing pallet as its standard.
Alternative materials also strove to find market share in the pallet industry in those early years. In a 1948 issue of Modern Materials Handling, the magazine reported on expendable pallets. Wooden pallets were meeting resistance in the marketplace for cross-country shippers because of the high initial purchase price, maintenance requirements and relocation costs. At the time, railroads charged the same freight rate for returning empty pallets as for shipping goods, eroding the cost savings of palletized handling. Expendable pallets, however, did not require return. The ‘Chuckaway’ was a 6-pound expendable pallet with a flat, corrugated paperboard deck and nine spiral-wound paperboard tubes. The report detailed how the Chuckaway had been successfully used to ship fragile glass bottles of lotion from New Jersey to San Francisco by steamship, which involved several unit load handlings by forklift truck and pallet jack.
While the Department of Commerce had recommended the 40x48 pallet for the food industry, there was still plenty of debate. There was a growing consensus that transit packaging should be designed to fit on a standard pallet size, but there was not consensus as to what the standard size should be. Some grocery industry executives argued that palletization did not make sense for slower selling grocery products; another argued that a 40x32 footprint should be the standard because it improved storage efficiency and reduced travel time for order selectors between each product. In fact, the 40x32 pallet endured as a secondary size for the grocery industry for more than 40 years.
The latter 1940s, the 40x48 footprint received increasing support as the size that best optimized both truck and rail shipments. It was a time that also marked the beginning of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association and the commercial availability of paperboard pallets. The issues of freight rates and union resistance to palletized handling would have to wait until ensuing years to be resolved, ultimately further propelling palletized handling into the mainstream of American industry.