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New Smart Products GMA Pallet Prep Bandsaw Machine Makes Debut
L&R Pallet, a leader in the GMA recycling industry, uses new Smart Products “GMA Pallet Prep” bandsaw machine to upgrade #2s into more profitable #1 pallets.
By Ed Brindley
Date Posted: 2/1/2010
Denver, Colorado—L&R Pallet, the biggest pallet manufacturing and recycling company in Denver, is also an industry leading pallet company from Texas and Kansas City and out to the West Coast. It has been our privilege to feature L&R in the past. In 1998 it was the first U.S. white wood pallet recycling company to install a VF Automation sortation and repair line. Then in 2006 L&R expanded into pallet manufacturing, using Rayco Pallet Pro pallet nailing machines.
Now L&R is the first recycling company to test and install Smart Products new GMA Pallet Prep (commonly referred to as the “Smart Saw), it’s new bandsaw prepping machine for GMA pallets. Many recyclers find themselves having a hard time getting enough “#1” or “A” GMA pallets, but have a plentiful supply of “#2” or “B” GMA pallets. Upgrading a #2 GMA pallet to a #1 by removing broken or plugged stringers and replacing them with solid unbroken stringers can be a difficult task, particularly when the broken stringer is in the center.
L&R, the major GMA stringer pallet recycler in the Rocky Mountain and plain states part of the country, was an ideal candidate to try out Smart Products new Smart Saw. Ken Hess, owner of Smart Products, shared his idea of the Smart Saw for stringer pallet prep with James Ruder, owner of L&R Pallet, earlier last year. James input his ideas into the design process, and Ken installed the prototype machine before the summer. After about a six month development period, L&R had the prototype Smart Saw running to everybody’s satisfaction. James ordered two more; the company now has three Smart Saws anchoring repair lines at L&R Pallet.
James has been so happy with his Smart Saws that he expects to order three more of these machines and convert the rest of his pallet repairing lines. James has recommended the Smart Saw to many of his friends in the industry, a number of whom have already purchased their own machines in just the last few months. There is no doubt in my mind that James is sold on the Smart Saw – GMA Pallet Prep. Because it has performed so well at L&R, it will probably draw strong interest at the February NWPCA meeting and the May Richmond Show.
Before James installed his first Smart Saw, it took two operators, in many cases, to run a bandsaw machine to either dismantle or prep a pallet. Now preparing or prepping a pallet is a single operator function with the new Smart Saw. Air cylinders are used to raise and lower a roller table instead of using a flat stationary repair table. A single Smart Saw allows an operator to process up to 1000 “unsorted” pallets a shift, sometimes more, prepping them to feed three repair tables. L&R is an ideal company for this prep machine because it focuses almost exclusively on GMAs and had a healthy supply of #2s that could be converted into #1s.
You may find yourself asking the same question I had of both James Ruder and Ken Hess. What is the difference between a typical bandsaw dismantler and a Smart Saw? When you watch a Smart Saw run, this answer is pretty obvious. With a typical bandsaw dismantler, an operator has to exert quite a bit of muscle power handling pallets. The Smart Saw is specially designed with a “three position, air actuated roller table that makes the steps of prepping a pallet both easier and faster. By prepping pallets first, L&R has found that a single prepping station can keep three repair tables busy. L&R has also determined that, if presorted pallets all requiring “stringer outs” as well as top or bottom deck boards, are presented to the Smart Saw, daily production is about 400 to 425 pallets per shift.
One air cylinder lever raises and lowers the roller table so that the bandsaw blade can cut nails on two preset levels, both above and below a stringer. The operator places a pallet top side down on the rollers, which are designed to make pallet movements smoother, faster, and less stressful on the operator. The operator can move the table up and down quickly to allow the blade to cut where desired. A second hydraulic cylinder engages a discharge table behind the roller table; this extra table “extension” provides added support when needed under a pallet that is at least half way into the machine.
With a minimum amount of practice, an operator can use the Smart Saw features quickly and efficiently to upgrade #2s into #1s. Carlos, a Smart Saw operator at L&R, processes over 1000 pallets per shift and feeds three repair tables where operators supply repair boards and stringers and nail joints that need reinforcing. L&R is upgrading to a #1 between 150 and 200 pallets per shift per line. Since a #1 is worth about $2 more than a #2, the Smart Saw can pay back its investment quickly in a GMA repair line. James indicates that they have not pushed the upgrading concept as hard as they could. They have mostly removed and replaced bad stringers in pallets where only one stringer needs to be replaced. However, it is possible to remove an outside stringer along with a center stringer and significantly upgrade a heavily plugged pallet.
Smart Products added another air valve after the prototype was developed and tested. This additional air valve and cylinder allows an operator to bring the table up to a third, higher level. The operator can actuate the valve, raise the table, and pass a pallet over the top of the blade. He can then de-activate the valve to drop the table so the blade can slip between two interior boards. Thus, an operator can remove an interior top deck board without having to lift and manhandle the pallet. While it is possible to remove interior top decking without this valve, the additional valve, now standard on the Smart Saw, reduces the hand lifting required.
The Smart Saw incorporated many of the same safety features that Smart Products incorporated in its pallet prep machine used in the repair of “block style” pallets (the “Block Pallet Prep” machine). Perimeter guards help keep unwanted objects and people away from the machine. A remote push-pull stop button located by the operator allows the operator to stop the machine quickly, if needed. Cabinet doors provide access to the wheels for easy blade changes and maintenance. Limit switches inside the cabinet doors require them to be closed before the machine is allowed to start. A hydraulic pressure safety switch requires a minimum amount of pressure on the blade for it to start or continue running.
Smart Products sells a block version of this pallet prep machine as well. This “pallet prep” concept is definitely a different wrinkle on how to use bandsaw technology effectively in pallet recycling operations. James stated, “One of the biggest mistakes a recycler might make is trying to put his best bandsaw dismantler operator on a Smart Saw prep machine. I tried it and it didn’t work for me. This prepping machine is a completely different mentality. The operator has to make decisions concerning pallet grade opportunities, while a dismantler operator just tries to tear down pallets and accumulate material. It is more difficult to cross-train an operator for the prep machine with a band saw dismantler. We are trying to make a pallet better, not take it apart. A Smart Saw operator has to be just that – pretty smart. He has to understand how to pick and choose those that are worth converting. We do not try to convert 100%.”
When asked about his biggest challenges, James did not hesitate. He said, “Our biggest problem is still getting good employees. Piece rate doesn’t work as well as it once did. Work ethic is critical. We have to continue focusing on making a job easier. It is easier to set quotas with piece rates, but so many people do not have the drive any more. Sometime today’s operators do not seem to adjust as well as in the past to the piece rate concept. We are now looking at a machine to provide both output and quality. We get a steady stream of applicants. It is just that not many are hirable.”
L&R offers a Wednesday morning prayer time for all who want to participate. James indicates that they typically have nine to ten people there. He has a scheduled visit from an industrial chaplain to explore the potential of offering a spiritual advisory service. James explained it this way. “People are hungry today for help. They may be shy about sharing face to face with other employees, but they have things that weight heavily on them.”
What kind of responsibility does a business owner have when it comes to his employees? James stated it this way, “People care more about what kind of a man I am than what I did. I enjoy being in the pallet industry but strive to make my life count for more than just that.”
Another challenge today is the economy and competition. James admitted that sometimes they have to drop prices to keep old customers; he does not do it to get new ones. It is so competitive now that the pallet recycling business is just not profitable like it once was. He further said, “sometimes it appears to me that certain competitors are willing to lower prices to levels that don’t appear to support profitable, sustainable operations.”
James said, “The business world today is frustrating. I don’t have any more rocks to turn over.” This feeling by pallet company owners is normal today.
One of the challenges many pallet companies face is how to become more involved in helping customers manage their pallets and material handling systems. James was proactive in this regard when he took the bull by the horns and helped develop PalNet earlier in the decade. PalNet is a company that is owned by eight different pallet companies dispersed across the country. In a nutshell, PalNet works to serve large national accounts. Some companies would prefer to work with a single supplier nationally but found the pallet industry to be lacking in that regard. PalNet has stepped into that gap, which is shared with IFCO. James and other PalNet owners were frustrated when they lost customers to companies like IFCO. PalNet became profitable the second year out of the chute, and the company hung on during the challenging 2009 economic times. James said, “We are excited about 2010 and the potential it holds.” PalNet fills its ownership network of pallet recyclers with other reputable pallet companies when needed to provide services to the PalNet customer network. For more information about PalNet, readers may call 877-Pal-Net-1 (877/725-6381) or visit www.palnetusa.com.
L&R Manufacturing Details
L&R still uses the VF Automation sortation system it installed in 1998. James said, “Buying that first VF Automation system was one of the best decisions I ever made. We are basically crossdocking our incoming pallets through the system in the same manner we did ten years ago. We have added another building since then.”
James installed his first Smart Saw at the beginning of his VF line. In September 2009, James bought two more Smart Saws for stand alone repair lines. He designed the new lines to fit the Smart Saw. One has two men repairing pallets and one has three repair work cells.
In 2006, L&R became more active in pallet manufacturing. The company now has four nailing machines, two Raycos, a Viking Champion and a Viking Turbo. James builds combo pallets on his Raycos. He said, “The Rayco machine is less particular with recycled material.”
L&R builds high volume accounts on its Turbo and most small volumes and odd sizes on hand tables. Crane Point, a relatively new nail company, supplies L&R with its nail and pneumatic tool needs. Crane supplies them with Apache nailing tools and both collated and bulk nails. James indicated that Crane has really provided them with good service.
While many people think of Colorado as a beautiful state with forested mountains, very little logging is done in the region. L&R ships in most of its lumber for new pallets from a radius that reaches out as much as 1000 miles; most comes in by rail. About half is hardwoods (mostly cut stock) and the other half random length softwoods. Most softwood is KD.
It remanufactures its random length on its Pendu cutup line. The Pendu CLB resaw-reclaimer is a versatile machine that gives L&R a great deal of flexibility. It can self-center and split boards or cants from 3/8"up to 8x8 using one to three blades. It can reclaim one to three boards per pass from heavily edged slabs.
In addition to his KD lumber, James has a propane-fueled Converta-Kiln for heat treating pallets. He heat treats both new hardwood pallets and recycled pallets to meet customers’ demands.
In the early 2000s, James felt that he had taken his recycling efforts about as far as he could. At the time new pallets in the Denver region were divided between a number of existing pallet companies. He looked at remanning and combo pallets and then at new pallet manufacturing. Most of L&R’s success he attributes to better products and good service. The L&R philosophy has been to give better products and service for comparable and competitive prices. Within two to three years, L&R had many of the pallet customers in the state.
Production today is down because of the economy. L&R has handled this by reducing the size of its night crews and proactively moving personnel around with adjusted shift schedules, but the company continues to keep its machinery lines busy on the day shift.
L&R drops trailers within about 150 miles to retrieve pallet cores. The company uses mostly drop and hook trailers. Denver and regional deliveries are within about 150 miles. Outside carriers handle longer hauls; it is common to ship up to 400-500 miles. James stated, “Denver is like an island; there is no other major metropolis within 500 miles.”
L&R’s VF Automation line includes three pallet tippers, three shear style prep bandsaws, and 12 repair tables. James added his first Smart Saw as a prepping machine in this line. His three tippers function like they always did. He is considering the potential of replacing his tippers in 2010.
James really likes his Smart Saw prepping machines. He said, “They do not stress the pallet. A bandsaw doesn’t cause additional damage. In the long run we get a better pallet. They allow us to sort, grade, and upgrade all at the same time. There is no presorting before the bandsaws. We can remove deck boards and stringers as needed. We keep track of the ready-to-gos (RTGs).” They do all repairs at the repair tables, not at the sort station.