When the pallet networks started here nearly three decades ago they were a major innovation. Since then the idea has caught on, first in Europe and then around the world, driven by the British pioneers.

The pallet networks’ outstanding international success has also attracted the attention of global private equity investors like EmergeVest, the owners of EV Cargo, a global supply chain company operating in over 120 countries, which includes the Palletforce network as well as UK logistics firms CM Downton and NFT.

The networks’ story begins in 1992, when Palletline set up as the first ‘hub and spoke’ distribution system dedicated to palletised freight and became the first pallet network to receive the trio of ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 accreditations.

Since shifting 117 pallets on its first night on 29 November 1996, Pall-Ex now distributes over 10,000 pallets every single night, with partnerships established across Europe in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania, France and the Benelux region.

UPN, founded in 2001, currently have over 90 members covering the whole of the UK, and European partners providing coverage throughout 26 countries. Having signed the lease in January for their new hub, which should see them through to 2030, UPN has further strengthened its network with three new members, TWC Logistics, Lombard Shipping, and Omega Express Couriers.

Palletways claims the title of the UK’s largest and fastest growing express palletised freight network, with over 115 independent transport providers as members. One of its largest UK depots is Palletways London in Greenford, Middlesex, processing 2,000 pallets a day, from single pallet loads to large consignments for customers throughout the M25 corridor. The Palletways Group comprises 400 depots and 20 hub operations, working across 20 European countries.

As more contenders came in, the pallet network concept went from being radically new and bold to best practice. These days technology is as big a deal breaker in winning business as service levels. UPN’s point of difference is its “Unique IQ” Initiative, taking in bespoke IT support systems and infrastructure, and its quality driven focus on service excellence.

Palletline claim their bespoke Contrado consignment management system, the result of over four years’ development, is the most advanced in the industry. Palletforce’s solutions include ePOD, Alliance, a bespoke IT system to handle the end-to-end pallet lifecycle, ARC (Arrived, Recorded, Confirmed) ‘live’ monitoring and Super Forklift Trucks that automatically scan and weigh goods.

The Fortec Distribution Network has also invested in technology, in their case a new CCTV camera system with 126 cameras that tracks the movement of every pallet that enters its Watford Gap hub, so every step through the warehouse is monitored and recorded.

With this commitment to technology, automated hubs are likely to be the next step for the pallet networks wanting to further improve their efficiency and productivity. We can expect to see robots helping with transhipment, and warehouse employees wearing robotics tech vests so the robots slow down and update their route to avoid the humans. But the pallet networks are very much a human success story and we’ll still need talented people in charge to drive the business forward.

BILL REDMOND

Features Editor