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Well maintained pallets key to automation

12 November 2013

As technology advances and the supply chain becomes increasingly automated, there are numerous cost and efficiency benefits to be gained. But, warns Jane Gorick, UK managing director of LPR, without strict quality management this also leaves the door open for ‘computer says no’ to end up costing the industry dearly.

As the supply chain becomes more sophisticated, involving greater levels of automation, it is even more important that goods are able to move seamlessly throughout the process.

Taking it back to basics, goods tend to arrive in the warehouse environment on a pallet. Indeed, many warehouses still feature a mixture of sophisticated order picking technology and conventional pallet racks. As a result, it is more important than ever that the pallet is regularly maintained and of sufficient quality to be able to stand up to the robust nature of both manual and automated processing. Often forgotten in the warehouse planning stages, the pallet itself can have a significant impact on the way in which goods are transported throughout the supply chain.

Take, for example, a poorly maintained pallet. Assuming it has survived the packing process at the manufacturer site in one piece, it then arrives at a retailer distribution centre. The sophisticated technology at this automated warehouse takes one look at the pallet and rejects it on safety grounds; after all, the potential dangers of a pallet and goods weighing more than one and a half tonnes falling from heights of up to 40 metres do not bear thinking about. However, it isn’t just this one pallet which gets rejected. Increasingly, retailers are sending away full loads if one case does not make the grade and, to add insult to injury, the lost sales are being compounded by the fines which retailers are passing on to manufacturers.

"Increasingly retailers are sending away full loads if one case does not make the grade and imposing fines on manufacturers.”

Let’s say, instead, that the poor quality pallet does make it through the door and onto the automated systems. If it fails at a critical moment, it could cause untold damage to the sophisticated warehouse machinery and put a stop to movements on site for a number of hours, if not days. Again, an unhappy retailer is likely to pass on the costs of stoppage and any repairs required – as well as a hefty fine – to the manufacturer whose error in judgement on pallet selection caused the problems.

Of course, these are extreme examples. However, with so much at stake when it comes to getting goods onto the shelves, retailers are beginning to take a much stricter line on packaging which does not make the grade. Whereas supply chains used to be over-engineered to cope with fluctuations in demand, the focus now is often on just-in-time delivery in order to minimise cost. As a result, the impact of failure can be significant and expensive. As a result, it is vital that manufacturers work with retailers and pallet providers to ensure the integrity of the supply chain is maintained. Automated processes are here to stay and the industry needs to work in tandem to ensure that all components of the supply chain, including the oft-forgotten pallet, are engineered to the highest quality.