In previous discussions about pallets, I touched on the nature of the load that a pallet might be expected to handle. If you are a pallet geek like me, the term “unit load” is often used to describe the goods that are configured in such a way as to be easily handled by that pallet.
So, I guess the unit load is and has always been associated with pallets, right? Well, not exactly. Although we can trace the use of pallets all the way back to ancient times, the common use of pallets to handle the unit load did not get going until World War II.
What Kinds of Unit Loads did we see Before the Pallet?
Everything listed below handled goods on its own before the introduction of pallets. Each device offered an advantage for the specific material needing transport as a unit:
While useful, the bottom line for all of these devices is that human labor was still the primary engine that moved goods in and out of wagons, rail cars, ships and later trucks.
Cheap Labor Slows Demand for Lift Trucks
By 1915, there appeared a number pf patents for “lift truck” type vehicles. By 1935, both Clark and Hyster had developed vehicles that anyone would recognize as a lift truck.
But acceptance of the new palletized unit load was still slow. In the 1930s there existed armies of unemployed men willing to work hard in bucket brigades for very low wages. Very cheap labor coupled with a lack of investment capital provided little impetus to move this technology forward.
WWII Drives Growth of Lift Trucks and Palletized Loads
The demands of the second World War changed everything. Manpower was now needed for the war effort. The combination of the palletized unit load and the lift truck meant huge volumes of ammunition, uniforms and provisions could all be moved in units by a single driver.
By 1941, it is estimated that 25,000 lift trucks were being used by US armed forces, with an equal number being added in each of the war years that followed.
In 1942 the Office of the Quartermaster General ordered 1 million pallets but fulfillment proved difficult and unitizing introduced additional challenges. By 1944, it was determined that petroleum products and combat rations were the most successfully palletized supplies. Similar to current day practices, strong and uniform containers of supplies were strapped together in flat-topped loads for efficient stacking and handling by the lift trucks.1
Today's Unit Load
Barrels, bales, crates and sacks still unitize loads today. The biggest difference? Those devices are now more likely to be found on pallets - perhaps the most ubiquitous device in all of industry.
Want to learn more about how to improve your unit load? Ask a pallet professional or post your questions here.
Post by: Hartson Poland, Business Development - Plastic
Photos used with permission from authors: Pallets: A North American Perspective by Rick LeBlanc and Stewart Richardson. Copyright 2003 PACTS Management Inc.
(1) Alvin P. Stauffer, United States Army in WWII (1956)
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