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.)
Invisible, 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.)
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.
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.
As 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
Pallets 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.
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!