It is impossible to calculate the number of pallets being used to move and store raw materials and products all over the world. On any given day, it is estimated that in the United States alone 1.8 billion to 1.9 billion pallets are in use, and over 500 million new ones are manufactured there every year. Approximately the same number are made in Western Europe each year.
Those pallets are getting smarter, however. With the introduction of IoT technologies, 3G and LTE connectivity, and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the pallet of the future has arrived. New pallets are being equipped with several sensors and communications systems, not only to track their location, which is important, but also monitor temperature, humidity, speed, tilt, and other conditions.
Pallets move the world
The pallet has been called The Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy by Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. About 99% of all the world’s cargo is palletized. “Pallets move the world,” says Mark White, an emeritus professor at Virginia Tech and director of the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet & Container Research Laboratory and the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech's Forest Products Center. Some have called the pallet one of the greatest labor saving devices of all time.
Most pallets currently in use are simple structures made of wood planks. They can also be made of plastic, metal, paper, and recycled materials, such as PET bottles. Plastic pallets from recycled materials offer several advantages over wood: They’re easier to sanitize, more resistant to odor and to fire hazards, lighter, more durable, and better at protecting the product being transported.
Most of the pallets manufactured today are the ones known as “block pallets”, which use wide blocks instead of stringers, providing exceptional support, and four-way fork-lift access. Retailers such as Costco and Walmart require vendors to ship their products to them using this new design.
Pallets get smart & connected
Block pallets, made of durable plastic, are the type started to be fitted with IoT devices, usually in one of the corner blocks for easy access.
We had an opportunity to see one of those pallets in action during the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The BLOCKPal, designed by RM2, is manufactured in Mexico by Jabil. It can be embedded with a variety of sensors using the RM2ELIoT electronic module, designed to last up to a decade on a single power source. By using LTE-M cellular networks to track the location and movement of the unit, pallets are monitored continuously on their journeys.
The IoT modules can also feature environmental sensors, such as humidity, temperature, weight and stress, plus other measurements such as speed and tilt. The collection of all those data points can provide forwarders with complete information about the conditions of cargo storage and movement, something extremely valuable when shipping many goods and raw materials.
Future pallets will also be able to communicate with each other, adding another layer of protection in critical shipments. If multiple pallets in one shipment need to travel together, units will communicate via Bluetooth Low Energy and keep track of each other. Should a unit cease to communicate, another pallet can send an alert to the forwarder to investigate.
“By 2020, it’s projected over 50 billion supply chain devices will be IoT-enabled,” said David Simmons, Chief Technology Officer for RM2.
The humble pallet will continue to move most of the world’s cargo. But new IoT features will make the simple unit an integral part of the supply chain intelligence.