Many might scoff at the idea that something as ubiquitous and common as a pallet could have had any major historical difference. The fact is, before WW2, pallets were not widely used.
Historian Rick Le Blanc wrote this fascinating article about the role of pallets during the War. In the US, before the military build-up began in 1940, pallets were rarely used and were ‘poorly constructed’. Storing, loading, unloading and stocking operations were performed manually – which as you might expect was highly inefficient. Whilst this was not so much of a problem for the peacetime era of the ’30s, it would not do for the War.
The Depot Operations Branch of the Office of the Quartermaster General then investigated industry practices to find the most efficient solution to the problem. The conclusion was that forklift trucks and pallets were by far the most feasible solution, and in September 1941 funds were released for the purchase of this equipment.
Logistics – or the “Big L” – is argued by Tom Vanderbilt to be the secret story ‘behind any successful military campaign’, and pallets ‘played a large role in the extraordinary supply efforts in the world’s first truly global war’.
Looking at an unloved pallet lost in the corner of a warehouse or factory yard, it might be hard to appreciate that at the beginning of its journey real care was taken to use it efficiently.
There is a mathematical science behind the perfect use of a pallet. It is referred to as ‘pallet cube optimisation’ and a lot of people, time and research is dedicated to this unsung science.
Put very simply, ‘pallet cube optimisation’ means getting as many products on a pallet as possible. The more products you can get on to a single pallet, the more you can reduce your shipping costs and carbon footprint. Of course, this has to be done using the laws of physics. Any manipulation of the time and space continuum would be cheating.
A good read – it’s not just about pallets…
The most quoted example is the Ikea ‘Bang’ mug. In Colin White’s book ‘Strategic Management’ he describes how the mug was redesigned a number of times to specifically fit more on to a pallet. Instead of 864 mugs, Ikea managed to squeezed 2,204 on to a pallet and cut 60% off its shipping costs. It just goes to show that the boffins at Ikea are no mugs… (We’d recommend their Swedish meatballs too.)
The 2013 Ikea Catalogue will contain a choice of mugs…
There are even 3D computer software solutions dedicated to helping manufacturers and distributors pile more products onto a pallet. At the very basic level the software allows you to type in the dimensions of your product or its packaging and it will show you the best way to stack the pallet. Most software solutions can do a lot more than that but you get the picture.
The point is that right from the start a lot of effort and care goes into using a pallet to the absolute max. So, it is a crying shame to then simple discard the wooden wonder into a corner once the product reaches its destination. The least we can do is make sure that the pallet continues to be cared for, recycled and reused to the absolute max again and again.