Pallet Recycling Equipment Trends
As the recycled pallet sector continues to evolve, it finds itself facing new challenges such as the deterioration of pallet pool quality, the need for higher throughput, and labor availability constraints. Increasingly, however, creative machinery providers are helping recycled pallet business operators to clear these hurdles and others. Here is what’s trending.
From work cells to integrated production systems
The legacy approach to wood pallet recycling revolved around each process as a separate work cell. Sorting, dismantling, board trimming, and repair tables all ran as stand-alone activities, requiring a lot of manual stacking and unstacking activity as well as forklift movement of material between workstations. For several reasons, the cell approach no longer makes sense.
Consider that hiring good people has become challenging. Automation helps to increase productivity by reducing handling labor inherent in the work cell approach. Design improvements such as conveyors and tippers result in improved ergonomics, and the systems approach helps keep potentially dangerous forklift activity away from workstations.
By boosting productivity, automation reduces the need to add more staff as businesses grow. Finally, many recycling operations are getting larger over time, and are therefore in a better position to invest in such equipment and reap the benefit of it.
“We see a lot more system integration with multiple machines, and conveyance all being designed as a system so that you gain more efficiencies,” one leading provider of pallet recycling equipment commented to Nature’s Packaging. “Our customers are asking for system design.”
Equipment that facilitates more efficient re-manufacturing
An ongoing concern has been the gradual deterioration of used pallet or pallet core quality. As one recycled pallet sales executive recently observed, “While 70 to 80% of recycled pallets were repairable in the past, now the number is more like 60 to 70%, with most of those being lower grade pallets rather than the Premium grade wood pallets that many customers prefer,” he said.
With fewer repairable pallets, recycling has become much more than simply slapping a board or two onto a pallet and shipping it out the door to a customer. The importance of pallet re-manufacturing continues to grow.
Pallet re-manufacturing involves the production of new pallets from recycled components. This process has been largely manual – the variability of reclaimed material sizing can pose a problem for automated nailing systems.
Increasingly, however, automated equipment is being designed with remanufacturing in mind. There are two approaches. One is machinery designed for the automated nailing of variable thickness and width boards. The other is automation designed around reducing variability.
Let us consider the former approach first. Nailing machines are now available that can facilitate the nailing of random width and variable thickness boards on stringers, thanks to bars that apply pressure from the top to hold the boards down while they are being nailed to stringers.
The latter approach involves automation to eliminate variability. This challenge can now be addressed through automated scanning that can identify the geometry or the dimensions of boards, and sort them accordingly.
More uniformly sized material will make it better suited for pallet nailing systems. Such systems may include trim optimization to cut off the bad end and trim to the desired length. Given the considerable amount of jobs typically involved in sorting and trimming boards in pallet recycling operations, such systems have the potential to significantly enhance productivity while improving lumber recovery.
The other approach to reducing lumber variability is through resizing it. Some pallet companies currently resize recycled wood pallet stringers to make their height uniform. One equipment provider is currently developing a machine that will perform as a combination planer and edger, to reduce the size of boards on two or three sides to give them a uniform profile.
Old nails will be pulled out or cut smooth to the wood surface, while the planing/cutting action will also remove weathered wood to produce bright, clean boards that will give re-manufactured pallets more of a “new pallet” look.
Automated pallet inspection, robotics and more
Some high-volume recycled wood pallet inspection systems have installed automatic digital inspection or ADI systems in recent years. The use of high definition cameras and laser sensors can determine the dimensions of a pallet and identify whether a pallet has structural damage requiring repair.
Robots are being seen in recycling systems for activities such as pallet sorting, and to a lesser extent, for repair. One exciting application is regarding robots to feed pallets through a band dismantler, thereby eliminating the most physically demanding job in many pallet recycling plants.
Some of these approaches are still in the early stages of adoption, and it remains to be seen which ones will leave their mark on the industry. If there is one certainty, however, it is that new solutions resulting from research and development by industry suppliers remain critical to the industry’s continued success.