Great Designs in Wood (53) - The Wooden Pallet

This post is long overdue. While we tend to think of great houses, fine furniture, and unique products when we think of designs in wood, the humble wooden pallet may be able to claim to be the greatest design of all.

Wooden pallets, as the title of the video below states, literally move the world.

In fact, Slate Magazine recently called the pallet the "Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy." From the article:
Pallets, of course, are merely one cog in the global machine for moving things. But while shipping containers, for instance, have had their due, in Marc Levinson’s surprisingly illustrative book The Box (“the container made shipping cheap, and by doing so changed the shape of the world economy”), pallets rest outside of our imagination, regarded as scrap wood sitting outside grocery stores or holding massive jars of olives at Costco. As one German article, translated via Google, put it: “How exciting can such a pile of boards be?”
And yet pallets are arguably as integral to globalization as containers. For an invisible object, they are everywhere: There are said to be billions circulating through global supply chain (2 billion in the United States alone). Some 80 percent of all U.S. commerce is carried on pallets. So widespread is their use that they account for, according to one estimate, more than 46 percent of total U.S. hardwood lumber production.
Companies like Ikea have literally designed products around pallets: Its “Bang” mug, notes Colin White in his book Strategic Management, has had three redesigns, each done not for aesthetics but to ensure that more mugs would fit on a pallet (not to mention in a customer’s cupboard). After the changes, it was possible to fit 2,204 mugs on a pallet, rather than the original 864, which created a 60 percent reduction in shipping costs. There is a whole science of “pallet cube optimization,” a kind of Tetris for packaging; and an associated engineering, filled with analyses of “pallet overhang” (stacking cartons so they hang over the edge of the pallet, resulting in losses of carton strength) and efforts to reduce “pallet gaps” (too much spacing between deckboards). The “pallet loading problem,”—or the question of how to fit the most boxes onto a single pallet—is a common operations research thought exercise.
Pallet history is both humble and dramatic. As Pallet Enterprise (“For 30 years the leading pallet and sawmill magazine”) recounts, pallets grew out of simple wooden “skids”, which had been used to help transport goods from shore to ship and were, essentially, pallets without a bottom set of boards, hand-loaded by longshoremen and then, typically, hoisted by winch into a ship’s cargo hold. Both skids and pallets allowed shippers to “unitize” goods, with clear efficiency benefits: “According to an article in a 1931 railway trade magazine, three days were required to unload a boxcar containing 13,000 cases of unpalletized canned goods. When the same amount of goods was loaded into the boxcar on pallets or skids, the identical task took only four hours.” 
Wooden pallets can be made in just about any combination of boards imaginable, in order to carry whatever load they are designed to carry. The two most common designs of pallets are the "stringer" pallet, most common in the United States, and the "block" pallet, the most widely used pallet in the rest of the world. Stringer pallets have typically three or four boards running lengthwise on edge, onto which the wooden deckboards are nailed.

Stringer pallets.
In contrast, the deckboards on block pallets are fastened to stringers or frames, placed flatwise, that connect typically nine or more wooden blocks. This design allows for what those in the logistics industry call "true four-way entry"; in other words, the loader approaching the unit load with a forklift or pallet jack can insert its forks into whichever side of the load the loader happens to be approaching. This flexibility in handling allows for more efficient use of the pallet in loading and unloading operations, especially in those which utilized automated load handling systems.

Block pallets. Source:
While the sheer volume of pallets used around the world in conveying goods is staggering to contemplate, perhaps the best evidence of our designation of the wooden pallet as a "great design in wood" is in its frequent "second life" as affordable and personalized do-it-youself furniture. A search of YouTube with the simple word "pallets" returns around 144,000 video results...and I'd be willing to bet over 90% of them are folks showing some creative use of wooden pallets in and around their home. I've shared some of these before, and here's another great one.

Anything that can be used in so many ways, even after serving its useful primary life, surely must be called one of our "Great Designs in Wood." In fact, the lowly wooden pallet may be THE GREATEST design in wood, ever.

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Fireball Doowah said…
Planet Money had a podcast devoted to pallets...
B said…
The importance of the wooden pallet has been commemorated in a sculpture outside the William H. Sardo, Jr. Pallet and Container Research Laboratory on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, VA. Information on the sculpture and a photo can be found here:
seansimons said…
These are all super creative ways to use old pallets. I especially like the coffee table. I would tend to think that projects with old pallets would be rustic looking like many of these are, but all it takes is a little paint, and glass you have modern.
Skylar Mitchell said…
I definitely agree with you that wood pallets are really great tools because they are able to stay strong even when holding large amounts of supplies. It looks to me like they are designed very well, because they are not only strong, but they are able to be transported easily with a forklift. I would really like to start finding some good wood pallets that we can use in our warehouse, since right now we don't have very many. Thank you for the great post!

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