Automation and Pallets: Modern Materials Handling’s Latest Survey

pallet design conveyor

Attention to pallet design as part of your automation project can help you avoid unnecessary “bumps” on the conveyor and bumps in the road. (Photo credit: Millwood)

No surprise, automation is driving the need for better quality pallets, according to a September 2019 report from Modern Materials Handling. Bottom board issues stood out as being the biggest issue. But like a lot of partnerships, the relationship between the pallet and automated material handling equipment can be complicated. While pallet quality is increasingly important, some equipment is designed to be fairly forgiving when it comes to pallet quality, which is a direction that the article doesn’t go. I’ll touch on that further below.

Getting back to the Modern Materials Handling article, Laszlo Horvath, director of the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech University, commented that pallet quality problems are increasingly frequently encountered as companies move to automation. More companies are concerned that the pallets they have been using in the past will pose problems as they migrate to automation. The primary culprits, he said, are low-quality pallets that clog and jam automated systems.

In today’s incredibly time-sensitive distribution environment, the article notes, “where customers won’t wait for more than a day or two (if that) for their orders, these setbacks could mean the difference between staying competitive and falling behind.”


Pallets an Integral Component of Automated Material Handling Systems

The notion that automation will drive the requirement for better pallets is nothing particularly new. Dr. Marshal White spoke about pallet requirements in automated storage and retrieval systems at the ProMat Material Handling Show over 20 years ago. Today, automation is much more prevalent, and where pallets haven’t been considered as an element of the automation design project, problems predictably ensue.

The recent survey determined that the biggest pallet-related issue concerned bottom boards that resulted in jams or faults. According to the article, 53% of respondents deal with this problem on a daily or weekly basis, while another 25% deal with it at least monthly.  

Around 21% of respondents say that loose or broken pallet components getting caught in the rollers, while other leading quality issues include the incorrect placement of bottom deck boards, poor quality or missing bottom boards (31%) and other missing or damaged components (25%).

“The more lower quality pallets you buy, the more flexibility you need to have in your system,” Horvath told Modern Material Handling. “The higher the level of automation you have in place, the lower the levels of flexibility.” 

Not all automation is particularly sensitive to pallet quality, however, as I mentioned at the top. Amazon, for example, while being synonymous with automation, has a reputation for using lower grade pallets at many of its facilities. Robots that pick up and reposition pallets, or autonomous forklifts that lift pallets, might not be particularly sensitive. Autonomous pallet jacks, however, which are sensitive to bottom pallet board quality, are more sensitive. 

Earlier this year, Mick McCormick, vice president of robotics and automation for Yale Materials Handling Corporation told me, “As robotics continue to penetrate deeper in the conventional lift truck market, the consistency of GMA pallets and the consistency of any GMA #2 pallets will be increasingly rigorous. He further suggested, “This drives customers and suppliers towards a more stringent definition of what an acceptable pallet is in a system with robotic equipment.”

Jeff Christensen, VP of Product at Seegrid, was even more bullish on the importance of quality. “With materials handling automation on the rise, plastic pallet usage seems to be increasing as well,” he told me back in February 2019. We attribute this to the benefits of plastic pallets—they are highly durable, consistent in design, and ultimately safer. Plastic pallet features are desirable not only for automated guided vehicles (AGVs), but also for manual truck operators—engagement/disengagement with worn, broken, or bowing wooden pallets is problematic no matter what vehicle type is used. Seegrid’s self-driving industrial vehicles work with all types of pallets, such as metal, plastic, wood, and even newer experimental materials. The best AGV vendors will work with their customers to ensure they are selecting the best pallet for their specific applications.”

Bottom line, it is prudent to include pallet requirements in the automation project plan. Dealing with pallet issues after the fact is a hassle no one needs. If you are, however, work with your pallet supplier to explore your options.

I’d love to hear more about your pallet-related automation project. Post below or contact me directly.