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AMS Boosts Southeast Pallets’ Production & Safety With ‘Nailing On The Fly’ System
Southeast Pallet: Kentucky-based pallet recycler is reaping benefits from an automated pallet repair system supplied by Automated Machine Systems; workers make pallet repairs ‘on the fly.’
By Diane M. Calabrese
Date Posted: 8/1/2008
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Introduced to the pallet repair business while he was still in high school, Kevin Krebs is now the sales and operations manager at Southeast Pallet Recycling in Louisville, Ken. As a young, part-timer, Kevin had the chance to more or less set the pace in the plant. He operated forklifts that kept materials and product moving. “I saw myself as the choreographer,” he said.
Now, Southeast Pallet Recycling, where Kevin has worked full-time for 18 years, sees the tempo set by a Nailing on the Fly System from Automated Machine Systems (AMS), of Jenison, Mich. In service since early 2002, the AMS equipment couples speed in repair with ergonomic design.
AMS Nailing on the Fly Systems can process between 900 to 4,000 pallets per shift depending on the configuration.
Results from the AMS repair line can be measured in many ways, but they fall under the umbrella of big increases in efficiency. Not only do pallets get repaired in a streamlined manner, but in repairing the pallets workers experience conditions that tax their bodies less, an outcome that helps keep employees fit as well as committed.
Kevin said, “Our production has gone up at least 1,000-2,000 pallets per week since adding the AMS line. The biggest advantage it offers is greater consistency. And we are doing it all with fewer people too.”
The assembly line approach used by Nailing on the Fly technology makes everything run smoother. According to Kevin, the learning curve for new workers is nearly zero compared to 1-2 weeks under the old system. This allows Southeast Pallet to efficiently add production capacity or respond to personnel changes. In a time when absentee workers can become a real bottleneck issue, automation makes it much easier to cope.
Kevin said, “The AMS system is variable speed. We have it running at what I like to think is the sweet spot to maximize quality and our production needs.” From destacker to stacked finished product, a pallet may be on the system for only 45-50 seconds.
If more cores were available, Southeast would take them. “We consume everything we can get our hands on,” said Kevin. “About 10,000 pallets per week leave our facility. Sixty percent of our business is 48 by 40.”
Pallets are made with mostly hardwood and a small percentage of softwoods. All repairs are made with mostly reclaimed hardwood components. Combo pallets are made with a mixture of both hardwood and softwood. Kevin humorously refers to this mix as “tree wood” since only price not species matters for combo pallet customers.
Drop and hook is the primary method of acquiring pallets for repair and dispensing those leaving the line. Seventy trailers coupled with the power of one Sterling tractor and three Volvo tractors support the system. Southeast is always looking for repairable pallets, which the company will take in any quantity from 10 to 10,000.
Switching to automation was a necessary and a deliberate process at Southeast Pallet. Although manual repair had served the company well for 20 years, automation offered advantages that the company needed to keep up with the competition.
Quality control improved by installing the AMS line. Under the old system, each worker was responsible for monitoring their own work. Kevin said, “The AMS line solved one of my biggest concerns by moving the final inspection process to the end of the line.
Kevin likes the steady, continuous movement of pallets along the AMS repair line. Workers do not have to pick up pallets for any reason, so they experience a less strenuous work day.
Kevin said, “The cost of our workman’s compensation coverage has been reduced by using automation. We have far fewer reports of work-related injuries by eliminating manual stacking and handling of pallets.”
To install the AMS line, Southeast Pallet Recycling needed to add more space and had to overcome engineering challenges. The original building at Southeast was a 10,000 sq. ft. structure. Because the core building was once a truck terminal, it was elevated to allow docking. “We added 15,000 square feet at ground level,” said Kevin. And therein was the challenge posed for AMS, one that it was happy to meet by tailoring a lift in the line to the requirements of Southeast.
“It’s a custom installation,” said Kevin. To seamlessly link the repair line across the space in the core building and the addition, ingenuity was required. The line had to traverse a six-ft. drop that marks the juncture between the original building and the add-on.
AMS designed a custom scissor-lift conveying system that allows continuous movement from one height down to the other. That made it possible for Southeast Pallet Recycling to avail itself of AMS technology with a contiguous 25,000 sq. ft. main manufacturing building. On its five-acre site, Southeast Pallet Recycling also has two outbuildings.
The other components at work on the repair line are an AMS/T-Tek Destacker, an AMS Deckmaster prepping station, an AMS Flipper and three AMS/T-Tek Stacking Systems. Repaired pallets are graded at the end of the line and go to one of the three stackers, said Kevin.
From the time a pallet enters the AMS Nailing on the Fly system until the time it enters a stacker, employees do not have to lift it or move it by hand. The Deckmaster removes damaged boards and also tamps down nails. One person can operate the Deckmaster prepping station and make decisions about the boards that ought to be removed.
When the AMS Deckmaster prepping system releases the pallet, it is ready to be repaired. “Once it’s on the line, it’s ready for new components,” said Kevin.
“When a pallet is destacked, it’s inspected or prepped,” said Kevin. If it’s un-repairable, it is rejected at that point and carried by forklift to a separate building for dismantling.
In the dismantling area, two one-man and one two-man Smart Products bandsaws are in service plus a Trace Equipment Trio. An AMS/MSI Trim-Trac saw and a Pallet Repair Systems (PRS) trim saw are used to trim reclaimed boards to size; unsalvageable boards and some whole pallets head to the waste grinder.
Employees that nail boards only need to select the appropriate board and nail. After the top is repaired, the AMS 5 Star Flipper flips the pallet so the bottom can be repaired. The stackers are automated with rakes that eliminate lifting, thus contributing to the ergonomic benefits along the entire AMS line.
A key to the continuous movement along the AMS line is the measured speed. Conveyors move fast enough to be efficient, but not so fast that employees are overreaching or working in haste. There are “six or seven people on the repair line any given day,” said Kevin.
Kris Chayer, the entrepreneur who launched AMS in 1997, said that one of his customers told him that Occupational Safety and Health Administration representatives have commented on the ergonomically friendly nature of the line.
When Kris started AMS, he brought a deep knowledge of machine design and manufacturing in the pallet industry as well as tool and die experience in the automotive industry. His interest in automation is something he has described as a “passion.”
The keenness on being a leader in the industry is something Kris has in common with the two owners of Southeast Pallet Recycling, brothers Leonard Krebs and Kenneth Krebs. Leonard is Kevin’s father.
“My uncle started the business and after a few months, he tapped dad,” said Kevin. Kenneth had been a much-traveled sales representative and was looking for a business that would anchor him near home. The focus of the business became pallet recycling thanks to convergence of some disparate events that ignited Kenneth’s imagination.
“Walter Cronkite was talking to an economist on a radio show and Kenny heard him say something about new pallet orders being an effective economic indicator of future growth or slowdowns,” said Kevin. “Kenny thought about the high timber prices and the lack of recycling of existing used pallets,”
In addition, Kenneth had a cousin-in-law working in the grocery industry who had given him insight into the heavy use of GMAs. “My dad was in home remodeling and building and was used to swinging hammers,” said Kevin. So in 1981 all the pieces came together when Kenneth and Leonard became the owners of Southeast Pallet Recycling.
Southeast Pallet Recycling does a very minimal business in new plastic pallets and recycled plastic pallets. And the focus of the business has remained the same for 27 years. “The 48 by 40 footprint has been the backbone,” said Kevin.
The philosophy of Southeast has consistently been that everything that comes in as wood fiber should leave as wood fiber. No incoming wood goes to landfills. Instead, it all heads out as part of a repaired pallet, a combo pallet, mulch, biofuel or raw material for pellet-fuel makers.
“Prior to the AMS line, we did everything manually,” said Kevin. Pallets would be hand sorted in the yard and three or four forklifts were used to move them to repair tables.
Forklifts are still essential players. The machines are used to move bins of boards from the dismantling shop to positions along the repair line. They also remove waste. “We use a lot of metal baskets to collect waste,” said Kevin.
The waste heads to a Rotochopper MC266, which effectively processes the fiber and colors it in one pass. “We can take care of our grinding needs in two to three hours per week,” said Kevin. The Rotochopper has been in service since 2004. The Rotochopper is road legal when attached to a tractor. It is sometimes taken on the road to do a job at another site. In the future, Southeast may consider expanding in its remote wood grinding service.
Mulch is colored in the Rotochopper MC266 with colorants from Colorbiotics (a division of Becker Underwood) and sold bulk to nursery wholesalers. Twenty employees work at Southeast. They are deployed on one shift, sometimes stretching to 10 hours.
Southeast Pallet Recycling relies on Industrial Carbide of Louisville, Ky. for new blades and sharpening. The local company works out well. If customers request heat treating, Southeast contracts for it.
Within the city limits of Louisville, Southeast Pallet Recycling is just five miles west of the international airport in the Ohio River city of one million. Louisville is part of Jefferson County.
Most customers of Southeast Pallet Recycling are within a 75-mile radius of its facility. They use the pallets they buy for shipping manufactured products of all sorts. Although the 48x40 is the mainstay of the operation, only a few of the current customers use the pallets for food products.
Since the overarching goal at Southeast is to reuse wood, new wood is rarely purchased. “I buy very infrequently,” said Kevin. “I’m buying used, reclaimed material from other pallet [companies]. Occasionally, we’ll buy cut stock #2, rarely #1 stock for some stringers. We do combo work for two or three clients that we service – about 1,000 per week.”
A PRS GAP automated machine is used to build combo pallets. It has been in service for 10 years and it was purchased at a Richmond Expo.
Over the years, Southeast has built pallets as small as 2’x2’ and as large as 5’x10’, said Kevin. “The occasional crate” is also in the mix, he explained.
While Kevin handles sales and operations in the pallet segment of business, Kenneth operates the grinding operation and Leonard fills in as needed. Kevin joined Southeast full-time in 1990 when he was 21. Prior to that he attended college and studied computer graphic design.
“We’ve equipped ourselves to be as competitive as [we] can be,” says Kevin. “We’ve equipped ourselves for the long term.” Southeast Pallet Recycling is a member of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association.
A native of Louisville, Kevin is happy with the career choice he made, deciding on pallets over computer graphics. “I prefer this industry,” he said. “I like working with the people that I come into contact with on a day-to-day basis.”
Looking back at the company’s decision to automate, Kevin believes that he made the right decision. He said, “As far as I am concerned, I would not be in the recycling business without automation. The AMS equipment makes my life as the owner and manager a lot easier. I like knowing the consistency of the output as long as I have the inbound supply to feed the line.”