Alternative pallets 101

When it comes to specialty pallets for niche applications, there are more money-saving pallet alternatives than ever.

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When it comes to versatility and cost, wood, plastic and steel pallets are still the kings of the hill when it comes to the materials used for pallet construction. Together, they account for more than 90% of the pallets on the market.

Still, increasing freight costs, new export regulations, and growing concerns over product contamination have pallet users looking for alternatives to traditional pallets.

“All of our major customers, especially in the food packaging and pharmaceuticals industries, are asking how can we replace wood,” says Ron Lanier Jr., sales and marketing manager for Sonoco Transport Packaging. “They’re concerned about contamination, the cleanliness of the facility, and the ergonomics of handling 60-pound pallets.”

The good news is that there are more proven alternative pallets on the market today than at any time in the past. Let’s be clear: None of these products is as versatile or as economical as a wood pallet in all applications. They are niche products. But, in the right application, they are one more tool in the materials handling toolkit. Here are four examples of alternative pallets currently available:

Coated foam pallets: For manufacturers shipping high-value products, like consumer electronics, by air freight or even by sea, the freight cost of shipping a heavy wooden pallet with a load may exceed the cost of the pallet. Enter Airdex, which manufactures a lightweight, high-performance pallet from coated foam material that is popular with some name-brand manufacturers of computers.

The pallets cost around $25 in volume, depending on the size of the pallet, or about three times the cost of a wooden pallet. However, it weighs just 7 pounds and can support a racked load of 2,300 pounds, a dynamic load of 3,600 pounds, and a stacked weight of 12,000 pounds. “We’re taking between 25- and 30-pounds of weight out of a typical palletized load,” says CEO Vance Seagle, who patented the technology used to make the Airdex pallet in North America.

The weight savings alone is enough to justify the cost of the pallet on one use, and some customers have a pallet recovery program in place to get multiple uses from their pallets, Seagle says. The pallets can be produced anywhere there’s a nearby foam plant. “Our machine fits in 40-foot container,” Seagle says. “If you want a pallet in Botswana near a foam plant, I can set up a machine that will turn out 17,000 pallets a month.” Airdex is working with AT&T to introduce a pallet equipped with a battery-powered GPS transponder that will communicate its location in real time as the pallet moves through the supply chain. “We will be able to provide the world’s first real-time tracking of a pallet, regardless of where it’s located and without passing through an RFID portal,” Seagle says.

Corrugated, plastic and composite pallets: For the past five years, Sonoco Transport Packaging, a global packaging company with more than 300 facilities in 33 companies, has been researching and developing a line of five alternative pallet solutions that includes corrugated, plastic and composite materials. Each was developed for a specific situation, ranging from a corrugated sheet with two split corrugated cores (tubes) to accommodate lift truck forks designed to handle bulk bags to a high-performance corrugated pallet that can support 2,800 pounds in an open rack to plastic pallets to composite engineered-wood components (blocks and lead deck boards) that add strength and durability to a traditional wood pallet. The real selling point to all of these products, says Lanier, is that Sonoco can bring a customer’s products into its packaging test facility and design the right pallet and industrial packaging for that customer’s needs. “We can evaluate the different pallets and packaging available and design a total system for their product,” says Lanier.

Presswood pallets: One of the first users of the Inca presswood pallet from Litco International in North America was the postal service. The pallet, manufactured from wood fibers and synthetic resins and molded into shape under high heat and pressure, has no moisture content that can be absorbed by paper products. Today, the pallet is popular for export because it’s guaranteed to be free of bugs, bark and mold without any further treatment.

“Many people think that heat treating a pallet is enough to make it mold resistant for export,” says Gary Sharon, vice president. “While that may be enough to kill insects, it’s not enough to kill mold for export.” Because the pallets are nestable, they also save space over conventional wood pallets. More than 1,000 Inca pallets will fit on a truck, compared to 500 wooden pallets, and 50 pallets stack 7 feet high, compared to about 17 to 20 wooden pallets. For companies with sustainability programs in place, Inca pallets have been cradle-to-cradle certified as sustainable.

Want to learn more about pallets? Join pallet experts as they put context behind the findings of Modern’s 2010 Pallet Usage and Trending Study Webcast on October 28, 2010 at 2 pm ET.


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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