3 Reasons to Invest in Pallet Automation Now, Even as the Market Softens
This article is contributed by First Alliance Logistics Management (FALM), a leading non-asset-based pallet provider to the North American market, operating through a cohesive network of 225 independent pallet suppliers. FALM regularly contributes articles of interest to pallet buyers and its pallet supplier partners. In this contribution, FALM looks at the softening market and asks, counterintuitively, if it is the right time for pallet companies to invest in automation.
After the pallet industry’s historic run over the past few years, many companies are now catching their breath. During that extraordinary time, many pallet companies hit the wall. Equipment capacity and/or labor constraints limited their opportunity to take full advantage of the opportunity.
The case for automation
Now, in a market that has softened to a degree from those epic highs, worker availability and machine time constraints are no longer top concerns. Remember those workers that you worked so hard to hire and retain? Now you might be struggling to avoid layoffs. Experts caution, however, to remain laser-focused on your company’s long-term plan even with the challenges you currently face.
Today is a good time to start preparing your company for growth when the market improves, which is anticipated by next year. One obvious way to get ready is through automation. This is an opportune time regarding availability, as equipment suppliers are starting to report that lead times are shortening from record levels.
Having said that, a soft market does not indicate that you should procrastinate. Many lead times are still considerable, perhaps six months to a year or more out, and they will only get longer when the market starts to heat up. That’s one reason why now could be an excellent time to consider an investment in new machinery.
A slower period might also be an ideal time to invest in digital automation, such as an ERP system will take some time for your staff to become familiar with or to use some of your available extra hours to expand your mastery of software you already have.
Looking past the current soft market to prepare your company for future growth, here are three reasons to consider investing in automation.
Having a safe plant is an essential aspect of maintaining a positive organizational culture. Employees are more likely to stay and be engaged at a company that practices what it preaches when it comes to ‘safety first.’ Fewer injuries mean fewer lost time injuries and fewer management resources expended managing claims. Expect new equipment to provide a safer work environment.
As upgrades to machinery lines are introduced, they often feature improved guarding or other features to make them safer. Take, for example, the dual-hand push button control on a chop saw to ensure that hands are not in harm’s way. Another way that equipment suppliers enhance safety is through increasingly better support, such as useful videos for maintenance personnel or sensor monitoring of equipment health.
Of course, a great way to eliminate safety risks is to get rid of the task altogether, such as through the introduction of a robotic dismantler to replace operators running a conventional band dismantler or stackers to replace the backbreaking job of board stacking.
Wider funnel for staff recruitment
When we only consider people who are ready and able to perform heavy work consistently, we dramatically reduce our potential labor pool. That’s how things were in heavy industry, and the pallet business was no exception.
However, automation that makes work less physically taxing opens the door for new job candidates. Automation can help create a much wider funnel for talent acquisition, including women, older people, and people with various disabilities. Whether optimized trim lines, lift tables, stackers, or even exosuits, machinery suppliers are working to eliminate the heavy lifting.
“I don’t struggle to find staff,” Jason Nitchie of Durham Pallet explained to Pallet Enterprise in 2022. “That tells you that Durham is a safe, good place to work. People are very comfortable with the way that they’re treated and the equipment that they use. They stay because of those electric lift tables, the conveyors, and the stackers.” Less demanding jobs with improved ergonomics mean that workers are less likely to be injured or to quit in search of a position less physically demanding.
Unsurprisingly, equipment suppliers work tirelessly to make their machinery more productive, safer, and easier to use and maintain. Companies can ready themselves for growth by investing in new equipment or taking advantage of upgrade kits if available. As market conditions improve, pallet makers who invest in the right automation will be able to increase production without having to increase headcount commensurately.
Improvements as modest as lift tables, conveyors and stackers can help take delays and manual touches out of the process. For example, installing a conveyor can allow the forklift driver to stage bundles ahead of time for the operator, so there is no waiting time for the forklift to arrive.
“Now, when the operator does his bundle, he won’t need a forklift driver waiting for him to clear the pallet off,” Kevin Wieser of Gofast Manufacturing told Pallet Enterprise in the same article cited above. “He just presses a slip pedal and the next one comes on over.”
Examples of productivity improvement through machinery investment abound each month in Pallet Enterprise – whether they be modest or massive. Looking beyond current market conditions, where do you see your company in the years ahead? Smartly targeted investments now can help you get there.