There was a time when if you said “pallet” everybody would have assumed you meant a particularly spartan or makeshift bed. (For example, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II: “Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs, upon uneasy pallets stretching thee…”) Still, in the modern era a pallet is, of course, a portable platform used for storing or moving cargo.
If you cast your mind back to the often regrettable fashions of the 1980s, you might remember when futons were all the rage. A futon is also a somewhat makeshift bed.
IKEA don’t sell their famous GRANKULLA sofa/futon anymore, and perhaps that’s a good thing because it really looked like furniture that had been made from a couple of old pallets… but these aren’t the only pallets that IKEA aren’t shifting anymore.
When you’re in the business of selling furniture, it makes sense to pack things flat. With home assembly, a lot more product can be fitted into a shipping container… and when your product is supplied in a slim, flat box, you start looking very hard at the wasted space occupied by a pallet. A standard EPAL pallet is 144mm high (-0/+2 mm) for example. If you stack two pallet-loads to fill a container, that’s nearly a foot of vertical space expended upon nothing useful… and if you can reduce that, you might be able to squeak in an extra layer or two of product, meaning more goods to sell, and greater profitability.
IKEA turned away from conventional pallets, in favour of their own solution, which they called ‘Loading Ledges’. (If you can persuade a Swede to talk about loading ledges, do so: the pronunciation is cute.) They’re basically polypropylene ‘feet’ that do the same job as a pallet: raising the goods such that the tines of a forklift can get underneath, but taking up a lot less space (the low profile ones are almost impossibly svelte at just 45mm high) and they weigh less. A further space saving comes from the loading ledges being strapped to the lower edges of the shipment whatever size that shipment happens to be: the pallet substitute takes the shape of the product, rather than requiring manufacturers to contrive loads that more-or-less fit the shape of a standard pallet. This elimination of ‘underhang’ can lead to additional improvements in space utilisation within a container or a vehicle.
Before IKEA developed the loading ledges, and also adopted a paper pallet system for some products, almost half of the company’s consumption of spruce and pine was for the construction of pallets, which is astonishing if you consider them to be primarily a furniture company. Just a few years ago, virtually everybody was shipping tonnes of wood around the world (most of the half a billion pallets made each year are wooden) and then scratching their heads about how to get them back again. Pallets are that rarest of things: a product that improves with age. As the wood becomes seasoned, it becomes more resilient, so used pallets actually have greater utility than brand new ones – if only they weren’t on the wrong side of the world!
IKEA’s polypropylene loading ledges, being much less bulky and weighing only a fraction of the pallets they replace, are cheaper to backhaul. They don’t improve with age like wooden pallets, but they are more durable – and they don’t have to be treated periodically to deal with insect pests, as wooden pallets do. There’s even an IKEA product that’s designed to be made from recycled loading ledges; the LADIS storage box. How’s that for joined-up thinking?
But why stop there? Just because you’re in the furniture business, that doesn’t mean you have to stay only in the furniture business. IKEA formed the OptiLedge company to market their solution worldwide. If you’re in the business of shipping things that are rigid and more-or-less cuboid, it’s worth a closer look.