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G.J. Weck & Sons, Ltd.:Bin Manufacturing for New Zealand’s Agricultural Products
G.J. Weck in New Zealand: One of the most efficient wooden container and bin manufacturers shows how to serve the international produce markets efficiently. Tour group includes people from the U.S., Canada, Spain, Portugal, and Australia.
By Ed Brindley
Date Posted: 10/1/2007
Patumahoe, New Zealand —
The same pallet group that toured Timpack (see article in July Pallet Enterprise) also had the privilege of visiting G.J. Weck & Sons, Ltd. this March. In addition to being impressed by the differences in the pallet and box plants we visited in New Zealand, I am particularly happy to be writing about a company that is unique among the hundreds I have visited over the years. It is always fun to write about a company that has a different product line and manufacturing process, one our readers will enjoy visiting.
Graeme Weck started his business in Patumahoe with a small rural hardware store. Catering to the local farmer, Graeme stocked a range of kitchen hardware, chicken feed, building materials, blasting powder, and ammunition. In 1976, he had an opportunity to manufacture wooden packaging for export to Japan and manufactured the first 250 bins for that season. He has built his bin manufacturing company into one that now has a capacity of manufacturing 500 agricultural bins a day.
G.J. Weck & Sons expanded in 1980 by leasing a small part of the old Patumahoe Railways station. In 1981, Graeme built the first part of his factory, which has grown to cover 7,000 square meters (over 75,000 sq. ft.) on 4 hectares of company land. The company has become involved in manufacturing wooden packaging to be used in exporting agricultural products from New Zealand to Japan, Britain and Europe. With local growth, G.J. Weck & Sons expanded to products specialized for exporting squash and onion bins. G.J. Weck & Sons matured into one of New Zealand’s most modern wooden packaging manufacturing plants.
In 1990, the company entered the domestic hire case service. The new Weck Pack Hire Company led the way in the introduction of a family of National Standard plastic containers for the distribution of fruit and produce throughout New Zealand. This venture succeeded and became too large for the family company when it grew to 11 depots throughout the country with over one million units for hire. In 1997, Graeme sold the hire division to General Electric and invested in upgrading both its retail and manufacturing facility at Patumahoe.
Over time, Graeme’s sons Peter, Michael and Grant joined in with the company’s management, and Graeme has retired. As I wrote in my Timpack article, I found the people in New Zealand to be extremely friendly. Like many people in the pallet and container industry in North America, the New Zealand pallet people are just exceptionally nice. The Weck family was an excellent host.
In many ways the pallet and container industry in New Zealand resembles the industry in North America and other parts of the world. Labor is a concern. At one time unemployment in New Zealand had been over 11%; now it is about 3%. The container industry draws heavily from the pool of unskilled physical workers. Many workers are brought in from Fiji and the Island countries of the Pacific. The factory runs a 12 hour shift for five and a half days a week. Labor rates run from about $10.50 (NZ) for people straight off the street up to about $20 (NZ) per hour. Weck’s labor force varies from about 25 year-around staff to 55-60 during the busy season. The company depends partly on student help; some students come back later after finishing school to provide more educated people who already have some experience in the pallet and container industry.
The factory suffered a disastrous fire that virtually destroyed its lumber processing ability in 1993 on a Saturday. Graeme said, “We couldn’t get either timber or credit that quickly. Rob Wood of Timpack saw to it that we had lumber the next Monday. So, we didn’t miss a stroke in building products for our customers. Although pallet and container manufacturers in New Zealand do not interact very much and there is no New Zealand professional organization, Rob’s company was there as a friend when the Wecks needed assistance. Before the fire, an active rail spur had served to deliver much of the dimension lumber to the factory. Since rail traffic had been steadily decreasing, neither party was interested in rebuilding the siding, so G.J. Weck went exclusively to truck deliveries. Wecks doesn’t mill logs but buys random length dimension 2x4 and 2x6 lower grade timbers. It remanufactures and upgrades the lower grades into pieces of the quality and size that it needs. It buys sizes of plywood and timber to suite its size needs.
Many changes have taken place in the timber markets over the past 15 years. Wecks is now buying larger sizes for all 12 months of the year. The yard contained about 3,000 cu. meters at the time of our visit. In six months it uses about 11,000 cu. meters. It purchases about 17,000-18,000 cu. meters of plywood a year. Wecks has become involved in smaller crates as well as the larger ones. One crate is probably equivalent to about three pallets when it comes to timber requirements.
Today the factory is one of the most modern in the country, providing a safe employee friendly environment and producing the highest quality products and services for its customers. Any visitor to the Wecks factory would agree that their facility is a first class operation.
As its products became more specialized, the Weck management team worked on reducing waste and developing recyclable packaging. G.J. Wecks & Sons prides itself on using 100% renewable wood resources in its operation. The Wecks are approved manufacturers of products registered to meet the UK health and safety regulations and now make a wide range for the UK, European, and Pacific Island markets. Graeme says, “Continuing research and investment in advanced technology helps to give Wecks the leading edge in quality products.” Emphasis has shifted away from throw away packaging to reusable packaging for the UK and Europe. Now that packaging can be reused and resold, there are over 300,000 bins circulating in the agricultural pool.
G.J. Weck and Sons Hardware still exists today as the retail outlet for the company. The company has become heavily involved in the building business, including a move into contract housing projects. There is a big need for building supplies for the growing housing market. The Wecks are still involved as a leading supplier of posts and rails for the farming industry. Grant Weck, the store manager, holds to the adage, “If we don’t have it, we’ll get it.” Weck’s products include farm fencing, loan trailers, rural barns, timber, and hardware.
G.J. Weck’s Wood Products Division manufactures a wide range of quality designed wooden packaging products. In addition to wooden bins, it manufactures wooden pallets and stocks a range of plastic bins. Weck’s stable of standard pallets includes a wide range of 1000x1200 mm stringer and block pallets and a 1060x895 skid. A company fleet of four tractors pulls trailers to offer an efficient, reliable delivery service. The trailers are designed to stack assembled bins three high without exceeding legal height limits. Because bin containers are agriculturally related, the demand is not uniform throughout the year. The major bin season corresponds to the produce season from October through March or April.
A wide variety of wooden boxes and crates provides wooden packaging alternatives that match virtually any shipping needs for New Zealand’s agricultural and manufacturing industries. The company’s website has basic dimensions and capacities of seven different wooden bins. Most bins are available in a variety of forms, including shook (precut parts), partially assembled, or fully assembled. Most are available in untreated or H3 treated lumber. Many bins have two-way forklift entry. G.J. Weck & Sons offers branded logoes as requested by the customer. Popular bins and crates include: the wooden wine bin, slotted field bin, solid field bin, ostrich crates for live chicks, potato export bins, onion export bins, and British standard BSI potato bin, licensed to the British Standard BS7611.
In New Zealand, lumber is called timber. The company uses radiata plantation pine from the local North Island. In 1985 Wecks started processing its own timber because it could not get large enough dependable shipments from its shook suppliers.
Wecks has two major manufacturing buildings, one for remanufacturing timber and plywood and one for product assembly. A Graecon 2004 optimizer saw is a computerized optimizer that upgrades 2x4 and 2x6 RL radiata pine. From the Graecon, cut-to-length lumber goes to the planer that planes and rounds the edges. Rounded edges are needed to protect the sensitive agricultural products that go in the bins. A Stenner band resaw is used to resaw 2-inch material into two pieces. The 1x6 and 1x4 material is graded and stacked before going to the lumber yard and eventually to the assembly building. The Wecks indicate that their Stenners have worked well for them. The company turns a great deal of attention towards maintenance for manufacturing efficiency.
Squares with rounded corners are cut into two triangular pieces on a Stenner band resaw; these are used as corner pieces in the bins and boxes. Plywood is cut into strips on a panel saw. In addition to manufacturing shook for its pallets and bins, Wecks manufactures tongue and groove lumber for the Australian housing market. An Aspen panel cutting saw cuts beveled edges on plywood. Wecks focuses on select resawing of lumber and panel products into the sizes and grades needed, with an emphasis on minimizing waste. The trick is to maximize the return from low grade timber.
The company sells much scrap for firewood. Its sawdust finds a useful home as litter for chicken houses. They burn some small scrap pieces.
The Wecks assembly building is the most unique part of the factory. Much of the assembly is done with collated tools, but over five years ago Wecks modified a JR Unipal Nailer nailing machine to manufacture some of the bin sides and bases. It uses Ajax bulk nails from China to manufacture heavy mats on the JR Unipal.
The most unique part of the production is a slowly moving conveyor on which from 400 to 500 bins a day are assembled using Ajax nailing tools. The four bin sides are assembled to the bottoms that were made on the JR Unipal. This is a hand labor process that uses collated Chinese nails, but the moving conveyor allows the assembly workers to keep the process moving. Their moving belt assembly line is one of the most unique manufacturing lines I have ever seen in a pallet or box manufacturing factory. The hand assembly and hand placing of panels and turning of partially assembled bins makes the assembly line very flexible, but the moving belt ads an element of speed and efficiency to the manufacturing process that is not found in many more static bin manufacturing practices.
In addition to assembling bins on the main assembly belt and building bases on the JR Unipal, G.J. Weck & Sons has fourteen nailing positions on seven A-frame nailing jigs, with nailing stations on both sides of each A-frame.
Like many wooden pallet and bin manufacturing factories, G.J. Weck & Sons is designed for both flexibility and efficiency. They designed and built quite a few machines themselves. Because of its isolation from many industry machinery manufacturers, G.J. Weck has experienced the necessity of standing on its own two feet. It needs machinery and systems that can be changed over fairly quickly and maintained by its own staff.
After visiting G.J. Weck, we had the pleasure of visiting A.S. Wilcox & Sons Ltd., a major New Zealand vegetable packing plant that purchases export bins from G.J. Weck. I have never seen so many onions in my life; while we were there we saw onions, potatoes, and carrots. The vegetables were absolutely beautiful and deserving of the quality bins supplied by Wecks.
New Zealand’s beauty is staggering, and the country has some of the nicest people you would ever want to meet. We visited some of the nicest and cleanest pallet and bin manufacturing plants, including G.J. Weck. Any reader who gets an opportunity to make a trip like this would be well advised to take advantage of it.