More than a few pieces of wood

Pallets – the humble heroes of the transport industry

We all know them, even if we hardly give them a second glance. These simple platforms used to transport goods and stack them in warehouses are generally regarded as little more than a few pieces of wood nailed together. It may come as a surprise that pallets are actually worth a deeper look. And not only since they have lately become trendy upcycling objects in community spaces, living rooms and art galleries. What is the history of these humble “everyday heroes,” and what does the digital future have in store for pallets? We found out about modern pallets that are equipped with trackers, can send regular reports and are actually really “smart”!

Even if the history of the pallet doesn’t, strictly speaking, extend all the way back to ancient Egypt, there are indications that wooden sleds and skids were used as early as the first millennium before Christ. These were employed for transporting construction materials weighing multiple tons across hot desert sands, such as for building monuments like the pyramids.

In the centuries that followed, people experimented unceasingly with various methods for transporting and storing goods – from boxes and barrels to crates and sacks. Major efficiency improvements had to wait until the introduction of the first standardized transport containers (such as the predecessors to today’s intermodal freight containers) and the invention of the forklift at the start of the 20th century, which sparked a true revolution in goods transport and storage systems.

The Clark Equipment Company in the United States patented the first forklift in 1920. However, another logistics innovation was needed before the full potential of the new machine could be unleashed. In 1924, Howard T. Hallowell submitted a first pallet patent under the name of “Lift Truck Platform,” and others followed through the 1930s, during which time the transport pallet slowly evolved into its current form.

The pallet goes to war

In the end, it was the tragic conflict of World War II that finally cemented the global success of transport pallets (as well as forklifts). After the war broke out, it quickly became clear that the rapid transport and efficient warehousing of goods, food and weapons would play a decisive role. Recognizing this, above all the USA and its allies invested in logistical innovations. The forklift found its way into the heart of military logistics strategy. In a short time, standardized pallet sizes were introduced for all allied nations to simplify and accelerate maritime shipping and the transport of goods across borders.

In 1945, Robert Braun invented the first four-way pallet – a flat wooden pallet that could be easily picked up from any side using motorized transport equipment such as forklifts and pallet trucks. The rise of mass production and the increasing international trade in goods caused demand for cheap, efficient transport pallets to skyrocket. The system had proven its usefulness and was eventually broadly adopted as a result.

Enter the Euro-pallet!

It was not until the 1960s in Europe, however, before a uniform quality and size standard was established that remains in use today. Motivated by European railway operators, who were in constant competition with road transport by truck and were searching for ever faster and more efficient ways to load and transport goods, the first contract for the use of standardized pallets was signed on July 1st, 1961. Today, this standardized European pallet is generally known under the name of “Euro-pallet.” The original Euro-pallet design was standardized at 1200 x 800 x 144 mm and was contractually required to consist of 11 boards, 9 blocks and exactly 78 special nails. Even a single extra nail, and it is no longer a Euro-pallet! These quality and size standards are strictly monitored. The European Pallet Association, or EPAL, was founded in 1991 and is still responsible today for issuing licenses for the production, repair and quality control of Euro-pallets.

Of course the dimensions of the Euro-pallet were selected to make optimal use of space during transport: most tractor-trailers, swap bodies and other means of transport offer 2.40 meters of usable width for cargo. This means that exactly two or three Euro-pallets will fit side-by-side in the transport vehicles, depending on which way they are oriented, resulting in efficient loading that makes full use of the available space. Simple, yet brilliant!

Swapping over buying

One other feature of the Euro-pallet was responsible for its tremendous success in Europe: the pallet exchange. Exchanging Euro-pallets may not (yet) be possible in all European Member States, but it enjoys high acceptance in France, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. This means that the transport pallets are handed over together with the goods in exchange for different pallets. In non-Member States, it is necessary to pay compensation for the pallets. The advantages of this exchange system are that empty pallets do not have to be transported back and forth and it is also unnecessary to move the goods an extra time to free up the pallet. The simple unloading, stacking and storing of the entire pallet saves valuable time and money by reducing loading times by up to 90% compared with the time required in the “pre-pallet days.”

Always a classic: the wooden pallet

There has also been experimentation with the materials out of which pallets are made. The “classic” transport pallet is naturally made of wood. However, plastic and metal pallets are no longer uncommon. The simple wooden pallet does have one significant advantage that is more important now than ever: it is environmentally friendly. Wood is not merely an environmentally friendly, strong and robust natural material. With an empty weight of just 20-25 kilograms, made of heat-sterilized wood plus a few nails and boasting a load capacity of 1,500 kg, wooden pallets can easily pass the endurance test of being run over by a 4-ton forklift without sustaining damage. In addition, wooden pallets are ideal for long-term use with an average lifespan of six years.

The EPAL pallets produced in Europe are also made of wood from sustainably managed forests and almost entirely of recycled materials, in other words, from the “waste material” of other wood industries, which would otherwise be disposed of. For comparison, manufacturing a plastic pallet requires on average eight times as much raw material and five times as much energy. Considering these economic and environmental advantages, it is hardly surprising that over 90% of all transport pallets are still made of wood today.

A bright future

It is hard to calculate how many pallets are in circulation around the world today. The European Pallet Association estimates that roughly 350-500 million of its EPAL-licensed pallets are in use alongside an immense quantity of other pallets from countless other manufacturers. 

Clearly, it is impossible to imagine a world without pallets any time soon. No factory, no store, no supermarket could do without them. This just goes to show how it is often the simplest of things that can yield tremendous benefits and achieve global success.

The next generation: Networked and smart

For some time, a number of research institutions – often in cooperation with service providers – have been working to transform the pallet into a “smart” tool. QR codes, data interfaces and diverse trackers are being tested for practicality in these promising initiatives. The idea is simple: Lost goods and delays are two of the biggest challenges in logistics. Theft costs companies large sums every year, not to mention the frustration involved. Many deliveries also fail to reach their destination on time due to missing or inaccurate information.

Intelligently networked pallets may be able to help with this, offering new ways to control and manage goods transport by water, rail or road. To determine the location, detect impacts and track temperature, waterproof sensors are integrated into the pallets (generally in one of the “feet”) that can pick up on aspects such as shocks, position, acceleration and temperature. The pallet can then independently report any deviations, such as vibrations or temperature fluctuations, similar to typical trackers used in air and sea freight. 
Naturally, such trackers are generally reserved for high-value deliveries. Nevertheless, it is clear that the pallet – that ever so humble and simple tool – has found its place in the digitally networked logistics world of the 21st century.

cargo-partner Contract Logistics

cargo-partner offers a comprehensive logistics service package to optimize your warehousing and distribution. In addition to in-house and outsourced logistics solutions, we operate dedicated warehouses for several of our customers, specifically designed to meet the special requirements of their products. 
We offer specialized logistics solutions and warehousing facilities for the requirements of a range of industries. For the storage of foodstuffs, perishables, pharmaceutical and medicinal products, we provide temperature-controlled warehouses and distribution centers in many locations. We operate according to the HACCP concept for food safety and several of our offices are ISO-, GDP- and IFS-certified. For high-tech and electronics products, our clients can benefit from modern, low-dust, video-monitored warehouses and comprehensive security concepts.

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