If you’re not familiar with the commercial wood packaging industry, you may be wondering how are pallets made. Some people imagine that pallets are produced in some kind of automated, mass-production plant where machines do all the work. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While complete automation is certainly on the horizon for industrial packaging, it isn’t quite here yet. It may seem like a simple thing to automate, but there are several reasons why automation in wood packaging is a difficult nut to crack.
Every Packaging Product Is Different
Here at Conner, our customers often require a custom solution to solve their packaging problems. While sometimes a standard pallet will do the trick, it’s much more often that manufacturers need a crate or pallet that fits exacting specification for their product.
In many cases, trying to use an off-the-shelf pallet increases in-transit damages and negates any savings a manufacturer might gain from using a standard 48×40 GMA pallet, or even a recycled pallet. That’s where a custom designed packaging solution comes into the picture.
Design engineers and packaging designers take a look at what a manufacturer needs to successfully and safely move their product to its final destination. They design a packaging solution, and then we put it into production.
Production Run Size
Now think about other manufacturing industries that have highly automated production plants. For most other types of manufacturers, a production run is equal to millions of identical items. When they change the product, they have to retool and adjust all the automation equipment to produce a different product, a process that can take weeks in some industries. Once done, they will produce millions of identical products with the new specifications.
It’s a major effort to retool a plant to produce a different or changed product. Now imagine trying to do that in the industrial packaging industry.
In a highly automated production plant, all the equipment would have to be adjusted and retooled for each customer’s product. On top of that, manufacturers don’t generally buy millions of pallets or crates at one time. They purchase them throughout the year, as they manufacture and ship out their own products.
Those two factors combined mean that wood packaging manufacturers, using that type of technology, would be retooling automation systems and reprogramming robotics several times each day.
It’s simply not feasible.
The Cost of 100% Automation
So once you know what goes into building a pallet, it becomes pretty clear that using a highly automated system to make them is simply too expensive. Here’s why:
- Adjusting the equipment in a plant after every production run, several times each day, would cost significant labor hours and time.
- You would loose production time, where nothing else was being built, while making those adjustments.
- Automation equipment, computer systems, and robotics can cost millions of dollars, and it would take a very long time before they paid for themselves.
Imagine an industrial packaging company making the investment into a completely automated system to build custom pallets. They would have no choice but to pass the added costs on to their customers. This would make the cost of pallets go up significantly. As a manufacturer, what would that do to your supply chain? Your company would need to drive the prices of its own manufactured products up just to recoup the expense of packaging.
That would be ridiculous.
While more and more automation is coming to the industrial wood packaging industry, total automation hasn’t evolved enough to meet the needs of our industry yet.
So How Are Pallets Made Then?
So, how are pallets made? Pallets, crates and other wood packaging solutions are made in a combination of methods. The video above represents one of the methods that we use to build pallets. In this case, a pallet machine is being used to manufacture custom pallets from pre-cut lumber.
Our first step in manufacturing a customer’s pallet order is to pre-cut the pallet parts into the sizes needed. We have several different types of machines that cut or rip lumber to the specific sizes needed. Some of our machines cut a single piece of wood at a time, and others can cut bundles of lumber all at once. In some situations, the best solution is to have an employees use a chop saw and cut dimensional lumber to size manually.
Regardless of how the lumber is cut, it is not a completely automated process. Employees may have to feed lumber into the machines, stack it, or move it to assembly areas. It all depends on the machine they are using and how the pallet will be assembled.
Once we have the lumber cut to the specifications we need for a custom pallet production run, we may use a pallet machine, or we may assemble them manually. That decision depends on a variety of factors:
- It may be quicker and more efficient to build them manually. This is especially true for very large custom pallets or pallets made from hardwood.
- A pallet machine may already be in use producing pallets for another customer.
- A specific type of machine may needed to produce the pallet, but that machine is unavailable at that plant location.
Regardless if a machine is used to produce pallets or not, the process isn’t truly automated, as you can see from the video above. Workers are needed to place the wood in the machine.
There really isn’t any standard size crate, the way there are standard size pallets. When it comes to crating, every crate solution is a custom size. That means there really aren’t any type of industrial machines that build commercial crates. In this case, automation is not really possible yet.
Commercial and industrial crates are built manually.
If you’re wondering, how are pallets made, hopefully this gave you a little insight into the process. While a lot of people think that’s it’s a completely automated process, it’s much more manually driven than most people realize. This is especially true of pallets and crates built to custom dimensions.
Hopefully, the industrial wood packaging industry will reach the point of 100% automation someday, but we’re not there yet.