By JEFF PICKELL
Since early last fall, there has been a lot more work to get done at Palm Plastics.
In the first three days of April alone, the factory churned out a little more than 10,000 units of its newest product. If they want to meet their quota, operators will have to hit the 100,000 mark by the end of the month.
The products are radio frequency identification control-tagged pallets—RFID-tagged pallets. They’re plastic shipping pallets that contain four identical tags, each tucked into a corner of the square platform. The tags can be remotely identified by software and equipment designed by Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS)—the firm that also designed the pallets.
Last year, iGPS entered into a preferred supplier agreement with Dutch firm Schoeller Arca—Palm Plastics’ parent company. Currently, the Morenci plant is the sole producer of RFID-tagged pallets in North America.
According to Palm Plastics CEO Jeffrey Owen, the pallets are poised to have a big impact on the shipping industry in the near future.
The vast majority of pallets used in shipping today are leased from a single firm which deals mostly in nearly untraceable wooden pallets. It can often be hard to determine which units are still in the pallet pool, and which have been discarded, dismantled or destroyed by employees of the companies leasing them.
That’s not the case with RFID-tagged pallets.
Seconds after line workers install the ID cards in the pallets, a nearby sensor checks to see if the cards work. Shortly after, the cards are welded between a one-inch-thick polyethylene underdeck and a double layered top deck.
The pallets are then stored until a forklift operator carts them onto a waiting semi-trailer. Before they even hit the trailer floor, the new ID tag numbers have been recorded into the computer network, thanks to another set of sensors just inside the loading port that trucks back into.
As the pallet travels around the country, its location will be logged. Companies leasing the pallets can also use the RFID tags to record the load, weight, destination and other information about each pallet.
In addition to the RFID tags, each pallet also contains a barcode on each of its four sides, which can be used by companies that employ a barcode inventory system.
Plastic pallets are expected to have a much longer service life than their wood counterparts, said Owen.
RFID-tagged pallets are sturdily and uniformly constructed, with five steel beams installed in every unit for reinforcement. Since each pallet is exactly the same size and dimension, they are ideal for use on automated assembly lines.
Wood pallets, on the other hand, typically suffer cracked and broken boards after repeated use. They’re also constructed by smaller companies without uniform shape and size standards, Owens said. Poor construction can lead to exposed nails and sharp wood edges.
Owens added that the plastic pallets can be shipped overseas without the threat of spreading domestic nuisances, such as Dutch elm disease and the emerald ash borer.
The plastic pallets can be sterilized and reused more easily, Owens said. Wood pallets must be destroyed after they are used to transport meat.
Since the pallet project began, Palm Plastics has gone from employing about 50 people to about 110, and has plans to double its daily output of RFID-tagged pallets by early to mid-fall. This might entail adding additional jobs, Owens said, and even branching out to new facilities in the area.
How big will Palm Plastic’s pallet production grow?
That’s hard to predict, Owen said, but there’s one fact he finds promising: iGPS has purchased a block of 25 million RFID tag numbers.