“Industry experts agree that most pallet damage is caused by forklift trucks or pallet jacks,” trade journalism colleague Susan K. Lacefield wrote back in 2013. “So you’ll want to make sure that these equipment operators, in particular, are well versed in correct material handling procedures.”
Over the years, I have heard a lot of those same comments. Here we are, a decade after Susan’s article, and things aren’t looking any rosier regarding the interface between human operators and pallets. There is more staff turnover, and more inexperienced operators are on the job. And whether true or not, it always seems like there is more productivity pressure. It is hard to believe that things are getting better.
But imagine how much longer those pallets could last if they were not subjected to operator mishandling.
Two things are happening that are changing things for the better. One of them is the gradual development of more durable pallets. For example, pallets like the ORBIS Odyssey are built to last. Other plastic pallets, such as Shuert plastic pallets used in Scandinavian pools, boast a proven life expectancy of 500 trips. Tom Romanovich, then of NLP, stated at PACK EXPO Las Vegas in 2019 that their pallet attrition rate was 0.02%. (Full disclosure, ORBIS and Shuert are both Reusable Packaging News advertisers.)
Will the growth of mobile industrial robots, enhanced functionality reduce pallet damage?
The other notable shift is the rise of automated mobile robots – AMRs. These automated mobile robots can replace human operators and have the potential to eliminate human error, such as entering pallets too fast, with fork tines tilted, or striking vertical members.
Interact Analysis says the global robot market will grow from $31 billion annually as of 2021 to $77 billion by 2027. And what part of the industrial market is the hottest?
That would be mobile robots, the ones that carry and lift pallets. “Mobile robots have become the most significant trend in the automation market in recent years,” Rueben Scriven, Research Manager at Interact Analysis, said earlier this year. “By 2027, they will account for 30% of total warehouse automation revenues, equating to around $14 billion.
And while early iterations of autonomous forklifts were fairly intolerant of pallet inconsistencies, newer models are getting better at identifying and adjusting for skewed pallets and adapting to uneven terrain. Here are some of the notable recent announcements regarding AMRs with respect to pallet handling.
For example, THIRA ROBOTICS recently introduced a new mobile robot that is more adaptive to challenging conditions such as uneven surfaces, slopes or liquid spills. “Some plants with poor conditions struggle to integrate AMR successfully.,” said Peter Kim, CEO of THIRA ROBOTICS.
“Now, older manufacturers don’t need to remodel to integrate. With THIRA ROBOTICS, robotization is possible for facilities not fit for automation. Our next-generation technology improves existing solutions by offering real-life-ready logistics AMRs to handle imperfect floors and high traffic for U.S. industries to solve labor shortages and other market gaps.” Unlike current AMR market offerings, THIRA ROBOTICS AMR can operate on damaged floors, changing surroundings, high traffic, liquid spills, slopes, narrow spaces, and elevators.
Otto Motors states that its OTTO Lifter intelligently determines if a pallet is properly seated, if it is centered or skewed, and whether stretch wrap is covering entry notches. OTTO Lifter can also match its speed to the environment; speeding up when safe to do so and slowing down accordingly. For outdoor applications, Honda has developed a rugged off-road autonomous work vehicle designed for the construction industry. Automated mobile robots can increasing handle pallets seamlessly in more challenging conditions.
The range of applications is also expanding. BALYO Reachy is an autonomous forklift designed for high bay racking. Reachy can lift unit loads higher than 36 feet to place them in storage racking systems. Earlier this year, BALYO announced that Behr Paint was introducing fleets of Reachy autonomous trucks at four of its distribution centers.
Starting from a small base, but growing rapidly, it will be interesting to see how the growth of autonomous pallet handling material impacts pallet damage rates over the next decade. Between ongoing innovation to improve durability, coupled with the growth of autonomous pallet handling, pallet damage might be substantially eliminated in the supply chains of tomorrow.