ORBIS Explores the Benefits of Plastic Pallets for Food Processing Applications

ORBIS reps promote benefits of plastic pallets from a food industry perspective at Promat 2017, including hygiene, automation compatibility and more.

Two representatives of ORBIS Corporation, which manufactures reusable plastic packaging, including pallets, spoke on the topic, ‘Selecting the Right Hygienic Pallet for Your Food Processing Plant’ at ProMat 2017. Product manager Ryan Roessler and global pallet solutions manager Curt Most talked about the benefits of plastic pallets contrasted with wood and also shed some light on implementing plastic pallets in a plant that has been using wood.

For grocery manufacturing or food processing operations, “A rule of thumb is that anything moving into the production area should be on a plastic pallet,” said Ryan. Citing an article from Food Engineering Magazine, he stated that plastic packaging is clean, can be sanitized, and it eliminates potential contamination from the wood and metal components of a wooden pallet.

Plastic also is a safer application than wood for the food and beverage industry, added Curt. Beyond issues of hygiene, plastic pallets are a good choice for getting products or materials from point A to point B “in excellent condition,” he said.

Pallets, wood or plastic, are the single most ubiquitous component of the supply chain, noted Curt. They are the standard for handling and moving materials or products from one location to another. Ignoring them in decisions related to materials handling and logistics would be “like ignoring the grass on a golf course,” observed Curt, attributing the quote to a blog by Hartson Poland of The Nelson Company.

Although plastic pallets have applications for other industries, including automotive and retail, the two focused on food manufacturing, particularly areas where food or food ingredients are processed and stored.

“We’re getting more and more requests,” said Ryan, from companies that are thinking of adding a robotic system or new material handling equipment — moves to eliminate unnecessary human touches in the supply chain.

Why is that important for pallets? Manufacturers must make sure that automation initiatives are compatible with the pallets they use.

Another driver in the trend toward more modern material handling equipment in factories is simply that plants are aging and companies are upgrading their facilities — buildings and equipment.

Some food manufacturers are adding x-ray detection equipment, magnets, metal detectors, and other equipment to prevent contaminants from being introduced into finished food products. “We have solutions for that as well,” said Ryan. ORBIS offers pallets compatible with such detection equipment on processing lines.

One of the biggest differences between plastic and wood pallets is the consistency of size, noted Curt. Plastic pallets are made from a mold, he pointed out. “We’re going to be exactly the same weight, exactly the same dimensions. Everything is the same.” A wooden pallet may have some slight imperfection and, therefore, be inconsistent in size. A leading edge board may be a fraction of an inch higher, for example.

Because of their consistent size, plastic pallets “work extremely, extremely well” with automation and robotics, said Curt. “It’s the consistency of a plastic pallet versus the inconsistencies of wood,” he said.

Pallet weight also can be a considerable factor, he noted. He shared an example from a retailer that transitioned from wood pallets that weighed 70 pounds to plastic pallets with a weight of 45 pounds. The savings in freight — trucks hauling lighter loads, using less fuel — was “just incredible,” he said.

Grocery manufacturers should ask themselves several questions, suggested Curt. Does your packaging keep your equipment clean? Does it promote a clean work environment? Do containers or pallets absorb moisture? Do they dry quickly? Are they impervious to wide ranges in temperature? Can they be washed? Do they support Good Manufacturing Practices? If they are using wood pallets, are there issues with loose nails, loose or damaged boards, splinters?

Plastic pallets will meet all those challenges, suggested Curt. They will keep processing and manufacturing equipment clean and promote a clean environment. There are no chips, splinters, or other breakages as with wood. They do not absorb moisture, and they dry quickly.

The speakers defined hygienic pallets as being easily sanitized, non‐porous platforms designed to cleanly move and store food product within a facility and support sanitary conditions.

Pallet design with pallet hygiene in mind

Curt displayed a sample pallet for food industry applications. “This is an extremely hygienic pallet,” he said. However, customers that look at it the first time are turned off, he said: they don’t like all the openings in the pallet.

The openings are part of the design, Curt pointed out. “You’ll notice there are not any nooks or crannies. Every part of that pallet is visible to the naked eye.” The design means contaminant materials cannot be lodged or harbored anywhere in the pallet and that it can be readily pressure washed or cleaned by machine.

Curt went on to discuss other characteristics. The one-piece design helps eliminate space for contaminants, he said. The openings also allow water to flow through, so the pallet dries quickly. The surfaces are very smooth, and edges are contoured. The design allows for easy forklift access. It is not susceptible to rust. Plastic will not absorb moisture or odors, whereas wood pallets stored outside will absorb moisture and add weight.

Pallets made of virgin resin comply with Food and Drug Administration regulations, added Ryan. (Pallets made of recycled plastic will not, he pointed out.) Also, hygienic pallets can include metal or x-ray detectable material to help a product line equipment detect if material from a plastic pallet has entered into a food product so that it can be removed.

Benefits of plastic pallet customization

Plastic pallets can be customized. Ryan pointed out that different colors can designate materials for use in some regions of a plant. Some plants, for example, establish certain areas for processing allergen substances or ingredients. Plastic pallets can feature a company name or logo, which can aid in identifying pallets and retaining and retrieving them in closed loops.

Awareness of allergens in the food industry has heightened in recent years, said Curt. He mentioned peanuts, other nuts, and shellfish as examples. Color coding of pallets or totes can help distinguish those kinds of foods.

ORBIS offers other solutions for eliminating corrugated or wood packaging from food processing operations, said Ryan. Totes also can be manufactured using an FDA-approved material, and top caps can keep dust and debris out of totes.

In talking to customers, Curt emphasized, “This is a long-term project, not something they need for one-way shipment.” Plastic pallets are going to have a life cycle of several years, if not longer.

When discussing a possible transition from wood pallets to plastic for a company, Curt wants to know what issues they may be having. “We want to see what you’re up against,” and why the business is considering changing to plastic packaging.

For new facility planning or upgrading to new equipment, it is even more critical for the returnable packaging vendor to be involved early in the development process, Curt pointed out. It is much easier to coordinate the packaging with the equipment and systems if it is a joint planning process. If a company builds a new warehouse, for example, outfits it with new material handling equipment, then tells a vendor it needs a 41×48 pallet, 5 inches tall, and 5,000 units, “Odds are it’s not out there,” said Curt. That will require custom packaging that is costly.

“We want to be there initially,” he said, when the new facility is being designed and decisions are being made about equipment and systems, “because you want to find the platform that’s going to fit every need.”

Future-proofing plastic pallet design

Also, it is important even in the development of a new or upgraded plant to be thinking ahead. Curt asks companies where they see themselves in the next two or three years. Maybe in the next year, the customer is thinking of adding a type of automated conveyor system, and the pallet under consideration for the new plant will not work for that conveyor system. “We want to look ahead,” he said.

A business also has to consider how it may be impacted by a change to plastic pallets, said Curt. What are the steps to make the transition? What are they going to do? How will it impact their operations, their budget?

It is important to have senior leadership involved as well as other employees, so they understand why the company is transitioning to a plastic pallet, how it is going to affect them and to get their agreement and buy-in.

“We’ve done this before,” said Curt. “We’ve implemented programs in a variety of companies, so we know what it takes to do it.”

Ryan also emphasized the need to get pallet suppliers involved “early and often” in discussions about a transition to plastic, whether a company is considering plans to automate, to add a production line, or just a new system of moving goods and material in a warehouse. He also stressed the importance of having company employees involved in the decision-making process, such as the plant manager and staff involved in material handling.

“When you’re implementing a program, it’s not as difficult as you might think,” added Curt.

Starting Small Can Make Sense

If a company is going to need 5,000 pallets for trips from suppliers, “Start small,” said Curt. “You don’t need to start with 5,000 right away.” He suggested beginning with as few as 100 or 200 units and using them for 30-60 days first. “We’ll help you.”

If a company experiences significant pallet losses during that 30-60-day period, it obviously needs to back-track and make an adjustment to its pallet pooling or retrieval program. “If you started with 300 and still have 300…you’ve got a program,” said Curt.

In response to questions from the audience, Curt discussed the pricing difference between wood and plastic pallets as well as hidden costs of wood pallets. For example, a damaged wood pallet may cause conveying equipment to jam periodically. That could even lead to damaged material handling equipment. As a result, production is delayed or reduced. “There’s a cost to that,” said Curt. Employees may be injured by nails or damaged components of a wood pallet. A plant may devote time to cleaning up debris from wood pallets. A damaged pallet may not fit in a rack, requiring the goods to be removed and loaded onto another pallet. “There’re a lot of little things that add up,” said Curt.

On the other hand, “If you’re shipping widgets from Maine to Sacramento (California), odds are it’s not going to make any sense (for plastic pallets),” he noted. “Wood has its place…I’m not bashing wood.”

Even a business that is reusing ‘free’ wood pallets used to ship corrugated packaging to their plant may be able to benefit from plastic, said Curt. Those pallets are not free because the corrugated supplier has figured them into their cost. A returnable pallet takes out that cost over and over again.

Ryan Roessler and Curt Most of ORBIS Corporation spoke at Promat 2017 in Chicago.

Tim Cox is a Virginia-based freelance writer and editor.

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