BlogSupply Chain AutomationAutomated pallet racking in a warehouse facility

Warehouses and distribution centers are hives of activity, with trucks arriving and departing every hour. Loaded forklifts wend their way through aisles at speed, moving products into inventory and picking pallets to ship out. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the growing demands of the modern supply chain exceed the capacity that traditionally operated warehouses can meet.

The warehouse plan most commonly used in the last 80 years sacrifices storage density. Floor space is set aside to create aisles wide enough for forklifts to travel and maneuver. These forklifts are restricted in how high they can reach, setting limits on vertical storage. The efficient management of this storage space is constricted by the ability to communicate and coordinate staff across the warehouse. Automated pallet management can resolve many of these issues and is already being used in large high-volume warehouses. The growing capabilities of automated systems and the reduced costs they promise are making them increasingly popular throughout the supply chain.

Types of Automation in the Warehouse

Plastic pallet on automatic conveyorWhen most people think of warehouse automation, they think of Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS), with robotic cranes lifting pallets into storage slots a dozen stories above the warehouse floor. Alternatively, they may think of autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) shuttling pallets across the warehouse floor. These systems are exciting and are playing an increasing role in automating the supply chain, but most automated pallet management tends to be less overtly robotic.

Most warehouse automation scenarios are comparatively simple. Palletizers and depalletizers, which pack and unpack products from pallets, take the form of conveyor belts more often than they do robotic arms. Deep lane product storage is enabled by a relatively simple pallet shuttle that allows pallets to move through racks without the need for forklift access. This type of automated pallet management has been available for decades.

What has changed in recent years are advances in computer processing speeds, storage capacity, and the networking of devices, which has enabled these older forms of automated pallet management to become more integrated. They have also enabled newer warehouse automation, like ASRS and AGVs, to address gaps between them. Implementing new automation and integrating existing automation offers many benefits for warehouses.

The Advantages of Automated Pallet Management

A wide range of automation can be found across existing warehouses already. Newer, high-volume warehouses may make extensive use of automated pallet management, while older high-volume warehouses might make use of robotic palletizing and depalletizing lines and pallet shuttles, but not much else. Warehouses that deal with small volumes may make minimal use of automated systems, or not use them at all. Increasing the level of automated pallet management used in a warehouse yields many advantages, even if it is only improving the warehouse management system (WMS) software to better coordinate pallets across different automated systems.

The advantages of a robust automated pallet management system include:

  • Increased Accuracy: Automated systems do not forget their instructions, get confused, or cut corners. Pallet loads can be placed in their specified areas with greater efficiency, and these locations can be stored and tracked as they change, so picking can proceed more quickly and efficiently.
  • Improved Throughput: The result of greater intake accuracy and the ability to more quickly pull pallets from inventory is an increase in the speed of the flow of products through the warehouse. 
  • Storage Maximization: One of the biggest advantages of automation is that automated systems can be fit into smaller areas than personnel and their equipment. This allows warehouses to maximize their internal space vertically and horizontally to store products.
  • Reduced Labor: The most obvious benefit of automated pallet management is the reduction of labor that is needed to move, handle, and otherwise manage pallets. This also has the side benefit of improving employee safety, as employees’ exposure to heavy equipment and materials is reduced.

It should be noted that not all warehouse automation involves pallet management. There are systems that work at the case or carton level. However, pallets are the standard shipping platform for food, consumer packaged goods, and consumer durables. As a result, a great deal of warehouse automation is, in effect, automated pallet management. The cost savings of automated pallet management depend to a large degree on the type of pallet used.

Why Plastic Pallets Are the Best Pallets for Automation

Plastic pallet on rolling trackingThe biggest advantages of automated pallet management and automated warehouse systems in general are undeniable improvements in throughput and efficiency with a reduced overhead for labor costs. However, automation has one glaring disadvantage in that it cannot react to circumstances that haven’t been accounted for in its programming. The result might be that an automated system tries to store or pick damaged pallets, resulting in pallet failure and damage to products on and nearby the broken pallet. Pallet issues can also cause damage to automated machinery itself. In manual processes, a human is able to notice a pallet issue and take steps to remediate the problem before it becomes a larger issue. Automated systems have a limited ability to detect problems, and may continue working even after a pallet failure, potentially damaging machinery and increasing product losses.

The best way to get the most out of automated pallet management is to reduce the possibility of mishaps. Plastic pallets prevent many of the warehouse automation problems that can arise with commonly used wood pallets. Plastic platforms have a unitized construction with no fasteners that can  pull free and get caught in equipment or individual boards that could loosen and compromise the integrity of the pallet itself. Plastic is also a much more consistent material than wood in weight and dimensions, as it does not swell or warp. This minimizes the chance of pallets catching in machinery or being misfed through automated systems. In short, plastic pallets provide the best shipping platform for maximizing the benefits of automated pallet management.

The iGPS plastic pallet pool rents durable, recyclable plastic pallets for use in warehouses and automated pallet management systems. Give our team a call at 1-800-884-0225, email a specialist at [email protected], or visit our contact page.