The secret history of shipping pallets

Tom Vanderbilt's "The Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy," in Slate is an absolutely fascinating look at the role that pallets play in the modern world, starting with their origin in the long US supply lines for the Pacific theater in WWII (and the "four way pallet" innovation by Norman Cahners of the Navy Supply Corps) to the modern fights over standardization, innovation, and product design. Ikea optimized one of its products, a mug, three times, for pallet packing, ending up with a product that cost 60% less to ship -- and shortly after abandoned pallets altogether in favor of the "Optiledge."

It's a story about the knapsack problem, a P=NP kind of secret history, and it's right up my alley

As USDA Forest Service researchers Gilbert P. Dempsey and David G. Martens noted in a conference paper, two factors led to the real rise of the pallet. The first was the 1937 invention of gas-powered forklift trucks, which “allowed goods to be moved, stacked, and stored with extraordinary speed and versatility.”

The second factor in the rise of the pallet was World War II. Logistics—the “Big ‘L’,” as one history puts it—is 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. As one historian, quoted by Rick Le Blanc in Pallet Enterprise, notes, “the use of the forklift trucks and pallets was the most significant and revolutionary storage development of the war.” Tens of millions of pallets were employed—particularly in the Pacific campaigns, with their elongated supply lines. Looking to improve turnaround times for materials handling, a Navy Supply Corps officer named Norman Cahners—who would go on to found the publishing giant of the same name—invented the “four-way pallet.” This relatively minor refinement, which featured notches cut in the side so that forklifts could pick up pallets from any direction, doubled material-handling productivity per man. If there’s a Silver Star for optimization, it belongs to Cahners.

As a sort of peace dividend, at war’s end the U.S. military left the Australian government with not only many forklifts and cranes, but about 60,000 pallets. To handle these resources, the Australian government created the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool, and the company eventually spawned a modern pallet powerhouse, CHEP USA, which now controls about 90 percent of the “pooled” pallet market in the United States. Pooled pallets are rented from one company that takes care of delivering and retrieving them; the alternative is a “one-way” pallet, essentially a disposable item that is scrapped, recycled or reused when its initial journey is done. You can identify pooled pallet brands by their color: If you see a blue pallet at a store like Home Depot, that’s a CHEP pallet; a red pallet comes from competitor PECO.

The Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy

(Image: Pallets, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from hisgett's photostream) (via Hack the Planet)


      1. Personally, I think that shipping containers are a slightly  more important invention in this regard. The commodity they optimize – cargo space and docking space – is much scarcer than plain land on the ground.  Also, you can literally stack dozens of containers above each other or use them directly on trucks or trains, if you wish to do so. 

          1. …and forced Britain into the modern era of globalisation.

            So the inventor has been voted the most hated and feared person in the history of the UK?

        1. Yes, but you load and unload pallets from containers. The two are really related, since containers are WAY less useful without pallets.

          Also, you *can* stack containers on trucks and trains, but you can also load pallets into trucks (even better on European side-opening trucks) and box cars. In other words, containers have several analogs, while pallets really do not.

  1. Wait.

    So the pallet manufacturers make pallets and have them shipped to companies who  rent them out and ship them to other companies who in turn ship the pallets with stuff on them to yet another location. And then they have them sent back without the stuff on them.

    Aaaah my braiiin it’s broken. (Though that might have to do with the fact that’s it’s past 5 am where I live.)

    1. Yea, but when they send them back without stuff on them, they are all stacked on top of each other. Just so we’re clear. :)

      Oh, and when I worked in the grocery biz, I hated those damn chep pallets, they weighed a ton.
      FWIW, when I left in 2000, we were switching to plastic ones that could nest.

    2. Weird, huh? And big warehouses build or buy their own pallets for storage or delivery, so supervisors have to run around making sure the rented pallets are being properly used for shipping, rather than storage. DON’T USE THE BLUE ONES.

      sdmikev, I worked at a warehouse that used wooden pallets as late as 2008. From what I saw, plastic could only be an improvement for safety at least. It was fun watching forklift drivers trying to extract a broken pallet with a load of bottles on the top level. Smashy-smashy!

    3. I suspect it’s kind of like the car rental companies – the pallets are sent from a pallet warehouse near A, loaded up and shipped from A to B covered in goods, then stacked up and sent to the pallet warehouse nearest B (if B doesn’t have other goods it needs to ship on).  Ideally they should cover a couple orders of magnitude more distance covered in goods, than empty.

    1. I made a nice workbench out of a custom wood shipping container and a pallet. Total cost to me: $0 (except for a few bucks in nuts and bolts I splurged on to hold the whole thing together).

      1. There are two possible explanations for duck/duct tape. Duck from the original colour of the tape – green, or duct from its use in ducting. Which is correct is now a complete mystery.

      2. “In 1942 Revolite, formerly a division of Johnson & Johnson, originally developed an adhesive tape made from a rubber-based adhesive applied to a durable duck cloth backing.” – Wikipedia

        1. Yeah, from what I understand, the above is the origin of the name. No one ever used them for ducts or anything, that’s just a modern corruption.

      3. Yep, it was originally called “Duck tape” named for the fact that it was waterproof. I googled that shit.

  2. It gets better.  There are places that rebuild old and damaged pallets.  These things aren’t just throw away pieces of junk, like you’d suspect – they are considered worthy of repair.  And I’m just talking about the regular wooden ones. 

    The pop pop pop of pneumatic nail guns was my soundtrack for five years, a pallet repair place operated across the road. 

      1.  I used to work in a pallet factory doing that exact job. We’d get shipments of the pallets in, sort them by what could be re-used, what could recycled, and what was just too broken, then I tore the recycle-able pallets apart on a giant table band-saw.

      2. Yep, i would love to fix those two el cheapo players i have here somewhere that has yet to be trashed.

  3. In 2008 the company I worked for switched trucking companies. The old company had power jacks and the truck drover wheeled the pallets wherever you wanted them to. The new company was supposed to unload the pallets for us using our own hand jacks. Many of these drivers were in their early sixties and had never used a hand jack in their lives. They were former union drivers, and bless the union they used to belong to.

    I used to teach them the tricks of the hand jack while unloading 2/3ds of the truck myself. Do you know that you can slide on your shoes while 2000 pounds of cat litter and dog food wait to crush you? The truckers tried stupid shit like trying a foot brace. Hell no, Turn that jack at 90 degrees and then let it slide.

    It’s a wonder I didn’t die.

  4. Wait what? Six? Different? Standards for pallet size? None of which is an integer divisor of the standard shipping container?!? I had no idea. I spent my high school years humping that standard 40″x48″ 4-way pallet on a compressed air manual pallet jack, I didn’t even know there were any other kinds of pallets.

    I’ll be over  here slamming my head into the wall, okay?

    Given that both the 40″x48″ pallet and the 20’x40′ shipping container are US standards, and that they’re widely separated in time, why on earth didn’t the people who designed the standard shipping container scale the interior dimensions to a multiple of the standard pallet? I thought we were supposed to be GOOD at logistics!? I thought the whole POINT of the standard shipping container was to be easy and fast to load and unload? How did we screw THAT up?!?

    1. erm – because you don’t use the metric system?

    2. Best guess is that the container size comes from road requirements, in that is can basically be plopped onto a flat bed trailer and driven away.

    3. Inside of a standard container is 7’8″, reefer is 7’5″ on account of the insulation.  Two 40″ pallets next to each other is 6’8″.  3 inches per gap, seems reasonable to me.  Forklifts and jacks are hardly precision machining instruments.

      (edited to fix uncaffeinated arithmetic)

  5. Take OSB panels and cut to pallet size. Use a multi-ton punch press with custom cutting dies to knock nine holes in each panel. Use recycled PET bottles to injection mold “flower pot” feet that screw into the OSB by a sort of interrupted thread pattern. Each pallet knocks down flat for shipping and forklift broken feet can be changed and recycled. The feet nest for shipping. Know why it didn’t catch on? Because we haven’t cut down every single tree yet.

    1.  we haven’t cut down every single tree yet

      And you know why that is? Because some inconsiderate sods keep planting new ones.

  6. It’s more than just break-bulk pallets filling the holds of “yard and stay” ships or packing 20′ to 50′ containers onto modern container ships.  I am a Merchant Marine sailor.  How many of you are aware that many of those pallets are made of rare hardwoods that get tossed into the scrap heap of waste?  That the soft wood versions barely hold up to the weights saddled by the old standards–to the danger of those managing the stores placed upon those flats?  There are a lot of stories behind those humble lattices of wood.  Think kindly about those who stand below that cargo.  

    1.  My uncle has roofed several buildings with mahogany plywood taken from leftover pallets that carried fruit to Florida. I’ve got a trailer decked with those panels, been exposed to the weather for at least 16 years now, still solid.

      1. I used jungle hardwoods originally from pallets for all the load bearing bits of a 4’x8′ chicken tractor. That stuff can stay out in the weather for damn near ever and is still rock solid. 

        I’m always looking for what use I have for a bit of spare wood, the property I’m on now came with I’d estimate about 300+ pallets in various states. Some is firewood, the rest I’ll have to find a use for.

  7. I worked in a pallet factory when I was fifteen. My dad knew the owner and got me the job. When all my friends were making $2.65/hour (minimum wage at the time), the midnight shift in the pallet factory paid a whopping $7/hour. I lasted three weeks before quitting out of fear for my life. From the saw that simultaneously cut 3 pallet planks from a longer timber, binding frequently and spitting cut boards past my head, to the guys who used to rake the building with projectiles from their modified nail guns, it was an OH&S nightmare. The final straw was being sent into the sawdust extractor to investigate a burning smell. I emerged to find a firefighter who said, “what the fuck are you doing in there?”. Much to my father’s dismay, I quit that night and took a $2.65/hour job at a gas station. Thirty years later and the smell of sawdust still causes a mild sense of panic.

    1.  Brother, I feel you!  The summer I was 16, I worked in a pallet factory too!  It was an under the table kind of deal for a buddies god father, so there were no workers rights! 

      We also had the guys who modified the nail guns and used them to shoot at things.  One guy welded a bar on the front of his, so he could shoot it like a machine gun. 

       I lasted all summer, it was hot, hellish work in that tin roof warehouse.  100+ degrees everyday, but we were getting paid like 8.50. 

      It was nice to make new ones, but that rarely happened.  More often than not, they would run the pallets through a machine that would cut the nails between the planks and then we would re-nail the planks around the pallet form.  The older the wood, the cheaper the price for the customer.  I still have scars on my shins where the nail gun blasted through the rotted wood, bounced off the metal form, and stuck into leg. 

  8. One big unforeseen consequence of the worldwide pallet trade –  we will have no more ash trees in the US in a few decades.

    Thanks to Emerald Ash Borer beetle stowaways in pallets from China.

  9. It’s been pointed out that despite the ubiquity of crates in your typical video game first person shooter, there is a baffling lack of pallets to go with them.  Truly, they need better PR.

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