Pallets Become Safer and Easier to Use
Innovations include increased strength, fire resistance, and services that keep pallets in action.
by Annie Lubinsky, Managing Editor
Packaging engineers may find pallets easy to take for granted. They may fall under the responsibility of company personnel outside packaging, and as long as there are pallets available to transport and store raw materials and finished products, packaging engineers probably do not give them a second thought.
The fire-retardant Extreme pallet from GE Plastics is made from Noryl MH and Xenoy resins and is UL classified.
However, having safe, sturdy, clean, and cost-effective pallets is very important in a healthcare packaging operation. The proper pallets can help ensure safety in the manufacturing facility as well as prevent contamination of raw and finished materials. Pallet manufacturers help pharmaceutical and medical device companies by bringing costs down while increasing the quality of their products and services. Recent product innovations include improvements in fire safety and hygiene, while services such as pallet rental and retrieval and recovery systems are on the increase.
WOOD, PLASTIC, OR STEEL?
Three pallet materials typically used by the medical and pharmaceutical industries are wood, plastic, and stainless steel. Each has its advantages. Wood pallets are generally inexpensive, repairable, and recyclable; plastic pallets offer durability, a hygienic surface, reusability, and recyclability; and stainless-steel pallets are often considered to be indestructible.
Each type of pallet has its place in medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturing. In fact, one producer of saline and IV solutions, B. Braun (Irvine, CA), uses all three types of pallets in its manufacturing facility. According to Pete Hagstrom, B. Braun's director of distribution, the company uses plastic pallets for its raw materials, stainless-steel pallets for steam sterilization, and wood pallets for the finished goods. "The plastic pallets are for raw materials that require minimal contamination, such as dextrose and salt for saline solutions. Plastic is inert and can move into the cleanroom or mixing room," Hagstrom explains. "After the IV bags are made, they are sterilized in a large, pallet-sized steam sterilizer unit. We use stainless-steel pallets for this."
Hagstrom says that about 90% of B. Braun's pallets are wood. "They're a cost-effective way to ship packaged products," he says.
Mike McCartney, vice president of marketing at Container and Pallet Services (CAPS; San Francisco), sees pharmaceutical companies increasingly using plastic pallets. "Stainless-steel pallets are very durable and hygienic but also very expensive," he says. "Plastic has hygienic qualities and is less expensive than stainless steel."
Steve Geiges, chairman of the National Wood Pallet and Container Association's (NWPCA; Arlington, VA) trade promotion committee, says that wood pallets can be designed for durability and a long life. "Wood pallets are economical, can be repaired and refurbished numerous times, and can last for years," he says. "They are also safe for storage in racks in warehouses with a sprinkler system, whereas some of the plastics used for plastic pallets may create fire safety concerns."
One manufacturer of plastic pallets recently created the Extreme fire-retardant pallet. GE Plastics (Pittsfield, MA) makes these pallets from its Noryl MH and Xenoy resins. Extreme pallets offer the durability of plastic at the same level of fire safety as wood.
In December 1999, the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) issued a safety alert bulletin that urged code enforcement officials to "determine levels of compliance" with codes and regulations "where plastic pallets may be in use." According to information provided by GE Plastics, typical plastic pallets made from polyethylene and polypropylene do not meet the requirements as laid out in the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) code. Because of this risk, facilities using standard polyethylene and polypropylene pallets may require a commodity class upgrade. This upgrade could require costly changes to the warehouse sprinkler system, water control, and aisle widths.
The bulletin continues: "The code also provides an exemption for those plastic pallets that present a hazard 'equal to or less than that presented by idle wood pallets' and are listed accordingly. Pallets meeting UL 2335 will carry the UL or comparable label."
The Extreme fire-retardant pallets from GE Plastics are UL classified and typically require no modification to the user's facility. Automation and fire protection systems can usually remain the same. In addition to its UL classification, Extreme pallets recently received Factory Mutual approval. "This is the only pallet to meet the needs of these codes," says Ed Martin, marketing director at GE Plastics.
Lori Baccaro, technical manager, adds, "We designed the Extreme pallet to be strong and safe and with special fire characteristics that allow the company to be insured in the same way." This fire-retardant pallet lowers insurance risk, which can translate into lower or unchanging premiums.
Each pharmaceutical and medical device company has its own way of handling fire safety, according to experts at Cookson Plastic Molding (Latham, NY), another manufacturer of plastic pallets. Those companies that have adequate fire safety measures in place to handle wood pallets can use fire-retardant plastic pallets without changing those measures. "In some cases, there's a tendency in pharmaceutical companies to be at the maximum level of protection," says Jim Favaron, senior vice president of engineering. "Then the issue of fire safety is already addressed as far as using plastic pallets." In that case, the company can choose regular plastic pallets instead of or in addition to wood pallets and still be in compliance with fire codes.
Ken Smith, vice president of the material handling group at Rehrig Pacific Co. (Los Angeles), points out that the fire codes themselves have not changed. "But enforcement officials are paying a lot more attention to code compliance," he explains.
Pallet manufacturers recognize that cleanliness is extremely important in the healthcare industry. Cookson Plastic Molding recently introduced the one-piece RackoCell pallet designed to be easily washable with built-in features to ensure a high degree of hygiene. "Its big selling points are that the pallet is durable, cost-effective, and hygienic," says Jeff Mazzone, Cookson's director of marketing.
The polypropylene pallet is quite stiff—it can support up to 2200 lb while edge racked. "There are very few rackable plastic pallets that are hygienic," says Kevin Connolly, product manager at Cookson. "These are characteristics that are especially useful for the pharmaceutical industry."
Wood provides a rigid material for a pallet but can crack upon impact. In comparison, plastic is impact resistant, but more pliable. Pallet manufacturers have been working to find a plastic that maintains its impact resistance while adding the rigidity that is valued in wood. Orbis (Oconomowoc, WI), as well as other manufacturers, has recently developed a plastic pallet that will carry up to 3000 lb unsupported in a rack. "This pallet is as rigid as wood." says Leta Hogg, senior product manager at Orbis.
The 4048 family of pallets from Orbis shows the wide range of styles available to meet the needs of different industries.
Combining the rigidity of wood with the durability of plastic creates a strong pallet well suited for the pharmaceutical industry. While Orbis strives to provide unbiased solutions for any company that requires pallets, Hogg points out that the pharmaceutical industry has special concerns that set it apart from other industries. "The issues are not repairability and cost," says Hogg. "The issues are cleanability, safety, and avoidance of pests." Because of these issues, Hogg feels that plastic pallets are the best solution for this industry.
Rehrig has also addressed the strength issue with its box beam pallet, a low-weight polypropylene pallet that can carry heavy items while edge racked. "The big difference is that our box beam pallet weighs about 45 lb, while pallets with similar racking capabilities can weigh from 55 to 65 lb," says Smith. The company also provides a standard
Pallets from Orbis support materials awaiting processing.
PALLET SUPPORT SERVICES
Besides enjoying the benefits of improved pallets, companies are making greater use of pallet services, including pallet rental and pallet retrieval and recovery. Businesses that wish to focus attention and capital on their core strengths or research and development may find it beneficial to rent pallets rather than to buy them. CAPS is one company that rents or leases pallets. The company uses its automated tracking system, CAPS-TRAC, a proprietary Internet-based technology, to monitor pallets as they travel from one facility to another. Every pallet is tagged with a bar code or radio frequency identification chip so the system can collect, read, and track data.
"Traditionally, companies purchase and track their own pallets," says McCartney. "But in the last 10 years, there has been a movement away from buying and toward renting. If you rent, you don't have to tie up your capital or take the trouble to go out and buy pallets, track them, and make sure you have the right amount in each facility." The pallet rental company handles those tasks.
Cookson's Bob Reivik, president of the material handling division, also sees a trend toward renting. "The trend is different in different markets, but rental increases in cases where you have complex distribution," he says.
RETRIEVAL AND RECOVERY
Another increasing trend is the use of pallet retrieval and recovery systems to ensure that pallets are tracked, reused, refurbished, and recycled rather than lost or thrown out. Steve Geiges, in addition to being NWPCA's trade promotion committee chairman, is also director of sales for Treen Box & Pallet Corp. (Bensalem, PA), a company that carries out retrieval and recovery. Geiges says that in an ideal situation, "you can save up to 50% of the cost of new pallets."
These systems are highly customized; they differ from rental arrangements in that they offer industry- or company-specific sizes or designs in addition to the standard pallets. Often retrieval and recovery systems provide pallets that are not offered by rental companies.
Treen and similar companies have an effective strategy to meet the cleanliness requirements of medical and pharmaceutical companies: They focus on finding pallets that work for the company and that can be used to generate revenue at the end of their use. "We try to give these companies a pallet with a good footprint for resale. We use the P.O.S. design system that evaluates pallet performance," says Geiges. "We're currently developing this type of system with a large pharmaceutical company."
RECYCLABILITY AND REUSE
At the end of their useful lives, plastic pallets may be reused to make more pallets or other products. Plastic does not degrade, which can be seen by environmentalists as a negative characteristic, "but in pallets, this lack of degradability is a plus," says Favaron. "If the pallet can no longer be used, it can be ground up and made into another object." Cookson, as well as many other plastic pallet manufacturers, has a buyback program that allows customers to trade old pallets for new ones.
"Recyclability is a big buzzword," says Reivik, "but in the case of pallets, reusability is a bigger plus," because reusability reduces waste.
Wood pallets may be reconditioned and refurbished or may be made into mulch. According to information from the NWPCA, 71% of wood pallets are recycled by their users.
All types of pallets have undergone improvements at just about every stage of their life cycle from manufacturing to recycling. Pharmaceutical or medical companies can obtain pallets at an economical price, either by buying, leasing, or renting them. Companies that manufacture pallets or provide services related to pallets can take on the tracking and maintenance required, leaving the healthcare company free to do what it does best—provide high-quality products to customers.