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Nevada Pallet Maker Expands Quickly To Other Services
Nevada pallet maker expands quickly to other services; start-up relies on Viking's Turbo 505 nailer and Minick Enterprises recycling equipment.
By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 11/13/2001
SPARKS, Nev.—What’s in a name? In the case of PLTS Inc., there’s a bit of personal history.
"I was in warehousing for 18 years," said Howard J. Foster, who co-owns PLTS with his wife, Heather, and PLTS was commonly used as an abbreviation for pallets. When they started a pallet business in August 2000, Howard and Heather thought PLTS was perfect for the name of their company.
"We’re primarily a new pallet manufacturing company," said Howard. "Along with that we provide a lot of value-added services to customers." PLTS provides various services for customers with excess or unusable pallets, such as pallet recovery, grinding, and helping customers develop "cost avoidance" strategies for dealing with excess or damaged pallets.
"If we can keep anything out of a landfill," said Howard, that is a good start because then PLTS already has eliminated tipping fees and transportation costs. Recycling pallets and used pallet lumber is another option since used material costs less than new, he noted.
Howard spends time with customers to learn about their operations. The more he knows about how their pallets are used, the better informed he is to make a recommendation about the most economical pallets for the customer’s application. Something as simple as switching to a smaller deck board can help a customer reduce costs.
Economics also figures into the way Howard chooses equipment. Since starting PLTS, he has strived for efficiency and safety in the company’s operations — two aspects of the pallet business that are extremely important to him.
When it came to investing in an automated pallet assembly system, Howard looked at a number of different suppliers. "I did a lot of research," said Howard, then he settled on Viking Engineering and Development. "Viking is number one in my book," he said. "They really have outstanding service and sales."
PLTS had a Viking Champion nailing machine when it opened for business. Howard called it "a great machine for somebody really wanting to start out." The machine can assemble pallets made of used deck boards, Howard noted, allowing for automated production of pallets made of recycled material and combination pallets. PLTS used the Viking Champion to assemble 400 to 600 pallets per day, according to Howard.
The business grew quickly the first six months, according to Howard, mainly just on word-of-mouth sales and its reputation. In fact, it grew so fast that he was faced with deciding whether to operate the Champion two or even three shifts, a move that would require hiring an additional supervisor for each shift.
Instead, Howard decided to sell the Champion and to replace it with a Viking Turbo 505, which has increased production without the need to add shifts or personnel. "We purchased the 505," he said, "and I did not have to increase labor at all. I work the machine every day." For some pallets, the Viking Turbo 505 has a cycle time of only six seconds, according to Howard.
Unlike the Champion, however, only new lumber may be used on the Turbo 505. Since PLTS makes a significant volume of combination pallets — pallets made with a combination of new and used lumber — Howard came up with a creative way to make use of the automated nailing capability of the Turbo 505 to partially assemble combos. For combination pallets, the Turbo 505 is used to nail together new stringers and new bottom deck boards. "I do as much as I can with machine assembly," said Howard. "The Turbo 505 will build the bottom deck of a pallet in three or four seconds." Then workers fasten the top deck boards — made of recycled lumber — by hand with Porter Cable power nailing tools.
The Porter Cable nailing tools may be slightly heavier than some other brands, Howard noted, but they use ‘stick’ nails, which he considers an advantage. The fasteners are less expensive than collated nails and hold well, he said.
Combination pallets have been very important to the success of PLTS. Most applications are for 48x40 pallets that are expendable, and customers save a considerable sum of money by not buying more pallets than they need.
With seven employees, PLTS produces about 1,200 pallets each day — about half new and the other half recycled or combos. Sizes range from 36 inches to 59 inches long; the most common are 48x40, 40x48 and 48x48. PLTS also does some business in plastic pallets, brokering for several plastic pallet manufacturers when a customer requires that type of pallet.
Turn-around is fast at PLTS; virtually all pallets are shipped the same day. There is little need for storage in the 14,000 square feet of available yard space, so it is "pretty much a staging area," said Howard. The company has a 10,000-square-foot building for all pallet dismantling and assembly operations, its offices, a lunch room and meeting room.
For pallet dismantling and recycling, Howard relies on several pieces of equipment from Minick Enterprises Inc. The Minick line includes a Lead Board Remover, a Pallet Dismantler, an Ultra Nail Cutter, a Stringer Splicer and a Stationary Plater. Howard prefers the Minick Pallet Dismantler, which uses pneumatic power to remove deck boards, because he believes the technology is safer.
Howard has been pleased with the performance of the Minick line of equipment. "We use the lead board remover all day long," he said. "It doesn’t break stringers." It is quick, too. The Minick Lead Board Remover does double duty as a repair table, so the process of removing a leading deck board and replacing it goes fast. Howard is a believer in stringer splicing because it "reduces material waste."
Reclaimed deck boards and stringers are sorted by size into bundles for later use. PLTS uses a pair of Hitachi 12-inch radial arm saws to cut both used pallet lumber and new material to length. Howard is planning to purchase a 14-inch chop saw from Trace Equipment to replace the two Hitachi saws, and he also plans to by a notching machine from Trace.
For new lumber, PLTS buys pre-cut stock based on customer requirements. Howard favors Canadian spruce because of its strength and light weight. But he added, "It’s not easy to come by right now," and he has switched to Douglas fir and Hem Fir.
PLTS strives to recover as much usable material as possible from used pallets. Still, some pallets have little to offer for reuse. "Anything that is too deteriorated or a weird size goes right to the chipper," said Howard — a West Salem Machinery 1662HT. "We can do about 4,000 pounds per hour." Like other pallet recyclers that grind scrap pallets into wood fiber, PLTS separates and collects the nails and sells them to a company that buys scrap metal.
The main outlet for buying PLTS grindings is Trex Co., which manufactures composite decking made of recycled wood fiber and recycled plastic. Virginia-based Trex has a manufacturing facility near PLTS. Trex sends its own trucks to pick up trailer-loads of grindings and drops off excess pallets at the same time. "All their plastic comes in on pallets," explained Howard. PLTS is also exploring power generating companies in California that may be customers for boiler fuel.
Incoming pallets are inspected and sorted. The automatic stacker on the Viking Turbo 505 is sometimes used for stacking sorted pallets. Pallets to be repaired or dismantled are stacked 10 high and moved to the Minick machines on the PLTS Mitsubishi forklifts.
For deliveries, PLTS has a GMC 20-foot container truck and a Ford L8000 with a flatbed.
Howard has considerable experience in the material handling aspects of pallets, and he puts it to work with his customers. He spent 15 years with ODC Integrated Logistics, which has warehouse operations in Sparks and is one of Nevada’s biggest employers. "We try to work real closely with customers," said Howard, "teaching facility managers to store and stack pallets the right way." By doing it "right the first time," he added, efficiencies are realized every step of the way.
A native of Roswell, New Mexico, Howard enlisted in the Marines when he graduated from high school and was deployed in a mortar division. After serving in the military, he went to work for ODC. He liked working in logistics, but the hours at ODC were long — "seven days a week, 18 hours a day." He explained that he began to think about alternatives.
"It honestly came to me as a dream," said Howard, describing how he decided to start a pallet company. When he awoke from the dream, the 38-year-old entrepreneur immediately thought it was a good idea. "I knew I could do a better job" than some other pallet companies in the region, he said.
Sparks is a town of about 66,000 residents in western of Nevada; it is near the California border and close to Reno, Carson City and Lake Tahoe. "The Reno-Sparks area is huge for distribution," said Howard. "There is more warehousing here than casinos." The distribution operations mean plenty of pallets and a good opportunity for a pallet company like PLTS, which has continued to grow while serving customers only within a five-mile radius.
"Small recyclers in this area could not be able to keep up with the demand," said Howard. He recalled times working for ODC when shipments arriving from San Francisco were cross-docked right off the trailer. There were times at ODC when he was able to obtain only about one-third the number of pallets he needed.
After deciding to enter the pallet business, Howard gave three months notice to ODC and used the six weeks of vacation he had accumulated to make the transition. He rented a building and bought forklifts and trucks.
A "great team" that works well together at PLTS is what has helped the company succeed, he said. All PLTS employees are "inter-trained" and "know all equipment," explained Howard. "We want a first-class operation."
"I pay the guys very well," Howard added. "You can do a good business and not be truly profit oriented."
PLTS has a motto, ‘We support your product.’ Howard usually meets with customers to identify their pallet requirements. "Some say, ‘We use 48x40 because we always have.’ " If he determines a customer’s product can be transported on a more efficient, less costly pallet that will perform just as well, he will recommend it. His approach is: do what is best for the customer.
In the future, PLTS might tap into more of Howard’s experience with ODC. For example, when he worked at ODC, Howard got the company ISO-9002 registered, and he acquired experience with pharmaceutical and food-grade pallets. The company also may get involved in fumigation and similar services.
Despite the rigors of owning a business, Howard is happy with the switch he made. Even with the demands of running a business, now he has more time for other things that enrich life, sometimes picking his daughter up from school or playing a game of golf. At the time he spoke to Pallet Enterprise, Howard was looking forward to attending the Best in the West Rib Cook-Off the next day.