The Second World War revolutionized supply technology. The Allies created a global supply chain to keep their armies around the world stocked with food, ammunition, and machinery. The wood pallet—at the time a revolutionary concept in a 48”x48” square—carried most of these goods to battlefronts around the world. After the war, the revolutionary pallet concept was applied to civilian products, and the global supply chain was the ultimate result. It fell to local trade and manufacturing associations to develop shapes and sizes for these pallets, and later the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) recognized the six most successful of these pallet sizes as ISO standard pallet dimensions. In North America, the most common pallet is the standard 48”x40” Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) spec pallet used everywhere from the grocery to the construction industry.
The majority of these GMA pallets are made out of wood that over time wears out and can cause machinery and product damage by splintering and breaking. Broken wood pallets are a hazard for employees as well. In order to ensure that manufacturers and retailers could demand a minimum quality from their pallets, the pallet industry created GMA pallet grades. The grades provide a way to rate platforms based on their condition and state of repair. In theory, companies can order pallets that are in excellent repair for product displays, in good condition for shipping, or inexpensive pallets on their last legs for a final, one-way trip through the supply chain. In order to understand how pallets are graded, though, you need to know something about how pallets are built, the sort of damage they’re subjected to, and how the damage is repaired.
Types of Pallet Repairs
A pallet consists of three basic parts: a top deck, a bottom deck, and wood boards or blocks sandwiched between the two decks. The dimensions of the wood vary significantly; higher-quality pallets will have thicker dimensional wood and more deck boards than lower-quality pallets. Pallets intended for reuse generally have more deck boards and replace the wood boards in between the decks—called stringers—with more substantial 4”x4” wood blocks. Although these reusable pallets are sturdier than single-use platforms, they still suffer damage and require repair, especially after several trips through the supply chain. There a few basic repairs frequently made to wood pallets.
- Replacement Boards: Deck boards may be frayed and even splintered by friction between the product load and the surface of the wood. Heavy weight, combined with movement by heavy machinery, can even break boards, most often the leading edge board where the forklift enters the pallet. When this happens, the damaged deck board can be pulled off, replaced with a new board, and the pallet put back in service.
- Plates: If the stringer or block between the two decks cracks, it’s not economical to replace it. However, it’s possible to hammer a plate with cleats over the damaged part of the wood to hold the separating pieces together and keep the crack from spreading further. The section repaired with a steel plate may actually be stronger than undamaged wood.
- Plugs: When a board breaks or cracks all the way through, a second board six to 24 inches in length can be nailed in place beside it to reinforce the section and keep the pallet in service. This second board is called a plug or a companion stringer, and while it’s an effective repair, it’s also unsightly and can snag forklift tines.
The GMA pallet grade assigned to a platform has a lot to do with the type and numbers of repairs that platform has had. For example, a repaired pallet isn’t going to receive top grades due to its appearance, even if it’s still fully serviceable.
GMA Pallet Grades
Wood pallets are generally placed into one of two grades, though some sellers use a third grade. Each of these grades may be broken down further into categories with more specific criteria. The company offering the pallets may or may not distinguish on the basis of visual appearance as well as the state of repair. That means it’s possible to order top-tier wood pallets that are still unsuitable for display on the retail floor due to stains or other discoloration. The most common GMA pallet grades are:
- Grade A: Also known as grade 1. Essentially, Grade A pallets haven’t had and don’t require any repairs. At the top of the grade A category are AAA or “club grade” pallets, which are in good repair, look brand new, and are suitable for display on a retail floor. At the lowest tier of the A category, you’ll find pallets that don’t have or need repairs, but may need some soon.
- Grade B: Also known as grade 2 pallets. Grade B platforms have had repairs in the form of replaced deck boards, plates, or plugs. They are still structurally solid and should be suitable for use in the supply chain even if they’re unfit for display.
- Grade C: Also known as grade 3. Pallets in the third tier have a poor appearance and may not be in good shape structurally. They’ve usually received multiple repairs and deck boards may not be fully intact. The potential for a pallet failure is relatively high at this GMA pallet grade, and many pallet sellers don’t even offer this tier. Pallets of this grade aren’t recommended for use with high-value or easily damaged goods.
Within each pallet grade, there is a large degree of variation among pallets. After all, pallet grading is fairly subjective–a top-tier pallet is simply one that hasn’t needed repair yet and is therefore graded on looks alone. For example, there’s no guarantee that a visible stain wasn’t missed when the pallet was inspected before it was shipped out, and there’s no foolproof way of telling if a board or stringer is about to break. Much of this variation is due to the unpredictability of the wood used to make pallets, which has led many in logistics and transportation to look for a more consistent and reliable pallet material.
GMA Spec Food Grade Pallets
The inconsistency of wood pallets goes beyond appearance. Even top-tier club grade pallets can crack or splinter when they’re handled with heavy equipment. A complete break can lead to the loss of a load, but even just a splinter can cause costly problems if it pierces packaging, jams machinery, or injures a worker.
Plastic pallets won’t easily crack or splinter when handled by forklifts or automated machinery.
Largely for this reason, GMA spec plastic pallets have been gaining popularity, especially for food, pharmaceuticals, and other sensitive product loads. Pallets made of plastic don’t have the same variability that wood pallets do, and they perform consistently for much longer. Unlike wood, plastic is non-absorbent, doesn’t stain easily, and cannot absorb bacteria or chemical contaminants. Plastic pallets won’t easily crack or splinter when handled by forklifts or automated machinery. In fact, it’s very difficult to damage a plastic pallet, and as a result, they don’t need the additional clarification of GMA pallet grades. Instead, they are in a category of their very own, unofficially called “food grade pallets.” However they are categorized, plastic pallets are a durable, safe choice for warehousing, transport, and even retail display.
The best pallet for any supply chain is a food grade plastic pallet. The iGPS plastic pallet pool provides a strong, lightweight plastic pallet that is easily sanitized and not easily damaged. To switch to plastic pallets, give our team a call at 1-800-884-0225, email a specialist at [email protected], or visit our contact page.