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)