What Is a Pallet?

custom pallet

An example of a two-way entry stringer pallet (Source: Custom Built Plastic Pallets)

The pallet, typically a form of tertiary packaging, is a flat structure used as a base for the unitization of goods in the supply chain. The MH1-2016 standard defines the pallet as a “portable, horizontal, rigid, composite platform used as (a) base for assembling, storing, stacking, handling and transporting goods as a unit load; often equipped with (a) superstructure.”  The superstructure is the assembly that is attached to the supporting base of the pallet.

Pallets are used to stack, store, protect, and transport materials in the course of being handled by materials handling equipment such as forklifts, pallet jacks or conveyors, being stored in racking or bulk storage, or being positioned in transport vehicles. The pallet is the most common base for the unit load, which includes pallet and goods stacked atop it, typically secured by stretch wrap, strapping, shrink wrap, adhesive, pallet collar, or other means of stabilization.

A Short History of Pallets

Pallets together with palletized handling comprised one of the key logistics tools to emerge in the 20th Century. Pallets appeared and continued to evolve over the past century, helping enable the development of modern logistics. The importance of pallets to supply chain applications today has been significant, allowing dramatic efficiency improvements in the handling and transport of unit loads versus the loose stacking of goods. Additional refinements were added to pallet design and management during World War 2. For example, pallet reuse in the supply chain became increasingly practiced, and pallet collars were developed to enable the double stacking of fragile materials. The pallet pooling concept began to be seriously discussed during this time.

Pallet Selection Considerations

Expendable or Reusable    As a site dedicated to reusable packaging, one important differentiator is between durable or reusable pallets versus expendable or single-use pallets. Where pallets can be reused, they provide a lower cost per trip and less environmental impact than pallets which can be used only once, subject to the cost of reverse logistics. In reusable pallet applications, an investment in a better quality pallet usually lasts longer, providing a lower cost per use than cheaper alternatives.

Pallet Materials     Pallets are manufactured from a variety of materials. The wood pallet dominates the marketplace, providing an excellent value regarding price and performance. It is stiff, inexpensive, and easily fabricated into various sizes as required. Pallets manufactured from other materials also play important roles. Plastic pallets are prized for several reasons, including durability, ease of cleaning, exemption from ISPM 15 requirements and other benefits.  Paper pallets are popular due to their light weight, cleanliness, ISPM 15 exemption, and ease of recycling.  Wood composite pallets as well are ISPM 15 exempt, providing a stiff, competitively priced product which can be readily recycled.  Metal pallets also have a presence, especially in applications where pallet strength and durability are requirements.

Block or Stringer, Directions of Entry     Pallets can be classified as block or stringer pallets. Block pallets provide more options for pallet entry by material handling equipment. Pallets with solid stringers typically allow two-way entry (at each end of the pallet) while notched stringers allow partial four-way entry (by forklifts through the notches, as well as full end access), while block pallets typically allow full four-way entrance.

Pallet Style     Pallet style relates to features such as single or double face (single or both top and bottom deck), and whether a pallet is reversible (either side can be used for the top deck) or non-reversible (having top and bottom deck but only one intended for use as a top deck). Various bottom deck configurations are also considerations in pallet style.  A single faced pallet is also commonly as a skid.

Pallet Sizes     The 48×40 inch pallet is the most widely produced pallet size in North America, although a number of other sizes are popular. According to 1996 data:

  • 48×40             26.9% of U.S. production
  • 40×48               5.3%
  • 42×42               4.8%
  • 48×48               4.3%
  • 48×42               3.7%
  • 48×45              2.1%
  • 37×37               1.6%
  • 48×36               1.5%
  • Other sizes     50%

Internationally, ISO recognizes six pallet sizes. These footprints include:

  • 1219×1016 (48×40 inches) – North America
  • 1000×1200 – Europe and Asia
  • 1165×1165 – Australia
  • 1067×1067 – North America, Europe and Asia
  • 1100×1100 – Asia
  • 800×1200 – Europe

Pallet Pooling and Management

Pallet pooling, typically in the form of pallet rental or pallet hire, or alternately through pallet exchange, as practiced in the EPAL system, has become increasingly popular since its inception in the years following World War 2. In the case of rental, pallet users can enjoy the use of a high-quality pallet at a cost related only to the use, rather than in the outright purchase of the pallet. In this respect, pooling can displace the need for expendable pallets,  providing a lower cost-per-trip while eliminating solid waste and offering operational efficiencies throughout supply chains.

Emerging Trends

Pallet trends include initiatives to take additional weight and material out of pallets while improving performance, as well as auto-ID, notably the fixing of sensors on pallets. Pallets to some degree are being impacted by supply chain trends such as food safety, with an emphasis towards appropriate handling and storage to keep pallets clean as well as ease of cleaning. Another emerging trend is that of automated handling systems, which in some systems require high-quality pallets. Additionally, pallet pooling companies are finding synergies by merging with reusable container providers (Brambles – CHEP and IFCO; Euro Pool System and LPR)  to broaden their complementary offerings.

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