As is well known, the global pandemic shutdown created thousands of problems within supply chains, specifically with labor. These shortages forced many notable companies towards automation to better utilize the few remaining employees.
Amidst this pandemic backdrop, Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG), a prominent food distributor, returned to Universal with a problem. Due to the constant shipping of orders in and out, they began to accumulate pallets. With floor space fleeting and the stacks growing approaching the roof, they needed to eliminate the surplus.
Aren’t all pallets the same?
The nature of the shipping industry is that two main pallet types exist: pooled and whitewood. Companies rent pooled pallets from a proprietor who handles distribution, retrieval, and repair. A measure generally meant to ensure that if you have a pooled pallet, it is in good working condition; if not, they will come to pick it up, repair it, and return it to circulation.
Whitewood pallets are like free agents.
If you buy something that comes on a whitewood pallet by default, it now belongs to you. You could immediately turn around and sell it or break it apart and turn it into furniture. Whatever you want, you own it.
Many companies will sell their whitewood pallets to a recycling company for repair or redistribution. This resale market is a lucrative one; because of the sheer number of pallets with no recurring fees, it is a popular option for many companies.
Pallet recyclers only purchase whitewood pallets, as transporting pooled pallets would yield minimal profits. Similarly, pooled pallet companies have no incentive to collect other pallet types. With this duality, these companies would actually charge grocers to take away mixed stacks.
Retail grocers receive numerous food shipments and acquire a smorgasbord of pallet types from vendors across the board. Therefore, they accumulate all of the different pallet types in large quantities. So, what do they do with the mixed stacks?
Pallet accumulation forces grocers to make a tough decision. Dedicate time and labor to pallet sorting or contract another company to take mixed stacks. Both solutions came with lasting monetary requirements, but neither felt right.
Retail grocers needed an in-house pallet sorting solution that would create homogenous stacks. Typically, pallet sorting consists of one or two workers, either by hand or with a forklift, painstakingly picking up each pallet and placing it onto its appropriate stack. However, this process is tedious and time-consuming, and even the fastest workers can only sort around 80 pallets an hour.
Enter Universal Logic.
By automating the sorting process, retail grocers can return each pooled pallet to its owner and directly sell its whitewood pallets to recyclers. For this design, one inbound mixed stack is conveyed to a robot that will sort pallets to one of four outbound lanes based on type. The completed stacks will then exit to the accumulation conveyors, where an operator can pick them up.
But why Universal Logic? Couldn’t any integrator sort pallets?
Universal Logic’s specialty is a software known as Neocortex. For those familiar with this blog, its name frequents each post. Neocortex is an AI software that uses 3D vision to analyze a work environment and provide robot commands to navigate it. So, if it sees an object in space, it will give picking directions to the robot.
But how does it know where to sort it?
Neocortex can identify an object in space, but seeing the object in space doesn’t necessarily indicate where to sort it. This problem helps demonstrate another key feature within the software. Using two sensors in tandem, Neocortex can see and distinguish the color of the pallet. Then, it will indicate the type and sort destination. Allowing Neocortex to handle the whole sortation process without manual intervention.
I’m sure it is not abundantly clear if you’ve never worked with the medium, but when you go to create a stack of pallets, whether by hand or with a forklift, it is challenging to build a uniform stack. Usually, some lean or rotation is created during stacking or caused by damaged pallets or operator error.
These inconsistent stacks are a problem for most typical robot solutions because they require each pick to be at an exact location. For Universal, the stack’s uniformity does not matter as long as each pallet is within reach of the robot because Neocortex will automatically adjust the robot arm to each pick position.
The prerequisite of handling the variability in inbound stacks makes pallet sorting a perfect deployment for Neocortex. Plus, grocers can reap labor savings by only requiring one operator to add and remove stacks. On top of that, they can now directly sell their whitewood to recyclers for additional revenue.
This solution culminated with the Neocortex Pallet Sorter—a simple design with more than meets the eye. After the initial unit, AWG proceeded to install a system into every one of their DCs, with the final unit scheduled for 2023. Thanks to the popularity of the system, Universal has expanded its capability to include quality inspection.
But how do we make this system work for another business model? For retail grocers, the most significant advantage gained was directly selling whitewood into the resale market. This feature allowed the installation to save money for the grocer and generate revenue via whitewood sales.
But what if you are a pallet company?
In the wake of delivering the first few units, Universal engaged other companies about the Neocortex Pallet Sorter. The sorter’s broad utility allows for many different use cases, allowing us to engage companies outside of retail grocers.
What industries would benefit the most from sortation? Companies with the following conditions.
- A high volume of inbound pallets
- Need for sortation based on type or quality
- High, fully burdened labor costs
- Companies with incentives toward automation
This qualifying criterion includes many industries, from retail grocery to pallet repair. However, some industries do not benefit from resale into the secondary market, such as pallet recyclers, so the return of the sorter relies on increased throughput and labor offset.
But what if I told you it could add value another way? As an upgrade to the system, Universal offers an inspection station.
The Inspection upgrade consists of two laser line scanners that complete a full 3D analysis of the top and bottom of each pallet down to 1 mm. This scan can identify defects in the pallet, including splits, missing boards, protruding nails, and overhangs, but these tolerances are adjustable, and Universal can conform to any existing operating standards.
After each pass, the pallet will be graded to the given standards and sorted accordingly. With this addition, Neocortex can log pallet data and analyze trends for further insight, allowing a deeper understanding of the operation.
The business model of recyclers is to recirculate good pallets as fast as possible; the same is true for pallets needing repair. This condition exists because any pallet in transition only generates revenue once sold. So, the longer a pallet waits in inventory, the more money it costs the recycler.
This condition also allows the sorter to kill two birds with one stone, first by reliably separating pallets needing repair and second by pallet sorting at a rate much faster than any laborer. Plus, this system also guarantees the quality of each pallet returning to circulation.
The Neocortex Pallet Sorter with Inspection further demonstrates how the utility of this design for any circumstance. Whether for retail grocers, pallet recyclers, or anywhere in between, Neocortex can provide value to any business regardless of its operation.
Since its inception, the deployment of the Neocortex Pallet Sorter has been a resounding success. Its exceptional return on investment, coupled with its customizable design, makes it highly sought-after. Additional features like inspection add value and significantly enhance functionality. Furthermore, Universal Logic’s unwavering commitment to customer support, with a dedicated team of engineers available round-the-clock, ensures a seamless installation process and ongoing assistance.
The Neocortex Pallet Sorter not only optimizes pallet sorting processes but also drives operational efficiency, providing tangible benefits and a competitive advantage for businesses.
Please direct any pallet sorting inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org, and thank you for reading.