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Industry History: Pallets

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The original Big Joe IBH (“In Between Handling”), circa 1950 (photo courtesy of Big Joe Manufacturing Co.)

In the annals of material handling, one element whose importance cannot be overstated is the pallet. Without the pallet, goods of all stripes could not be transported as quickly and efficiently. While it seems a simple idea now—indeed, we cannot imagine the industrialized economy without it—the palletwas a revolutionary idea in the early part of the 20th century as a means of storing, loading and transporting supplies filling up ports. Loose cargo could be stacked on a pallet, and it would remain there until otherwise moved. Even so elementary a staple as the pallet, however, has seen changes throughout the decades. A turning point for early pallets came in the late 1930s with the development of the standardized pallet, the 40- by 48-inch design so ubiquitous today, which for the first time allowed the exchange of pallets across a number of different industries, thus further facilitating the transport of goods. This “predictable unitized load” led to the standardization of forklifts and to the development of storage racks to replace shelving.

In the 1940s, the pallet took yet another step forward with the development of the four-way pallet, which could be approached by a forklift from any direction.

Today, over half a billion pallets are manufactured each year, and on any given day, close to two billion pallets are in use across the United States alone. Over 90 percent of all pallets are made of wood, consuming close to 12 percent of all the lumber produced in the United States; only the home construction industry uses more wood.

The pallet industry continues to evolve. Pallets constructed of both plastic (using a molded process or plastic lumber) and corrugated cardboard pallets continue to make headway in the market, while recycling of pallets has grown with trends in environmental awareness.

But even as materials change, the necessity of the pallet continues unabated.

In the annals of material handling, one element whose importance cannot be overstated is the pallet. Without the pallet, goods of all stripes could not be transported as quickly and efficiently. While it seems a simple idea now—indeed, we cannot imagine the industrialized economy without it—the palletwas a revolutionary idea in the early part of the 20th century as a means of storing, loading and transporting supplies filling up ports. Loose cargo could be stacked on a pallet, and it would remain there until otherwise moved. Even so elementary a staple as the pallet, however, has seen changes throughout the decades. A turning point for early pallets came in the late 1930s with the development of the standardized pallet, the 40- by 48-inch design so ubiquitous today, which for the first time allowed the exchange of pallets across a number of different industries, thus further facilitating the transport of goods. This “predictable unitized load” led to the standardization of forklifts and to the development of storage racks to replace shelving.

In the 1940s, the pallet took yet another step forward with the development of the four-way pallet, which could be approached by a forklift from any direction.

Today, over half a billion pallets are manufactured each year, and on any given day, close to two billion pallets are in use across the United States alone. Over 90 percent of all pallets are made of wood, consuming close to 12 percent of all the lumber produced in the United States; only the home construction industry uses more wood.

The pallet industry continues to evolve. Pallets constructed of both plastic (using a molded process or plastic lumber) and corrugated cardboard pallets continue to make headway in the market, while recycling of pallets has grown with trends in environmental awareness.

But even as materials change, the necessity of the pallet continues unabated.

 
 
The original Big Joe IBH
The original Big Joe IBH (“In Between Handling”), circa 1950 (photo courtesy of Big Joe Manufacturing Co.)
         
   
Pallet trucks are used to transport incoming goods to assembly area, 1952. (photo courtesy of Yale Materials Handling Corporation)
       
Big Joe Center Control with cabinet, circa 1950
Big Joe Center Control with cabinet, circa 1950 (photo courtesy of Big Joe Manufacturing Co.)
 
Two-way pallets
Two-way pallets. Angle arrangement of stacks reduce aisle width to 8 ft. 6 in., circa 1952. (photo courtesy of Yale Materials Handling Corporation)

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

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