Progress Is Precarious

There’s a saying: Buy something that won’t break and you won’t have to worry about fixing it. Something like that. Anyway, the thought was running in my head while making two recent visits — one to a manufacturing plant, the other to a retailer’s distribution center. In both cases, the thing that shouldn’t break was pallets.

I guess pallets were on my mind because I had just read another article claiming there are more than 60 manufacturers of plastic pallets in the U.S. and an unknown number of wood pallet manufacturers. Wood pallets hold their leadership of units in use — more than 90 percent. Just as the number of pallets in use has grown, the number of individual units in small parcel delivery applications has skyrocketed. Something is amiss here. Are unit loads rising at the same time individual parcel units are increasing? Logic would tell us, given the downward trending economy, as people switch their shipping preference from unit loads to individual packages, pallet numbers should decrease. Maybe the economy is not as bad as we thought. Or, better yet, maybe the economy is picking up.

But it was the physical condition of pallets that was bothering me, or at least captured my attention. The manager leading our tour through the manufacturing plant was rightfully proud of the housekeeping efforts of his employees. Numerous things had been done to improve the way large, heavy parts were moved, worked on and stored.

Oops, be careful there! Nasty splinters from that pallet about to collapse from the weight of the machine’s part might snag your leg ...

After a few questions, I learned that the hefty wood pallets were reused in-house, not for shipping. To an outsider like myself, reasons for switching to something other than wood seemed obvious: cleanliness and safety, for example. It was a closed-loop system; parts (and pallets) were greasy and exposed to welding sparks. Even new pallets of engineered wood would be an improvement if aesthetics is a concern for this company — and it seems to be so.

I had to ask the “why” question. My host responded with the predictable answer: These pallets were paid for long ago — and they work.

The other part of this brace of visits was my walk-through at an international retailer’s distribution center. Many of the goods arrive at this center floor-loaded in trailers or ship containers. Double handling takes place for a large percentage of the cartons because they have to be palletized before they can be loaded into the racks. Some goods are stacked on slave pallets — simple, large pieces of engineered wood — while others are loaded onto basic, four-way-entry wood pallets.

Here again, many of the wood pallets appeared to be beyond their prime. Splinters gouged cartons and nails protruded through the top boards. I could see cartons of goods in the racks with damaged sides, probably from being hooked by a pallet corner during putaway. Similar to the manufacturing plant, this was a closed-loop system where pallets were reused beyond what I’d call their productive life. But then I didn’t have to pony up the bucks for a fleet of replacement plastic pallets.

Is either of these companies headed for trouble? Who knows. What we do know is that misfortune is the kind of fortune that never misses.

What’s this about? This is about change. We talk about our changing world and the pace of change, yet some things seem to remain — in spite of all odds. As an avid fly-fisher I know you can’t step twice into the same stream. I also know, if you’re having an unproductive day, changing fly patterns can turn your “fish story” into one about fish and not about beautiful scenery.

If these companies change from wood pallets to plastic, they’ll experience cleaner and safer working environments, better financial return on a long-term investment — and initially increased costs to replace their pallet fleets.

Okay, so change might cost a bit. Now, figure the cost of not changing.

Clyde E. Witt, executive editor, cwitt@penton.com