from the and-no-patents! dept.
Jacob Hodes writes in Cabinet Magazine that there are approximately two billion wooden shipping pallets in the holds of tractor-trailers in the United States transporting Honey Nut Cheerios and oysters and penicillin and just about any other product you can think of. According to Hodes the magic of pallets is the magic of abstraction. "Take any object you like, pile it onto a pallet, and it becomes, simply, a “unit load”—standardized, cubical, and ideally suited to being scooped up by the tines of a forklift. This allows your Cheerios and your oysters to be whisked through the supply chain with great efficiency; the gains are so impressive, in fact, that many experts consider the pallet to be the most important materials-handling innovation of the twentieth century." Although the technology was in place by the mid-1920s, pallets didn’t see widespread adoption until World War II, when the challenge of keeping eight million G.I.s supplied—“the most enormous single task of distribution ever accomplished anywhere,” according to one historian—gave new urgency to the science of materials handling. "The pallet really made it possible for us to fight a war on two fronts the way that we did." It would have been impossible to supply military forces in both the European and Pacific theaters if logistics operations had been limited to manual labor and hand-loading cargo.
To get a sense of the productivity gains that were achieved, consider the time it took to unload a boxcar before the advent of pallets. “According to an article in a 1931 railway trade magazine, three days were required to unload a boxcar containing 13,000 cases of unpalletized canned goods. When the same amount of goods was loaded into the boxcar on pallets or skids, the identical task took only four hours.” Pallets, of course, are merely one cog in the global machine for moving things and while shipping containers have had their due, the humble pallet is arguably "the single most important object in the global economy."