Eleven planks, nine wooden blocks, 78 nails – and a milestone in logistics is complete. The Euro pallet once cut the loading time of freight cars or trucks by up to 90 percent. It has set the dimension for logistics centres. It can be repaired at low material and energy costs and is fully recyclable at the end of its life cycle.
It is not easy to say who invented it, because the history of the pallet is long. As far back as Ancient Egypt, people used skids to transport heavy goods.
The forerunners of today’s transport pallet also took their cue from this model. Like the Clark Equipment Company, which, when it built the first forklift truck in the USA in 1917, used simple skids as load carriers. However, Carl Clark did not apply for a patent for this early pallet until 1939. As early as 1924, Howard T. Hallowell filed a patent application for the “lift truck platform”. Throughout the 1930s, new variations of the pallet continued to appear on the American market – all forerunners of today’s pallet.
Finally, in 1939, George Raymond Sr. and his associate William House obtained the patent for the first “transport pallet”. This paved the way for today’s Euro pallet and the associated worldwide pallet pooling systems as we know them today.
The first transport pallet
In 1922, George Raymond Sr. bought a foundry called Lyon Iron Works in New York State and formed it into the Raymond Corporation, now a subsidiary of Toyota Industries. With his desire to understand and solve customers’ challenges and his inventive spirit, Raymond laid the foundation for a company that would later shape an entire industry.
Together with his employee William House, he developed a hydraulic lift truck and the accompanying wooden transport pallet. It was designed in such a way that the forks of the lift truck could travel under the pallet from two sides. On Nov. 7, 1939, Raymond and House received patents for the lift truck and its accompanying pallet.
Before retiring, Steve Raymond, grandson of the company’s founder, was actively involved with the company in various capacities, including past president of the Raymond Solutions and Support Center. He is proud of his grandfather’s invention. “Everything in logistics starts with the pallet,” he says.
Many inventions were not patented until the late 1940s, such as Robert Braun’s four-way pallet, patented in 1945, and a one-way pallet by U.S. supply officer Norman Cahners, who received the patent in 1949. In the 1950s, railroad companies began transporting more and more goods on pallets and the pallet spread rapidly. However, due to a lack of standards, cross-border transportation became a real mess.
Mother of the Euro pallet
The origins of the Euro pallet were essentially linked to the idea of standardization. In 1961, the “Union Internationale des Chemins de fer (UIC)” drew up the agreement on a standardized, exchangeable pallet within the framework of a working group with changing players, which was subsequently signed by the European railroad companies.
From then on, they undertook to comply with the standards (UIC – standard 435-2 ff.), manufacture and repair the Euro pallets. They also agreed to monitor and ensure trouble-free exchange in an EPP (European Pallet Pool). The success of the Euro pallet – with the dimensions 800 by 1,200 by 144 mm – was resounding. Today there is hardly any storage or transport system that is not adapted to the dimensions of the Euro pallet.
The open exchange pool for Euro pallets works like this: a loaded pallet is exchanged at the destination for an empty Euro pallet of identical design. The regulations governing the manufacture and repair of Euro pallets are extensive, right down to the position of the individual nails. The exchange of Euro pallets is not automatic, nor is it common practice in all countries.
Further development of the pool
In the mid-1970s, the Gütegemeinschaft Paletten (Pallet Quality Association), today’s National Committee of EPAL, partly took over the dissemination and quality assurance of the Euro pallet. The European Pallet Association e.V. (EPAL), founded in 1991, has promoted the dissemination and quality assurance of the Euro pallet together with UIC.
In 2013, the UIC and EPAL separated. Since then, both organizations have been competitors in the open Euro pallet exchange pool with different trademarks: UIC/EUR on the corner blocks of UIC Euro pallets and EPAL/EPAL on the blocks of EPAL pallets. The stock of EPAL Euro pallets today amounts to around 625 million units worldwide.
EPAL is active in more than 30 countries worldwide with its 14 national committees (members of the umbrella organization) and three representatives.
Father of the CHEP system
Just a few years after the invention of the Euro pallet, another player in the pallet business appeared in Australia. Oliver Richter (1920- 2014) was Trade Manager for Manufacturing and Materials Handling at the logistics company Brambles. At the time, the company was still predominantly active in the materials handling sector in Sydney with its CHEP (Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool) brand. Richter recognized the potential of a pallet pooling system and successfully expanded the closed CHEP rental pool internationally.
Under the “sharing and reusing” model, reusable pallets, crates and containers were made available for joint use by multiple participants throughout the supply chain. This eliminated the need for customers to purchase and manage their own pallets, reducing the capital requirements and complexity of their operations while reducing waste from their supply chains.
Prior to CHEP’s pooling and reuse system, companies spent significant amounts of money replacing pallets that were not returned or were of inferior quality. CHEP became the model for numerous pooling solutions.
Through Richter’s energy and vision, CHEP also pushed for standardization of pallet size and the resulting impact on packaging standardization. He had a pallet control system developed that improved the efficient movement of goods and guaranteed more effective reuse of pallets and a reduction in pallet loss. Overall, these initiatives resulted in tangible productivity gains throughout the supply chain as goods were transported directly from the manufacturer or producer to the retailer. Today, CHEP’s load carrier inventory stands at around 575 million pallets, totes and special containers.
In 2004, the Euro pallet received DIN EN 13698-1. This states that it is a rigid horizontal platform of low height “which can be handled by forklift trucks, pallet trucks or other suitable equipment and which serves as a basis for grouping goods and loads for stacking, storage and handling or transport.”
The end of the pallet’s story is far from written. The pallet created a standard for logistics. It gave rise to standard packaging, box sizes and clear heights in warehouses, truck trailer sizes or forklift dimensions.
That the pallet will continue to be a driving force in the future is beyond question, but like any other load carrier, it must face the challenges of the times. Today, the pallet is first and foremost part of the digital evolution. Research and science, pallet manufacturers and customers are working on innovative ways to make pallets an even more reliable and intelligent means of transporting and presenting goods.
“Logistics is all about pallets. Making them smart means making logistics smart,” says Michael ten Hompel, executive director of Fraunhofer IML and also a member of the Logistics Hall of Fame.
Intelligent pallet networks are a milestone on the way to the Internet of Things, with which the true treasure trove of data in logistics can be uncovered, the researcher is convinced.
The pallet of the future will no longer just transport goods, but provide information. It will record environmental parameters and communicate with modern media. The pallet will remain a central building block in a digital logistics universe with globally networked supply chains.