"one can quickly find themselves on the wrong side of an argument at a materials handling convention"
October 22, 2012 12:43 AM   Subscribe

The Single Most Important Object In The Global Economy (Slate)

Others argue it's the shipping container.

Who Invented The Pallet?, The History of the Fork Truck, and Which Came First, the Pallet or the Fork Truck?. The modern shipping pallet (top and bottom deck, center stringer) was patented by a forklift company in 1939.

Pallets are a common source of materials for recycling and upcycling projects: Pallet House, bike rack, meditation chamber, lighting fixture.

Due to their sturdy construction, a pallet can be used many times. It is important to ensure a pallet is contaminant-free before using for a project.
posted by the man of twists and turns (54 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
As kids we used to get pallets and shipping crates, rip them apart and re-use them to build cubby houses.
posted by Mezentian at 12:55 AM on October 22, 2012


NYTimes: The Container That Changed The World
For that, shippers can thank a visionary North Carolina trucking entrepreneur. Malcom McLean, founder of the company that became Sea-Land Service, thought not like a seaman but like a salesman.

"His big insight was that the customer doesn't care how you're shipping the goods," Mr. Levinson said. "The customer wants to get it from here to there cheap and on time. The customer doesn't care if it goes by air or land or sea."
BBC: The Box - 'BBC News followed a shipping container for a year to tell stories of globalisation and the world economy - see the route of the BBC Box as it travelled the globe. '
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:59 AM on October 22, 2012


Back in my high-school days, the wooden pallets around town were regularly seized by teenage boys in big trucks. They would drive them out to the desert hills west of the interstate and build bonfire parties out of them (and a keg or two).
posted by Three Books at 1:12 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had some great East Vancouver bonfires pushing shopping carts through the back alleys, collecting pallets all the way to the beach under the Second Narrows Bridge.

Also worked in a few factories/warehouses and learned to appreciate the unsung heroes that make the global shipping world go 'round.

In summary, fuck yeah pallets! (and great article!)
posted by mannequito at 1:34 AM on October 22, 2012


As a sort of peace dividend, at war’s end the U.S. military left the Australian government with not only many forklifts and cranes, but about 60,000 pallets. To handle these resources, the Australian government created the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool, and the company eventually spawned a modern pallet powerhouse, CHEP

Heh. Interesting.
posted by Jimbob at 1:37 AM on October 22, 2012


I love flabbergasting my techy friends by making the (true) claim that the shipping container changed the world way, way more than the internet. I'll have to add the pallet to my list of things more important than the internet.
posted by cthuljew at 1:47 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now I know what those things are called. Raggle sticks.

This name, it pleases me greatly.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:03 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes indeed louche moustachio! Raggle sticks were they great "oh fuck, yesss" moment for me in that article.
posted by mannequito at 2:08 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thinking a top 50 most important inventions listicle would look like:

1) Language
2) Fire
3) Writing
4) Wheel
5) Concept of zero
6) Arithmatic
...
9) steel
10) Standardized screw
11) Standardized screw making machine
12) the lathe
..
21) paper
22) ink
23) printing press
..
46) computer
47) pallet
48) shipping container
49) Internet
50) lolcats

I wish someone would tackle top 50 inventions for realsies. That would be a great NOVA series. An episode for each invention. 60 minutes of historians and scientists discussing the development of the screw would be my idea of great television. Anyone with any pull at PBS? If not someone should kickstarter this. Let's make this happen.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:13 AM on October 22, 2012 [19 favorites]


For all your pallet needs.
posted by liquidindian at 2:16 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ad, you may want to look into finding episodes of Connections. It isn't quite what you're looking for but it is close enough to possibly educate and entertain.
posted by FritoKAL at 2:23 AM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


For a great companion piece, it's worth listening to the CBC Ideas program The Screw That Changed The World. There's a great discussion about the history of the shipping container.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:38 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


We made a film shot entirely in silhouette, but it turned out we needed the actors about 2 feet higher. So we pinched a bunch of pallets from a nearby hardware store and re-placed the set on top of that.

It was a bit spongy to walk on.
posted by dumbland at 2:39 AM on October 22, 2012


I stared at this post for a good few seconds trying to figure out how in the hell slate could possibly be the single most important object in the global economy.
posted by Optamystic at 2:45 AM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


it's worth listening to the CBC Ideas program The Screw That Changed The World

So not about Hitler's mom and dad then?
posted by MuffinMan at 3:00 AM on October 22, 2012 [10 favorites]


For Ad hominem's list: I had a history professor once who claimed that one of the most important inventions was the sewing needle (about 25,000 years ago), because it allowed us to make warm clothes so we could migrate further.
posted by Houstonian at 3:03 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've had a banker acquaintance of mine who works with the big three container lessors tell me that ordering new containers in the summer is the single best forward indicator for how the Christmas season is going to be.
posted by digitalprimate at 3:08 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


But shipping containers, notes White, are still set to a U.S. customary standard: 20 feet by 40 feet. The math doesn’t add up.

You're telling me!

It still amazes me how many people struggle with dimensions. I once had a customer complain that the cost of shipping two pallets rather than one was 8 times more expensive.

It took strength to gently explain that she only needed to double ONE of the axes, not all three.

/shippingnerd
posted by Acey at 3:34 AM on October 22, 2012


When I lived in downtown LA, I noticed the pallet was a high value unit of currency amongst the homeless scavengers, IIRC the going rate was $5 each. I frequently saw bums pushing shopping carts piled with pallets on top, stacked as high as 15 feet.

I used to live on Industrial Avenue, across the street from a place that bought pallets, all day long there was a constant stream of bums cashing in their pallets. I was particularly amused at what happened every night. There were two bums who would come late at night with a cart and a big piece of carpet. They would stack a couple of pallets end to end like a ladder against the chain link fence, climb up, and throw the carpet over the razor wire. Then one guy would scramble over the fence, and toss pallets out to the other guy. They would steal as many pallets as they could carry, then cart them away. I presume they just came back to the same place in the morning and sold back their stolen pallets.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:21 AM on October 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


Greatest invention? Perhaps. Worst season of The Wire? Definitely.
posted by murfed13 at 4:41 AM on October 22, 2012


Malor's assessment of the humble pallet jack pertains here.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:43 AM on October 22, 2012


That's a weird way to phrase the headline. If I had to pick just one object that was essential to global commerce, I'd go with the platinum kilogram locked up in France, but they're really talking about inventions.
posted by indubitable at 4:56 AM on October 22, 2012


They're probably going to retire the platinum kilogram in the next couple years in favor of a definition based on Planck's constant.
posted by octothorpe at 5:03 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


In a few minutes, Mr. Mustachio will be leaving for work. I will tell him " HAVE FUN WITH ALL THOSE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT OBJECTS IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY!"


There will then be a mighty grumbling.
posted by louche mustachio at 5:06 AM on October 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


I just read Marc Levinson's "The Box", which really changed the way I see the world, and this collection of articles is a nice set of complements. Thanks.
posted by Fnarf at 5:19 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a great article and post.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:44 AM on October 22, 2012


Another recommendation for "The Box". I read it a few years back when I went through a phase of reading as many of these pop-economics supply chain type books as I could find. Also recommended in that family are Getting the Goods by Edna Bonacich and The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli.

I have also read issues of Pallet Enterprise. It's about as exciting as you'd think.
posted by Jugwine at 5:46 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thinking a top 50 most important inventions listicle would look like:

Forgot Sanitization.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:18 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also radio. (and anything that uses radiowaves)
posted by XhaustedProphet at 6:21 AM on October 22, 2012


Another Sneak Attack, War Heralded Pallet in Industry
Pallets were in limited use by industry prior to World War II. "Before Word War Two, there were no -- or relatively few -- pallets in use," said Bill Sardo, who became the first administrator of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association in 1946 and retains the title of NWPCA vice president-emeritus. "There was no equipment to handle pallets," noted Bill, who was a Navy officer during the war." The forklift truck, hand jack and hand truck all were developed about the same time -- not until about the late 1930s, according to Bill.
Modern Material Handling, the magazine that grew out of The Palletizer.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:42 AM on October 22, 2012


Slate article by Metafilter's own jgballard.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:50 AM on October 22, 2012


Pallets also keep boxes dry from touching the ground and ruining them. But I wouldn't be surprised if the pallet is diminishing. Like the jerrycan in WW2, which gave an advantage over drums because they could be carried by one or two soldiers, or loaded bucket-brigade style, the pallet assumes the use of heavy equipment going to the point of sale. In the small order world delivered by warehouse robots, then via UPS, they might not be used at all. It's certainly a numbers game. If it were the case that we could save enough money by bulk ordering in maximized hand-carried shipments among personal buying clubs, the shipping world would be revolutionized to bypass the retail warehouse.
posted by Brian B. at 7:15 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Come on, guys, don't forget beer! (SLYT Discovery Channel bit)
posted by mbatch at 7:20 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]



Neat.

In my world pallets rule as well.

So far I've made planters out of them.
A couple of fences.
My yard is really wet in the spring so I've got several dozen used to keep things off the ground.
My duck house was built on top of a couple.
I've got a stack of wood from disassembled pallets that I regularly raid for various outdoor needs.
Compost and waste containers.

I can get them for free but the easiest is for 2 bucks each at the local coop where they will actually load them for you.

I lurv pallets.
posted by Jalliah at 7:34 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


the Australian government created the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool

I worked in supply chain for fifteen years and did not know this about CHEP. Awesome!
posted by Slothrup at 7:58 AM on October 22, 2012


No mention of the Emerald Ash Borer, which likely migrated from Asia to North America literally in pallets.
posted by dhartung at 8:16 AM on October 22, 2012


The correct use of pallets
posted by Damienmce at 8:17 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


My dad built all of us kids beds made from pallets.
posted by monospace at 8:57 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


You could make a pretty excellent case for Euclidean geometry also
posted by nathancaswell at 9:30 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I once lived in a squat pretending to be an apartment where my bed was a couple of pallets with a mattress on top (my bedroom "wall" was planks with a curtain behind it, roommate #1 had some sort of plastic sheeting wall and roommate #2 had a shop window, complete with Visa & Mastercard stickers still on it; the highlights were the bathroom - a 6ftx6ft full, unfrosted window giving out onto the kitchen; and the kitchen, where the toilet was behind some saloon doors where the kitchen cupboard should have been. But I digress.).

Anyway, this place was massive, had thick stone walls, and got little direct sunlight. It also had no heating, apart from a coal-burning stove marooned on one edge of the living room. In summer it was an oasis of cool air. In winter it was beyond cold. You didn't need a fridge for 3 months of the year.

One night some friends came round and we were eating round a table in the living room when one of the guys started complaining his hands had gone blue from the cold. Everyone's hands looked like they were two steps from frostbite. So I did my best impression of Scott shooting the huskies for meat, went into my bedroom and took the pallets out from under the mattress and we broke them up and put them into the stove. Magic. We carried on eating and then huddled round the stove to keep warm.

So: pallets can be pretty useful and surprisingly versatile.

Can't remember what I did the next night though. I think I just went back to being really cold again.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:31 AM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


One summer in college I had some friends that worked at a sawmill where on the weekends they built pallets for piece rates. A couple weekends I built with them, and we shared the profits. After that summer they and I couldn't stop seeing pallets, but I was not nearly as sick of them as they were. Best part? We were just a couple miles from Devil's Tower. It also led to finding the backroad spot where the image for the Close Encounters poster was taken. Sadly, I've spent the morning with Google Street view 'driving' around the area and can't find the spot.
posted by achrise at 9:43 AM on October 22, 2012


I had a crap job fresh out of high school working in a supermarket's produce department. One evening a manager was taking out some trash and encountered some long-haired twenty-somethings loading pallets into their pickup truck, likely for fuel for their keg party bonfire. A scuffle ensued, with lots of pushing and cursing (you know you're a real company lackey when you're risking life and limb duking it out with strangers over some stupid pallets.) Finally, the pickup squeals away.

The manager walks back inside holding his trophy of the evening: a Dio Holy Diver muscle T-shirt he ripped from the torso of one of the scofflaws.
posted by porn in the woods at 10:26 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Single Most Important Object In The Global Economy

Huh, pallets. I read the title and came in here expecting to read about all the ways that Ben Bernanke's head is protected.
posted by de void at 10:35 AM on October 22, 2012


It's interesting to note that while crates have been a staple scenery in games for quite a while, designers often forget about pallets entirely. There are even games where you have forklifts, but no pallets for it to be used on. Yet another sign of the pallet's "invisibility".
posted by ymgve at 11:58 AM on October 22, 2012


60 minutes of historians and scientists discussing the development of the screw would be my idea of great television.

Ad, I would absolutely watch both this show and the Look Around You style parody that it would almost certainly inspire.
posted by cirrostratus at 12:23 PM on October 22, 2012


To handle these resources, the Australian government created the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool, and the company eventually spawned a modern pallet powerhouse, CHEP.

Not to mention the hit late 70s-early 80s TV show, CHEPs.
posted by afiler at 12:24 PM on October 22, 2012


I have two sitting in my garage because I don't know how to get rid of them after my table saw was delivered.

So am I rich? Anyone in Winnipeg need a pallet?
posted by WinnipegDragon at 1:13 PM on October 22, 2012


Nice work.

It's been my experience that while the people who buy them call them pallets, the people who use them generally call them by the older term skids (despite moving them around with a "pallet jack").

Meanwhile, here's Mississippi John Hurt: Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor.
 
posted by Herodios at 1:15 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


In working in a manufacturing facility that uses them, I'd say those that stack crap on them (production) call them pallets, those that move them around (shipping) call them skids, but maybe that's just here.
posted by achrise at 1:33 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


achrise: I also work at a manufacturing facility and concur with your dichotomy of nomenclature.
posted by lonefrontranger at 1:43 PM on October 22, 2012


dhartung: "No mention of the Emerald Ash Borer, which likely migrated from Asia to North America literally in pallets."

Exactly. That's why I was under the impression that slip sheets were slowly replacing pallets, for international shipping, anyway.

I also found the mention of the clashes between measurement systems funny in an eternally frustrating way.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 2:14 PM on October 22, 2012


There exists a secondary pallet market that is pure capitalism in action. I know this because I had a neighbor who built his life around it. R was a bad drunk with a good work ethic. He'd drive around in his truck looking for pallets. Because they are everywhere, people would often pay him to haul them off. Sometimes he'd just steal them. Then R would go across town to shipping and manufacturing companies and sell a truckload of pallets for twenty or thirty bucks. He got paid to take them, and he got paid to deliver them. The only cost to R was gas for the truck and wear and tear. After he'd done it awhile, he knew all the best places to acquire free pallets and all the places willing to buy them. He'd make a couple hundred bucks by lunchtime, then booze the rest of the day away. One man's trash is another man's drinking money.

I have always thought that if worst comes to worst, I'm just a used pick-up truck away from starting a pallet company.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:16 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the small order world delivered by warehouse robots, then via UPS, they might not be used at all.

Your comment addresses a point too late in the process. It doesn't get to the warehouse until its been manufactured and distributed. My employer takes things that came from China on pallets, put in them in boxes which are put on other pallets which are then delivered to warehouses where your warehouse robots pick them up and put them on UPS trucks.

Pallets will die when manufacturers start delivering pieces directly to the customer or when 3D printers take over.
posted by lhauser at 2:31 PM on October 22, 2012


Pallets also keep boxes dry from touching the ground and ruining them.

however, the bottom layer will still be a little damp on the bottom, within minutes, even though the pallet has been indoors for days

also, the words, skids and pallets are pretty much used interchangeably at my workplace, although shipping people tend to say skids - or picks, but that's another story

great article about something i never thought about much, even though i'm an experienced skidjack jockey
posted by pyramid termite at 6:00 PM on October 22, 2012


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