6 Key Lean Manufacturing Principles

Did you know that most lean manufacturing concepts were developed from the philosophies of Benjamin Franklin?

In his 1758 essay, “The Way to Wealth,” Franklin stated the following:

You call them goods; but, if you do not take care, they will prove evils to some of you. You expect they will be sold cheap, and, perhaps, they may [be bought] for less than they cost; but, if you have no occasion for them, they must be dear to you. 

And Henry Ford cited Franklin as a major influence on his own business practices, which included Just-in-Time manufacturing.

Let’s take a look at some of the guiding principles for implementing a lean manufacturing protocol…

Waste Reduction

First and foremost is waste reduction/elimination. Historically, this is the foundation of modern-day lean manufacturing, identified by Toyota Production System in the 1990’s.

Many of the other principles revolve around this concept. There are seven basic types of waste in manufacturing:

  • Overproduction (production ahead of demand)
  • Unnecessary Motion (moving people or equipment more than is required to perform the task)
  • Excess Inventory (all components and finished product not being processed)
  • Production of Defects (leading to rework, salvage and scrap)
  • Waiting (i.e., waiting for the next production step or interruptions of production during shift change)
  • Transportation (moving products that are not actually required to perform the task)
  • Overprocessing (resulting from unnecessary work that adds no value)

Waste reduction/elimination involves reviewing all areas of your organization, determining the source of all non-value-added work, and reducing or eliminating it.

Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is sometimes referred to by the Japanese word “kaizen,” which literally means “change for the better.”


As the name implies, continuous improvement promotes constant, necessary change toward achievement of a desired state. The changes can be big or small, but they must lend themselves toward improvement.

To be effective, continuous improvement should be a mindset throughout the entire organization. Lean manufacturing experts suggest that you not get caught up in only trying to find the “big ideas,” as small ideas can often lead to big improvements.

For instance, at Toyota, the culture of continual aligned small improvements has yielded large results in overall improved productivity.

Respect for Humanity

The most valuable resource for any company is its people. Without them, the business simply will not succeed.

Staff Members

When employees do not feel respected, they tend to lose respect for their employer. This can become a major problem when a company is trying to implement lean manufacturing principles.

Most staff members want to perform well in their jobs. They’re not just earning a living; they’re also developing a sense of worth from their work.

Constant communication and praise for a job well done will go far to show people you respect them. But it’s also important to include them in upcoming changes and ideas, giving them an opportunity to provide their input. The more involved they are in decisions, the more the ideas become theirs. (And the more likely they are to accept the changes.)

The Supply Side

Implementing lean manufacturing processes requires the cooperation and participation from everyone in the company. But the respect for humanity principle goes so much deeper than the employee level.  You must also display respect for your customers and suppliers, as well as the environment.

Virtually every company is a supplier to someone else. If everyone throughout the supply chain treats their customers and suppliers with respect, working through issues becomes a whole lot easier.

Levelized Production

The basis of this principle is that the workload is the same (or level) every day. In a lean manufacturing facility, this type of standardization is very important.

The key ingredient for this lean manufacturing principle is utilization of a pull system. Components used in the manufacturing process are only replaced once they have been consumed. In this way, companies only make enough products to meet customer demand.

To achieve this, levelized production takes into consideration both forecast and history.

An Example

Your customer orders most likely fluctuate daily. Let’s say on Day 1, they want 10 black and five red parts. The next day, they want 12 red and seven black. On Day 3, they only require 13 parts.

Using levelized production:

  • On Day 1 you would set the level volume at 15 parts per day, and production would replenish the 15 parts that were ordered.
  • On the second day, the order is 19 parts (four parts higher than our levelized production volume). Production would still build 15 parts and the shipping area would take four parts from an inventory called “fluctuation stock.”
  • On the third day, the order was 13 parts, which is two less than the levelized volume. So two parts are put back into fluctuation stock.

Just-in-Time Production

The basis behind just-in-time production is to build what is required, when it is required and in the quantity required. In conjunction with levelized production, this principle works well with the pull system. It allows for movement and production of parts only when required.

The goal in lean manufacturing is to maintain finished product inventory at the lowest levels possible, while ensuring delivery does not suffer.  Of course, it is nearly impossible to carry zero inventory, particularly in facilities where short lead time is essential. So you will need to carry a store of parts to pull from when required.


To facilitate just-in-time production, companies typically employ a system of “kanbans.” A kanban is a hand-sized card that moves with the product or material. It signals when the product is to be built or when the material can be moved.

The kanban basically serves as a work order or pick list. But it also serves as a visual control, to identify the contents of each box. A third function of a kanban is inventory control, to determine the amount of finished product on hand.

Built-In Quality

The idea behind this principle is that quality is built into the manufacturing process. It’s built into the design of the part. It’s built into the packaging. From design to shipping, quality is a major consideration.

This means that your machines are capable of detecting abnormalities and your fixtures have mistake proofing to avoid misassembly.

Abnormality Detection

“Autonomation” pertains to a machine’s ability to judge good or bad conditions. When an abnormal condition is detected, the machine stops and triggers an alarm. A production worker then removes the parts and resets the machine. This keeps the suspect parts from continuing through the process.

Autonomation eliminates the need for a production worker to stand there and monitor each machine. It’s often referred to as “automation with a human touch.”

Mistake Proofing

The purpose of mistake proofing is to eliminate product defects by preventing, correcting, or drawing attention to human errors as they occur.

Mistake proofing can be implemented at any step of a manufacturing process where something can go wrong or an error can be made. For example, a fixture that holds components for processing might be modified to only allow those parts to be held in the correct orientation.

Presence sensors are another example. These sensors allow  only components that fit, and will trigger an alarm if the machine is cycled without all the components present.

Simulation Game

We’ve covered only six of the many lean manufacturing principles out there. If you’re thinking about employing these ideas and others, you may wish to check out the following Factory Business Game:



Lean Directions


Quality Digest

Lean Production

How New Green Packaging Is Saving Endangered Species

On May 18, 2015, “as the light was fading at the end of a bitterly cold day,” zoologist Tony Martin dropped his last rat bait pellet onto a peninsula at the western tip of an island near the South Pole.

“We had finished. We had really finished,” Martin wrote in his final transmission.

It was the end of an arduous four-year effort to save the endangered seabirds on South Georgia island. Martin’s 25-man team, led by the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT), had undertaken the largest rat eradication in history, defending indigenous creatures from their ravenous enemies.

The rats had been introduced to the island by early explorers and hunters more than 200 years ago. And they had been preying on the eggs and chicks of nesting seabirds ever since. In fact, until Martin and his team intervened, the rats had wiped out more than 90% of South Georgia’s seabird populations.

Almost Didn’t Happen

But this is a success story that almost didn’t happen.

One major obstacle the SGHT team had to overcome early on:  How to contain the rat poison pellets to withstand a transport of 17,000 miles across rocky seas, as well as outdoor storage for months in the polar climate?


Another consideration was that Martin’s team of conservationists needed the containers to be recyclable and/or biodegradable.  They wanted to leave virtually no evidence that they had even been there.

Eco-Shield: The Future Is Here

Bell Laboratories, the manufacturers of the pellets, had the answer.

They suggested the SGHT team contact Ox Box, an Illinois-based container company. Ox Box had recently developed a new container material called Eco-Shield, which incorporates plastic resin from recycled plastic bottles with corrugated fiberboard.

The company claims that, not only are Eco-Shield crates extremely strong, durable and weatherproof, their unique chemical composition makes these boxes recyclable and biodegradable, as well.

Bell Labs had good reason for recommending Eco-Shield: They had successfully used the special containers on a previous conservation project.

The Galapagos Experience

In 2012, conservationists waged a similarly aggressive campaign to poison the invasive rats living on Pinzón Island, part of the world-famous Galapagos chain.

The rats — introduced through human activity 200 to 300 years ago — were wreaking havoc among the Galapagos wildlife by preying on eggs and hatchlings of bird and reptile species. Particularly at risk was the saddleback giant tortoise, one of the world’s most ancient and endangered species.


But to save the tortoises and other threatened wildlife populations, the folks at Bell Labs had to ensure that their product would survive the trip to the Galapagos and the tropical Ecuadorian climate. In addition, the containers had to meet the Galapagos project’s strict environmental guidelines.

That’s when they turned to Ox Box for a solution. The Eco-Shield containers used by the team exceeded the project manager’s expectations, and helped them redefine “survival of the fittest.” Because of these containers, the project team was able to successfully “carpet bomb” Pinzón Island, one of the largest areas in the Galapogos chain.

Now, for the first time in more than 150 years, the population of saddleback giant tortoises is set to recover on its own.

Antarctic Epilogue

Meanwhile, back on South Georgia island, ongoing monitoring of the SGHT team’s project indicates some early success. The bait pellets appear to be extremely attractive to rodents, who prefer the pellets over their natural food, but unattractive to seabirds and other indigenous species.

As the need for eco-friendly packaging and shipping materials increases, it’s just a matter of time before products like Eco-Shield become the norm.

Here’s the Eco-Shield promotional video, highlighting the South Georgia habitat restoration project:



BBC News

Ox Box

Bell Laboratories

Discover Magazine

South Georgia Heritage Trust

The Humble Pallet…Where Would We Be Without It?

In 2010, police in Dubai intercepted a container from a Liberian-registered ship that had originated from Pakistan. Suspecting narcotics smuggling, they searched the container’s cargo—heavy bags of iron filings—but found nothing.

Almost as an afterthought, they then decided to check the pallets on which the bags had rested. Inside each pallet was a hollowed-out section containing 500 to 700 grams of heroin.

Which only goes to show you that pallets typically go unnoticed. (A fact that the drug smugglers were no doubt counting on.)

120808_TRANSPORT_Palete.jpg.CROP.cq5dam_web_1280_1280_jpegInvisible, But Everywhere

Think about it… This unassuming construction of beams and planks has carried most every object on the planet, at one time or another.

“Pallets move the world,” according to Mark White, an emeritus professor at Virginia Tech and director of a pallet and container research lab.

And, while they may not look like much, these simple shipping containers play a major role in the history of our economy. But just when did the ever-humble pallet become such a warehouse staple?

It All Began…

Before the birth of pallets, wooden crates, boxes, barrels, and kegs were the mechanisms of choice for transporting and storing goods. Skids were also sometimes used. (As you no doubt already know, a skid is similar to a pallet but does not have bottom deck boards.)

In fact, the use of skids dates back to Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia, in the 1st millennium B.C.

It wasn’t until the early 1920’s, shortly after the modern forklift was invented, that skids evolved into pallets. (This, of course, helps to answer that age-old question: Which came first, the pallet or the forklift? It was, indeed, the forklift.)


early forklift
Courtesy of “The Palletizer,” a U.S. Naval magazine.

Recognizing that skids did not provide the support and stability often required for heavier loads, bottom planks were added to the design in 1925. And the pallet was born.

This addition resulted in an improved weight distribution and a decrease in product damage. It also led to the concept of stacking, which allowed goods to be moved and stored with extraordinary speed and versatility.


Needless to say, the dawn of the pallet revolutionized the way merchandise was gathered, stored and protected. It wasn’t long before every warehouse across the globe began relying on these simple wooden structures to load and store their goods.

Standardization Needed

Then the war came. The Big One — WW II. And the popularity of pallets skyrocketed.

Mass production of all kinds of goods, especially for the military, increased sharply. Pallets were used by thousands of small and mid-sized business throughout North America.

1001pallets.com-the-history-of-pallets-2As a result, it quickly became obvious that pallet standardization was necessary. Every link in the handling chain needed to know just what it was receiving and had to be prepared to receive it.

That’s when the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance set up a Materials Handling Laboratory in Hingham, Massachusetts. Their purpose was to engineer the job of handling as much war material on pallets as possible.

Working together, the Allied countries established a universal 48 X 48 standard size pallet to accommodate easy of shipment and storage of ammunition and other war materials.

One important feature of the standard pallet size is that it fits common 8’ 6” and 9’ 2” railroad box cars beautifully. In addition, the square shape simplified loading and unloading, as well as warehouse stowage.

Pallets Helped Us Win the War

2Pallets played a huge role in the Allied forces winning the war. Tens of millions of pallets were employed.

In fact, according to one historian, “The use of the forklift trucks and pallets was the most significant and revolutionary storage development of the war.”

During this time, a resourceful Navy Supply Corps officer, looking for a way to improve turnaround times for materials handling, invented the “four-way pallet.” With notches cut in the side of the pallet, forklifts could now pick up pallets from any direction.

The design change was a relatively minor refinement that resulted in a doubling of material-handling productivity per worker.

Today’s Pallets

This archived 1950’s video footage shows how surprisingly modern warehouses had become by that time:

Today there are approximately 450 million new pallets produced in North America each year. About 1.9 billion pallets are in use at any given time.

Today’s pallets are designed to withstand enormous weights and be lifted on and off trucks, ships, and planes. You might even say that, without them, it’s uncertain whether the global economy would be as strong as it is today.

For a virtually invisible object, pallets are everywhere!



Packaging Revolution

1001 Pallets

Pallet Enterprise

Energy Efficiency: Weekend Energy Use

Weekend Energy Use

We started off our energy efficiency series for industrial businesses with a discussion of peak energy demand identification. The goal was to identify peak energy demand times and shift the load to flatten your energy curve. This month we cover Part Two of the series: Weekend Energy Use.

The series on energy efficiency measures at a glance:

  1. Peak energy demand identification
  2. Weekend energy use
  3. Weeknight set-backs
  4. Start-up spikes
  5. Compressed air systems

Weekend Energy Reduction

energy efficiencyEnergy efficiency plays a key role in operational efficiency — it has a direct impact on your business results. Some industrial businesses run weekend shifts, while others may close the shop down for a day or two but unnecessarily leave equipment on. Either way, by putting a little attention toward your weekend energy use, you can lower your total operating costs.

To start, review your energy profiles to find energy waste. If you are a small shop without sophisticated energy management software, you can create your own energy profiles based on interval data by using the charting functions of Microsoft Excel. If provided by your utility, an easy way to collect your detailed energy data is through the Green Button initiative.

According to the US Department of Energy, “The Green Button initiative is an industry-led effort that responds to a White House call-to-action to provide utility customers with easy and secure access to their energy usage information in a consumer-friendly and computer-friendly format. Customers are able to securely download their own detailed energy usage with a simple click of a literal ‘Green Button’ on electric utilities’ websites.”

Once you gain insight into your weekend energy use, it is time to share those insights.

Employee Awareness

energy efficiencyOften weekend energy savings boils down to employee energy awareness. If your employees can see that their wasteful habits make a difference, they are more likely to feel inclined to do something about it.

Per Energy Lens, the most effective way to engage your employees in energy savings is by providing them with targeted facts and figures. “Specific figures are generally best for raising energy awareness among staff. For example: Unnecessarily leaving equipment switched on when we go home is wasting x kWh, y dollars, and z lbs CO2 each day. If your building operates continuously every day, investigate the energy consumption of different shifts.”

The use of energy in industry affects every single citizen directly through the cost of goods and services, the quality of manufactured products, the strength of the economy, and the availability of jobs.” The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, & Medicine

When it comes time to share results, savings related to specific days, times, and activities are more motivating than sharing the building’s total energy savings.

Production Shutdowns

Reduction in energy demand can also be achieved by regular production shutdowns (including shutdowns for scheduled maintenance or retooling) and off-shift periods. Savings can be substantial. And data and analytics can offer visibility into shutdown levels to help you optimize savings.

To achieve optimal cost-efficiency, production shutdowns take a great deal of planning and coordination. Pennsylvania Area Development offers guidance in how to successfully manage a temporary production shutdown and return to service.

Tracking Performance

energy efficiencyOnce energy waste is targeted and employees are engaged, it is time to track performance. Energy Lens offers five rules for tracking your energy performance on a monthly basis (click on the link to read more about each rule):

  1. Remember that months are very different in calendar terms;
  2. Only compare the average kW between months;
  3. Restrict the energy that contributes to each monthly average;
  4. Use energy data that contains the necessary level of detail; and
  5. Be aware of seasonal variations in energy consumption.

You Need a Game Plan

Independent studies indicate that U.S. industry as a whole could reduce energy use by 14% to 22% in the near term through cost-effective efficiency measures. Tackling weekend energy efficiency initiatives can help you reduce your energy use and lower your total operating costs — along with lowering the costs to our environment, to our national security, and to irreplaceable resources.

Summary game plan:

  1. Identify specific weekend energy waste to target
  2. Quantify the energy waste
  3. Raise energy awareness and encourage employees to reduce energy waste
  4. Track the energy performance of the days, times, areas, and uses of targeted energy waste
  5. Share and display achieved savings (and celebrate!) to motivate for continued progress



Energy Efficiency: Going Green and Saving Bucks

Among developed nations, the United States has the greatest opportunity for improvement when it comes to energy waste. Complex energy systems play a major part in industrial business. For example, energy use totals roughly $180 billion per year by U.S. manufacturing plants alone.

Time for a Clean-Up

Now is a good time to assess your energy usage and clean up energy waste. As part of a short series on energy efficiency, we will cover five essential measures that every manufacturer can implement to help lower costs, increase competitiveness, and improve your brand by being more environmentally friendly.
Energy Efficient
This series on energy efficiency measures will include:
  1. Peak energy-demand identification,
  2. Weekend energy use,
  3. Weeknight set-backs,
  4. Start-up spikes, and
  5. Compressed air systems

Today we will cover the first of these five measures:  Peak energy-demand identification.

Understanding Peak-Demand Charges

It all started with a few electric power failures. To combat the severe effects of high demand exceeding the limit of electrical grids (like what happened to the city of Chicago in 1995 and to the state of California in 2000 and 2001), peak-demand charges have been incorporated into many utility bills to help lower peak demand. According to Sustainable Plant, a publication and online resource promoting the sustainability of industrial operations, these peak-demand charges can easily equate to 30 percent of a plant’s monthly utility bill.

utilityHave you read your utility bill lately?

It’s complicated and varies widely based upon your contract. But taking the time to understand your bill is the first step in realizing energy savings. Both consumption (or base) charges and demand charges are part of every electricity bill, and for industrial users these charges are usually broken out based on your rate structure.

Consumption is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh) and demand is measured in kilowatts (kW). With higher demand comes higher demand charges. Basically, two companies with the same amount of total energy consumption could pay different rates based upon one using kilowatts at a higher intensity over a shorter period of time. Peak-demand charges are calculated over the 15-minute interval when the plant uses the greatest amount of energy in a given billing period.

Let’s Take a Closer Look…

To illustrate how a demand charge can effect two companies differently, here is an example provided by Energy Smart, an energy-efficiency company based in Boulder, Colorado:
Let’s assume these rates apply to both companies:

Electricity charge = $.0437 per kWh
Demand charge = $2.79 per kW

energyExample 1: Company A runs a 50 megawatt (MW) load continuously for 100 hours.
50 MW x 100 hours = 5,000 megawatt hours (MWh)
5,000 MWh = 5,000,000 kWh
Demand = 50 MW = 50,000 kW
Consumption: 5,000,000 kWh x .0437 = $218,500
Demand: 50,000 kW x $2.79 = $139,500
Total:  $358,000

Example 2: Company B runs a 5 MW load for 1,000 hours.
5 MW x 1,000 hours = 5,000 MWh
5,000 MWh = 5,000,000 kWh
Demand = 5 MW = 5,000 kW
Consumption: 5,000,000 kWh x .0437 = $218,500
Demand: 5,000 kW x $2.79 = $13,950
Total:  $232,450

It is clear to see that Company A pays significantly more due to higher demand (50 MW vs. 5 MW), even though both companies are at the same consumption level. Same kilowatt hours, but different intensities.

Real-Time Data Helps

Energy EfficientReal-time energy data, a component of any good energy-management software program, lets you see more than what your once-a-month utility bill reveals; it lets you manage your energy use in real time. You can monitor energy use fluctuations and easily see when your demand for electricity is greatest. From this visibility, you can develop an energy action plan to lower the highlighted peaks and ultimately lower your demand charges.
Real-time energy monitoring not only provides ongoing feedback and support in planning of your energy use, but can also be used to track the results of your energy-saving initiatives. There are a lot of energy-management software applications available to choose from, with varying degrees of pricing, deployment, features, training, and support. Based on your needs and capital, a good place to start is to review and compare top software options at Capterra.

Measuring, Tracking, Benchmarking

Your most powerful tools for energy waste reduction are measuring, tracking, and benchmarking energy use across all operations. Measuring and tracking help you establish a baseline, a starting point, of your Factoryenergy performance. Per the EPA’s ENERGY STAR, with your baseline established “you are able to set improvement goals, judge changes in energy use, and determine when to take corrective action. Without good energy data, it is impossible to tell if you are really improving or not!”
Benchmarking is used for comparing your energy performance over a specified period with facilities nationwide that operate like yours. It helps you answer the questions “How are we doing?” and “How do we know?”
ENERGY STAR offers energy tracking and benchmarking tools as an alternative for smaller industrial facilities that may not have the resources to invest in a custom energy-management system. These tools aim to help manufacturers assess their energy performance, establish baselines, and set performance improvement goals. Here is an easy-to-read ENERGY STAR document, Guidelines for Energy Management, that outlines seven main steps, including tracking and benchmarking, for improving your overall energy performance.

Your Turn: Create a Game Plan

Peak-demand charges are one of the most expensive parts of your utility bill. Once you gain visibility into your energy usage, you can take action to flatten your energy curve — your intervals of highest demand — by load shifting and filling in the low valleys.

energyLoad shifting is about staggering the start-up of your building’s HVAC system, mechanical equipment, lighting, and office equipment, or trying to minimize any time-energy use is at its highest, to shave off the peaks and flatten out your energy curve. By flattening your energy curve, you will save significant money on your future energy bills — Cha-ching!

Your summary game plan:

  • Collect/Track good energy data from the past one year
  • Benchmark current energy use, how do you compare to others like you?
  • Identify peak energy demand times and set goals
  • Load shift, work to flatten your energy curve
  • Measure results and celebrate your achievements!

Next Time:  Weekend Energy Use

PalletEnterprise’s Leadership Roundtable

Sam DonadioSam Donadio, President at Power Pallet, is among the participants in PalletEnterprise‘s leadership roundtable. The panel is comprised of industry leaders, including new and used pallet manufacturers and sawmills, who are passionate about growing the wood pallet industry and sharing their insights and knowledge. “I feel privileged to be a part of the conversation with a diverse group of leaders from diverse geographic market segments within the industry. There is power in knowledge sharing,” Sam said.

In this first part of a three-part series, the panelists shared their outlook and optimism for the industry’s future. Sam shared that he believes “wood pallets will always be in demand, for it is the most cost-effective and sustainable way to move product.” The panel convened via conference call to discuss “key issues facing the industry, changes taking place in raw material markets, important business metrics to watch, and evolving customer expectations.” PalletEnterprise will share the second installment of the roundtable discussion in their June issue.


Panel Participants

Sam’s co-panelists are Jeff Edwards of Edwards Wood Products, Asher Tourison of ACME Pallet, Carolyn Beach Skinner of Westside Pallet, and Joe McKinney of McVantage.

Jeff Edwards, Edwards Wood Products

Jeff Edwards is the president and owner of Edwards Wood Products, a hardwood lumber and pallet manufacturer located in North Carolina. He joined the family business after high school in 1978 and has never looked back. Since Jeff’s father started the business in 1969, the company has grown to operate five corporate divisions – a timber company; sawmills, chip mills, and manufacturing facilities for pallet and lumber production; as well as a transportation company.

Asher Tourison, ACME Pallet

Asher Tourison is president and owner of ACME Pallet, a designer and manufacturer of new wooden pallets located in Holland, Michigan. Asher joined the company in 1977 and went on to purchase the company in 1982. Since then the company has added two sawmills, one in central part of the state and one in northern Michigan.

Carolyn Beach-Skinner, Westside Pallet

Carolyn Beach-Skinner is vice president of operations for Westside Pallet, a new and used pallet manufacturer located in Newman, California. Founded in 1994 by her father, Carolyn joined the family business in 1998. Their customer base is mainly agriculture and food processing companies. Carolyn also serves as president of the Western Pallet Association (WPA).

Joe McKinney, McVantage

Joe McKinney is president of McVantage, a provider of quality hardwood products from grade lumber to wood containers, located in Tuscumbia, Alabama and Nashville, Tennessee. Started in 1953 as a small sawmill by Joe’s father, the company now operates three divisions – a sawmill operation; a pallet facility; and an international division to explore exotic hardwoods, bio-fuels, and management services. Joe joined the family business in the late 1970s after earning a degree in Industrial Management from Auburn University. Joe has served as chair of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA).


Pallet Enterprise LogoPalletEnterprise, a monthly trade magazine for the pallet and container industry, has been a leading source of information for pallet and sawmill companies for more than 30 years.



Warehouse Automation New Frontiers

Move over Manual, Automation Is Here to Stay

Automated technologies have become a staple of modern industry throughout the world. The 21st century has seen warehouses and distribution centers, once governed solely by manual labor, transform into highly productive, automated environments.

Today’s operations are so high-tech that extensive material handling solutions are used to move goods to workers, instead of workers moving to the goods. These material handling solutions include conveyors, sorting equipment, and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), and the latest innovation being robotics.

The Best in Automated Material Handling Systems

The best case in warehouse automation out there, hands down, is Amazon.com. Sneak a peek at Amazon’s human-machine collaborative power at MIT Technology Review’s Inside Amazon’s Warehouse, Human-Robot Symbiosis. Amazon’s fast-paced process-driven environment is crazed with a dizzying array of activity. At the center of it all are robots. Kiva robots are utilized to rearrange shelving units and ferry shelves full of product to human workers for picking and packaging. Human workers no longer need to walk to retrieve products, which in turn greatly improves Amazon’s order fulfillment times. And when a shelf needs restocking, a robot automatically delivers the empty shelf to a human packer.

Kiva Systems, now Amazon Robotics, founded in 2003 by Mick Mountz, employs hundreds of mobile robots to offer integrated order-fulfillment solutions at warehouses and distribution centers for companies like The Gap, Saks Fifth Avenue, Staples, Walgreens, and Crate and Barrel. Watch a play-by-play narrative video of how Kiva robots impressively automate a warehouse environment at A Day in the Life of a Kiva RobotThe results are equally impressive, such automation allows for a warehouse to handle up to four times as many orders as a similar warehouse that does not utilize automation. In non-automated environments, workers can spend 70 percent of their time walking to retrieve goods – that adds up to walking well over 15 miles per shift.

Diapers.com, purchased by Amazon in 2011, is the largest online retailer of baby products and is another user of the Kiva order-fulfillment robot system. Roughly 15 to 20 robots work simultaneously to retrieve products based on digital instructions. The robotic picking system helps Diapers.com consistently achieve one-day shipping. This lightning-fast delivery, along with their award-winning customer service, is a game-changer for busy moms.

It’s Still about the People

Robots and People

In a manual labor-oriented operation, a traditional operation, the basis of success is on managing, motivating, and developing people. Performances of throughput and order accuracy are the key indicators, leaving system vitality directly impacted by individual performance. Basically saying: the recipe is only as good as the least quality ingredient. In a traditional operation, a system is only as good as the people performing the individual tasks within that system.

This changes to a degree in an automated environment because people are not performing the individual tasks, machines are. Of course, people are tasked with managing the machines that perform the tasks. In an automated operation, optimization comes from managing both technology and people; utilizing performance metrics to monitor and optimize the technology investment.

To maximize your investment in automation it is critical to have the right people in place. Yes, a technical skill set with a whole systems mindset is important, but finding people with great communication skills is still a must. To read more about the profiles of key leadership roles for an automated warehouse, click here.

So, What Does the Future Hold?

No doubt, robotics will be the key to furthering efficiencies in warehouses and distribution centers. Once confined to performing repetitive tasks separated from human workspaces, industrial robots are now being utilized to work in conjunction with human workers. With better computer chips and algorithms, robots are now better equipped to learn new tasks quickly. And with better sensors and actuators, they have become safer in working alongside human workers.

For now, robots are still incapable of tasks that require fine manipulation or improvisation. It is just a matter of time before robots will have the functioning to pick goods from a shelf and prepare and pack the items for shipping. Wily Shih, a Harvard professor who studies manufacturing, believes the future will likely see robots become “easier to drop into factory and distribution settings, and easier to integrate with existing manual processes and workers.”

The Coming of the Robot Revolution

With the advances in automation and artificial intelligence, it is easy to worry about job displacement. A MIT Technology Review article “Who Will Own the Robots?“, the third in a series of articles about the effects of automation on the economy, reminds us, “As Silicon Valley has taught us, technology can be both a dynamic engine of economic growth and a perverse intensifier of income inequality.”1

The article wraps up with a valid point to consider in moving automation forward. That with the development in automation and digital technologies in general, whoever owns the capital will gain the benefit. Richard Freeman, a labor economist at Harvard, shares a solution “that far more people need to ‘own the robots.’” Investment programs in profit sharing, employee stock ownership, and others could be utilized here to have ownership more widely shared. After all, sharing the rewards of new technologies “could restore the middle-class dream that has long driven technological ambition and economic growth.”2

1 – Who Will Own the Robots?, MIT Technology Review

2 – ibid.



MIT Technology Review

Choosing the Right Size Pallet

Choosing the right size, along with the right type, of pallet is important for multiple reasons. The most important are the considerations of maximizing available storage space, reducing transport costs, and the efficient handling and safeguarding of goods during the transport cycle. It is easy to see that choosing the right size pallet for the job matters plenty to your bottom line.


When It Comes to Size, We Have No Standards

There are no global standards when it comes to pallet sizing. As large as the pallet industry is, we do not have a standardized version of the most far-reaching packaging item in the world.
Of course some industries do have their own pallet-sizing standards. Conformity within the industry allows efficient movement of goods between manufacturers, distribution centers, and storefronts.


Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA)

Of the top pallets used in the United States, the most popular is the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA) pallet, measuring 48″ x 40″ (L x W). The GMA pallet footprint makes up about 30% of all new wood pallets produced in the U.S. and is one of six standard sizes recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).


Six Pallet Measurements Recognized by ISO

ISO sanctions six pallet sizes, detailed in ISO Standard 6780, for intercontinental materials handling. Principal dimensions (L × W), along with the regions most commonly used in:


1219 × 1016 mm (48.00 × 40.00 in) North America
1000 × 1200 mm (39.37 × 47.24 in) Europe, Asia
1165 × 1165 mm (44.88 × 44.88 in) Australia
1067 × 1067 mm (42.00 × 42.00 in) North America, Europe, Asia
1100 × 1100 mm (43.30 × 43.30 in) Asia
800 × 1200 mm (31.50 × 47.24 in) Europe


The Power of Small

Bigger is not always better. The popular 48″ x 40″ pallet has been traditionally favored in the U.S.. This pallet size is popular primarily for efficiency.  However, there are applications where small is the call.


Detailed in a Pallet Enterprise article titled “Markets in Transition: What’s the ‘Point’ of Small Pallets,” Rick LeBlanc covers reasons to consider using a smaller footprint, including:
  • Shipping products of small size like medical devices;
  • Moving pallets through smaller doors as in retail settings with household-sized doors versus large overhead doors;
  • To fill open partial pallet positions on otherwise full trailers;
  • Shipping smaller quantities;
  • Warehouse and retail situations requiring narrower pallet widths to allow more product facings in aisles;
  • To reduce case picking by utilizing pallet shipments, palletize smaller loads on smaller pallets, to reduce damage and picking errors and to reduce labor and packing costs; and
  • For floor and aisle planning of promotional and Point of Purchase displays.


One Size Does Not Fit All

For retailers, promotion drives sales. Display promotion drives as much as 50% of retail sales. However, as quarter and half pallet sizes become a larger player for retailers, there still is no uniformity about the best footprint to use.


With the understanding that pallets are designed according to their use – that is designed to meet the requirements of various industries, across various regions, all looking to reduce expenses and optimize workflow – it may be a while before we actually see global standards develop for pallet sizing.


Until then you can use the pallet specialists at Power Pallet to design the optimal pallet for your packaging.


Pallet Design System™ (PDS)

Pallet Desing System ImagePower Pallet’s specialists
utilize a software program from the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association. The Pallet Design System™ (PDS) incorporates the latest data, engineering, and technologies developed from over thirty years of National Wooden Pallet and Container Association’s extensive research and development.


 All materials used to construct the pallet can be specified:
  • Any wood species available in North America, South America, and Europe.
  • Recycled components can be specified.
  • Plywood or OSB panels can be used if designing a panel deck pallet.
  • Solid wood or composite blocks can be used if designing a block-class pallet.
  • All types and sizes of nails and staples used in pallet construction can be selected.
  • Pallet treatments to meet ISPM-15 compliance can be indicated.
  • Special manufacturing features such as chamfers, clipped corners, strapping notches and slots, and painting or stenciling can be specified.
The pallet specification sheet contains a fully-dimensioned 2-D drawings with Top, Bottom, Side, and End Views, and 3-D drawings. Pallet specification data can also be exported to ERP software used by the wood pallet industry, including Palmate™ from Automated Machine Systems, Inc., and PalletTrack™ from Innovative Data Systems, Inc.


Power Pallet can specify and draw the entire “unit load” – consisting of the pallet, containers and load stabilizers. Available container types include:
  • corrugated boxes;
  • steel, plastic and fiber drums;
  • plastic and steel pails;
  • paper, plastic and textile bags of all tube and end styles;
  • rectangular and octagonal bulk bins;
  • and bulk bags.


Available load stabilizers include:
  • plastic and steel strapping;
  • strap protectors, corner protectors and top edge protectors;
  • stretch and shrink wrap;
  • top frames;
  • top caps; top sheets;
  • pallet barrier sheets;
  • and tie sheets between layers.

Power Pallet specialists can compute and display all possible stacking patterns for a layer of containers on the pallet and calculate the footprint for each possible configuration. Stacking multiple layers of containers is displayed, with either interlock or column stacking for boxes and bags, and the overall dimensions and weight of the unit load is calculated.

Power Pallet can develop a series of engineering analyses to predict the performance of the pallet under the specified loads. The safe load capacity, deflection under load, and critical pallet components are determined for each support condition. The resistance to damage, estimates of repair frequency and pallet service life are calculated.

Contact us here if you would like engineering support.

Which Came First the Pallet or the Forklift?

We often take for granted that we live in a complex world made possible through world-class logistics. Pallets, boxes, and forklifts make it all happen.

Pallets Move the World”

Pallets and Forklifts“Pallets move the world®” is the byline of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association. Used for storing and distributing product in virtually all industries where products are physically transported – whether by means of trucking, freight trains, overseas ships, or air carriers – pallets can easily carry a load of 1,000 kg (2,205 lb).

Today, over half a billion pallets are manufactured each year. About two billion pallets are in use across the U.S. alone, working to move 80% of goods throughout our nation. The majority of these pallets, about 95%, are made of wood; about 2% are plastic; 2% are wood composite; and less than 1% are cardboard/corrugated.

We easily can concur that wooden pallets carry the load. But to answer the question of which came first, the pallet or the forklift, depends on how we define “pallet.”

The Definition of “Pallet”

PalletsDictionary.com defines pallet as: a small, low, portable platform on which goods are placed for storage or moving, as in a warehouse or vehicle.

The Pallet Evolved From the Skid

The evolution of the pallet starts with the skid, or sled. The skid had no center supports and was lifted by a single lift platform. Today’s pallet is a reusable packaging item that includes center stringers or blocks and a bottom deck and is handled by forks to lift and transport the load.

Skids go back to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia at least as far back as the 1st millennium BCE. Per author Peter Roger Stuart Moorey in Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence (Eisenbrauns, 1999), canal-builders may have used simple means, such as skids, to transport materials in the construction of the Aqueduct of Jerwan, a part of the larger Atrush Canal built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib between 703 and 690 BCE.1

So What Gave Rise to Today’s Pallet?

Gilbert P. Dempsey and David G. Martens, both USDA Forest Service researchers, advised 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 was the needs of World War II logistics operations – tens of millions of pallets were employed.

“Looking to improve turnaround times for materials handling [during WWII], a Navy Supply Corps officer named Norman Cahners 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.”2

The pallet has basically stayed the same since WWII. The most notable change, used throughout Europe and adopted by Costco is the block pallet. Block pallets are essentially an improvement on the four-way pallet. The deck boards rest on sturdy blocks, rather than long cross boards, or stringers, which make them even easier for forklifts and pallet jacks to pick up from any angle.

Forklifts Power Global Storage Efficiencies

Forklift in a warehouseIf “pallets move the world” then forklifts power global storage efficiencies. Used as a materials handling vehicle designed to move loads by means of steel forks inserted under a load, the forklift is known as one of the most important industrial innovations of modern time. An essential part of today’s supply chain market, forklifts have a lifting capacity of up to 48 tons and up to 670 inches in height.

Today, over 150,000 forklifts are delivered to material handling buyers each year in the U.S. And per Josh Bond’s article “Top 20 Lift truck suppliers, 2013” of Modern Materials Handling, “in 2013 alone the top 20 manufacturers worldwide posted sales of $30.4 billion with 944,405 machines sold.”

The Forklift Evolved From the Hoist

Old CraneThe evolution of the forklift, lift truck, starts with the hoist, essentially chains and winches. Hoists were the primary means of lifting and moving heavy items in the late 1800s. With the turn of the 20th century came wooden platform trucks. Introduced in 1920 was the first industrial truck to use hydraulic power to lift its load. During the 1920s, several manufacturers entered the market exploring new designs.

In 1923, what is considered today as the first forklift, Yale introduced an electric truck with raising forks and an elevated mast. The lift worked via a ratchet and pinion system. Then in 1937 came gas-powered forklift trucks. Since the first introduction of the forklift truck, one of the most noticeable changes has been the addition of safety components like the protective cab.

So What Gave Rise to Today’s Forklift?

Old ForkliftThe rise of the forklift mirrors that of the pallet. Both WWI and WWII spurred the use of lift trucks, mainly due to the shortage of labor. During and following WWII, more efficient methods for materials handling in warehouses were being implemented.

And with the increased popularity of the pallet came the need for more numerous and versatile forklifts.

In 1954 came the first narrow aisle electric reach truck, introduced by Lansing Bagnall. The reach truck allowed operators to stack loads higher and operate in narrower aisles than before. The development changed the design of warehouses leading to increased storage capability.

The increase in lifting heights and capacities lead to the development of safety features, such as load back rests and operator cages, along with ergonomic design, to reduce injuries and to provide optimum operator comfort and productivity.

Today, forklifts have become an indispensable piece of equipment in manufacturing and warehousing operations. Forklifts are more sophisticated with complex electronic and hydraulic systems, and high visibility masts. In fact, “forklifts of today can be equipped with a wide range of electronic equipment to interface with cargo management systems and new RFID technology to increase productivity.”3

So Which Came First?

We know that the needs of World War II logistics operations led to the rise and popularity of both the pallet and the forklift. However, determining which actually came first, the pallet or the forklift, is not as clear.

What do you think? Perhaps Rick LeBlanc’s article What Came First, The Pallet or the Forklift? will help you weigh in on the topic.

For throughout time, materials handling solutions have evolved. With each improvement, our global economy is transformed. As the great Greek mathematician of classical antiquity, Archimedes, exclaimed regarding the lever, ”Give me but one firm spot on which to stand and I will move the earth.”

1 – Cited from author Peter Roger Stuart Moorey in Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence (Eisenbrauns, 1999), page 32.

2 – Cited from Tom Vanderbilt, The Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy (Slate, Aug 14, 2012).

3 – Cited from A Brief History of the Forklift in North America (LiftsRus.com, July 24, 2015).