Five Forgotten Pallet Management Tips from World War ll

One seldom tapped resource for reusable pallet and container management best practices is to look in the rearview mirror.

Over the years I’ve talked to veteran and retired managers of in-house pallet programs who had the pallet management game mastered. Unfortunately, the management expertise reaped by these programs often ends up lost as programs are dismantled by new generations of executives and waves of restructuring. Old file cabinets have emptied and contents shredded. Old files deleted. Longer and more complex supply chains have made reusable pallet and container programs more challenging.

Because pallet management knowledge has seldom been saved, we see the similar mistakes being made in succeeding generations.

Case in point, one area where past pallet practices have been documented was by the U.S. military during the Second World War, over 60 years ago. Here are some pallet management tips from that time that serve as prudent reminders for many operators, even today:

  1. Get the best professional advice  Why spend millions of dollars too much? In 1941, the Office of the Quartermaster General hired Matthew Potts, a leading material handling consultant and writer of the day, to survey leading private-sector production plants and warehouses and make recommendations for U.S. military supply depot practices. He reported back that pallets and forklifts, along with tractors, trailers, cranes, and conveyors, were becoming increasingly used at leading factories, warehouses, shipyards and transportation terminals around the country. The military took his advice and went aggressively into palletized handling for the military supply chain.
  2. Create policy at a high level and coordinate, communicate  Over my last quarter of a century in dealing with pallet users, one glaring problem with pallet programs is a lack of enlightened involvement from top executives. Throw in poor efforts in the areas of coordination and communication, and the result is too often a sub-optimal pallet program. During WW2, palletized handling was looked as a key component of the military’s material handling strategy, and as such was directed from a high organizational level. Meetings were held between the Navy, Air Force and Army to coordinate palletization efforts. The Navy’s Hingham Mass facility provided pallet design and testing functions and sponsored a sophisticated magazine loaded with tips for pallet users – The Palletizer.
  3. Optimize the network through standardization and pooling  In spite of trade publications that for the last decade or more have heralded pallet pooling as something new, the truth of the matter is that the U.S. military understood well what others today still don’t when it comes to the need for standardization to support effective pooling. The military recognized the substantial benefits of pooling and worked hard to promote standardization. It recognized, however, that there would have to be more than one standard. For example, it created a pool of collapsible box pallets for the handling of specific crushable items. Early in the War, several different sizes were created at various depots to address specific needs, but the Office of the Quartermaster General planned for their gradual phase-out, with replacement pallets conforming to a narrower range of sizes.
  4. The power of cube  With today’s transportation costs, cube utilization remains a front-burner issue, but it is rare to hear discussion of pallet height, and how it affects cube utilization. Early in the WW2 palletization effort, the Eastern quartermaster depots were highly resistant to palletized loading. Were they just change-averse, or was concern about cube loss resulting from the use of pallets (10% of ocean freight capacity) the reason palletization never initially got off the ground. When pallets were designed with a lower profile later in the War, acceptance followed.
  5. Reuse what comes in the back door going out the front door  The Office of the Quartermaster General recognized that it could provide additional efficiencies by demanding that pallets received under load conform to their own outbound shipping requirements. Why use two pallets when one would do, they asked? How many companies still don’t explore that option today?

When it comes to managing reusable pallets and containers, the absence of an organized body of knowledge available to new decision-makers can still be an issue. The good news is that increasingly, pallet users can benefit from the experience of third party pallet service providers.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Pallet Enterprise Magazine.

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