A short history of a pallet

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It is as simple as it can be but it almost turned the world economy upside down. It revolutionised logistics, it affected the design of transport equipment and goods and, of course, the French have their own way in this regard as well.


This apparently simple object, the pallet, had a much greater role in the history of transportation of goods than it seems: it is one of the most important pieces of equipment in logistics as it makes transportation and storage of goods safe and possible. Almost everything around us (or its parts, components or raw material) has been transported on a pallet at least on one occasion so that it could be quickly and safely delivered to us, the customers.

Cups for the pallet

The Swedish furniture giant, IKEA, is an excellent example to illustrate how important the size of the pallet can be in logistics. At the management’s request, designers had to reshape the well-known IKEA cup before it went into production. The reason was not the uncomfortable handle or the lobby of a coffee-related focus group but it had been found out that only 864 items could be placed on a pallet whereas in the case of the redesigned cup this number was 2200. This way, 60% of transport costs was saved. Although it is a coincidence, the size of the EUR pallet also comes from Swedish “designers”. They were the Svensson brothers, Ivar and Tore, who developed it and they got their inspiration from the crates used for transporting fruits. But let us not go that far back in history. Well, not yet anyway....

In ancient Egypt already?

According to some Hungarian sources, pallets were already used in ancient times although no clear evidence was found for this. We believe it is much more likely that the terms were confused as the English words palette and pallet are very similar. Palettes were actually used in ancient Egypt, however, these were elliptic sheets used for mixing eyeshadows. It is true that foundations of logistics appeared when merchants sent their products to their destination at their own cost, generally by ship. The fact is that pallets were in widespread use in the 19th century.

The beginning of a success

The real breakthrough came when gas operated forklift trucks invented in 1937 came into routine use and the World War II broke out. According to Dr. Erna Risch, a professor of the Chicago University, apart from forklifts, the biggest innovation of the Second World War was the mass use of pallets. In contrast with the insignificant number of pallets in use before that time, suddenly tens of millions of pallets were required in the United States, mainly due to the continuous transport of supply to the  Pacific theatre of operations. Pallets which could be lifted from either side were also invented during the war, which was an upgrade made by Norman Cahners, an officer of the US Navy. This apparently minor change halved loading times. After the war, the USA did not make a very good deal with the masses of valuable transport equipment;. They left 60 thousand pallets and a vast number of forklifts in Australia as their share of booty. The Aussies grabbed at the chance in 1945 as the government established CHEP, a pallet manufacturing and distribution company,  that covers 90 per cent of the overseas pallet market today.

Standardised sizes instead of a jigsaw puzzle

Until 1961, due to the lack of standard pallet sizes, every loading and unloading (onto a ship or a train) looked like a giant jigsaw puzzle, which, of course, was not very effective. Accordingly, the International Union of Railways (UIC) commissioned a development of a standardised pallet, which was accomplished by the EUR pallet designed by the Svenssons and which is so well-known today. It was stronger, lighter and more durable than the American version. Owing to standardisation, loading times were reduced to one tenth so its success spread fast and large manufacturers started using standard pallets at an unbelievable pace. Today, the cargo area of trucks is designed so that it holds two standard pallets across. A cargo hold of ships and containers is also designed accordingly and the platform of pickup trucks is dimensioned that way as well. Designers must take this standard as a base unit when designing warehouses. The importance of pallets is also confirmed by Nikolett Szuha, the customer services coordinator of Raben Transeuropean Hungary. “Over 95 per cent of deliveries we manage is palletised goods, however, as we deal with consolidated freight transportation, there are exceptions: a 6-meter-long pipe, an assembled bike or a flat pack scaffolding with a size of 2 meters by 4 meters cannot be put on a pallet.”

Caution! Fakes!

As lots of pallets were required in a very short time, lower quality fake pallets appeared, which generally get damaged very easily. The proprietors of the EUR trademark, the International Union of Railways, established a separate standardisation body for the continuous monitoring of the market and they are the only body entitled to licence the well-known stamp. EUR pallets are the most popular type of pallets in the world as there are approximately 450–500 million pallets in use. “Although pallets make life easier for logistics service providers from a certain point of view, since EUR pallets are subject to exchange, their return and administration also means additional work, not to mention the subjective evaluation  of their quality”, says the expert of Raben Transeuropean Hungary. “The size will not change in the near future but the raw material may possibly do. We believe that there is no particular need to only use wooden pallets and we would not be surprised if pallets made of hard plastic or cardboard became more popular in the future. The significant aspects here are clearly their production costs, durability and environmental impact.”

Four pallets above all

Regardless of the standardization efforts, there are still four types of pallets in use. As usual, the French and the English have their own way and they have their own pallets.

1.   EUR pallet 
The classic EUR pallets are made in compliance with the UIC* 435-2 standard. 
Size: 800 x 1200 mm                Capacity: 1500 kg;

2.   American pallet 
It is primarily used in North America; these may be found in overseas deliveries.
Size: 48" x 40" (1010 x 1210 mm)          Capacity: 1500 kg;

3.   French pallet 
Mainly used for transport of goods in sacks.
Size: 1000 x 600 x 162             Capacity: 1500 kg;

4.   British pallet 
As the name suggests, it is mainly used in the United Kingdom. 
Size: 1000 x 1200        Capacity: 1500 kg


Author: HVG BrandLab


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Zbigniew Kepiński
Anthony Ranson
Nikolett Szuha
Maja Kierzek-Piotrowska
Péter Erdei
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Marek Pluciak
Aleksander Kroll
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