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The important role of pallets

23 March 2020

Jim Hardisty explains how together plastic pallets and robotic automation can help improve efficiency, consistency and productivity in food processing plants. 

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According to NatWest, by 2024 one-third of the food and drink industry’s workforce in the UK will be due to retire, leaving it approximately 140,000 people short. To plug the gap, the industry is reliant on innovative automation solutions, which have already been introduced for some aspects of food processing.

The integration of automation into primary and secondary food processing has been on an upward trend in recent years as its benefits have become more widely recognised. Intelligent robotics, for example, are transforming food production processes, altering the way that employees work its food production facilities. Where humans were once an integral part of the assembly line, we are seeing them moved to the control room where they are tasked with ensuring the smooth operation of automated processes – leaving automated equipment to handle the monotonous, and sometimes dangerous tasks. Reducing human contact with products not only eradicates injuries and the chance of contamination but allows for more efficient, consistent production.

Advances in robotics – like improvements in sensing and soft gripping technology – also means that robots are now able to take care of even the most delicate of tasks which were once unthinkable applications for automation due to the differences in the size, weight and shape of raw ingredients.

In today’s highly automated food processing plants, robots are undoubtedly helping improve efficiency, consistency and productivity. These improvements, however, would not be possible without the use of reliable plastic pallets. 

To properly understand the importance of plastic pallets, it helps to look at the history of the pallet and its integration with automation. 

Pallets have played a significant role in the world economy since the 1920’s when the first ‘skid’ was introduced. A skid was a simple wooden surface upon which goods were piled and moved or wheeled from A to B. When the forklift truck was invented in 1915, skids were adapted to work with them. Ten years later came the first patent for a pallet, by Howard T. Hallowell who named it a ‘Lift Truck Platform’.

Growing demand
During World War II, demand for pallets grew and this is when pallets really came into their own with the invention of the four-way wooden pallet. When mechanical palletisers came on the scene in the 1950s, the physical work of loading and unloading pallets was handed over to machinery. Where this greatly improved the efficiency and accuracy of palletizing goods, palletizers required products to be practically identical – and at this time pallets weren’t.

Industrial robots appeared in the early 1960s, which saw robotic palletisation taking up less space, becoming inherently reprogrammable and able to handle many different product types.

At around the same time, came the arrival of the first plastic pallet, which was first referenced in Modern Materials Handling Magazine in 1964, and it is this innovation that has helped transform automation and robotic palletisation as we know it today. It is not possible to create wooden pallets that are completely uniform in size and weight, but because plastic pallets are manufactured under extreme pressure, in highly polished moulds, it is possible to guarantee size and weight consistency, meaning that they work seamlessly with robotic palletisers and other automated handling equipment.

In food processing environments, robotic automation requires a durable, hygienic and consistent platform to ensure the smooth and efficient picking and handling of goods, and this is where plastic pallets are indispensable. Wooden pallets subjected to frequent use are prone to damage, loose slats, broken nails, for example, which can disrupt production lines and cause damage to automated equipment. Plastic pallets, however, are designed to withstand frequent use, making them more reliable. Their consistent size and weight mean they can reliably travel through an assembly line without causing disruption.

Jim Hardisty is the managing director of 

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