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Plastic pallets: a good automation partner?

14 September 2020

Suzanne Gill reports on the benefits of plastic pallets in automated food production applications. 

Consistency is the biggest benefit of a plastic pallet, when compared with traditional wooden pallets, according to Jim Hardisty, managing director at “They will retain the same shape size and weight throughout their life,” he said. Durability is another big benefit. “Pallets that are moulded as a single piece will be much stronger than wooden pallets, which compose many parts and are joined by nails,” continued Hardisty. 

For the food and beverage industry, plastic pallets offer an important additional benefit – hygiene. “They can be washed down, and do not generate any contaminants or debris which could result in a jam hazard in automated lines,” said Hardisty. 

To overcome any arguments about whether or not plastic pallets can offer a sustainable and environmentally-friendly solution, Hardisty pointed out that over 95% of the plastic pallets built by are made from recycled materials and can themselves be recycled at the end of their useful lives. Further, while it depends on the applications in which they are used, Hardisty claims that, in a fully automated system, plastic pallets could last for up to 20 years – probably outlasting the application itself. 

Their durability and long life means that the lifetime costs of a plastic pallet will be much lower than a wooden pallet. Also, in food industry applications, the hygienic benefits would outweigh any initial cost considerations and, in automated solutions, the effects of any production downtimes due to broken or buckled wooden pallets would again far outweigh any initial cost differences between plastic and wood. 

Early consideration 
As more food industry production lines become automated, Hardisty points out the importance of considering the pallets at an early stage of any project. Offering an example, he discussed a project that is now reaching completion, for a pet food manufacturer. was contacted by the pet food manufacturer in the Summer of 2019 to provide a variety of pallets to allow its shortlisted machine builders to factor the pallets into their solution. The goal of the project was to allow the company to store more raw material in less space through the creation of a block stack racking system with shuttles – enabling it to increase production within the same facility and also allowing it to hold greater levels of stock to ensure that production is not adversely affected by any supply chain disruptions.

The biggest challenge posed by the project was accommodating the weight of the bulk bags which required a pallet that would not flex too much under load. It also required pallets that would work well with the automated equipment. 

Before making a final choice of automation provider, the company’s engineering team visited both test sites to see how the solutions worked with the pallets. “This is typical of many projects we are involved with as it makes good sense, when creating a bespoke automated solution, to first understand how all the different elements will work together,” said Hardisty.

Previously, the pet food manufacturer had stored the heavy bulk bags at ground level with just one level of racking, a solution which also required large aisles to allow access for forklift trucks. By automating its storage area, the company will be able to store up to ten times as many bulk bags in one-quarter of the space previously needed, freeing up valuable space. 

The project has recently moved to the installation phase, which will see providing 7,500 pallets to hold the bulk bags that are moved around the storage area by an automated shuttle system which runs along the racking – 15 across and eight high. 

In conclusion, Hardisty wanted to point out the importance of considering the pallets very early in an automation project. “The right pallets will ensure a much smoother running automation solution and plastic pallets are well suited to use in automated systems, offering consistency, precision and durability,” he said.

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