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History of the Pallet Design System™
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By John McLeod III, Director of the Pallet Design System™

The history of PDS begins with the planning and construction of the Pallet Lab on the campus of Virginia Tech. The William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet and Container Research Laboratory was officially dedicated on Oct. 28, 1976 in the presence of more than 200 guests, including seven past presidents of NWPCA and 17 members of NWPCA’s Board of Directors.

In 1977, Dr. John Hosner, then Director of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Resources at Virginia Tech, addressed the 30th Annual Meeting of NWPCA in Marco Island, Fla.. Dr. Hosner reported that NWPCA provided the funds to construct the Pallet Lab, and that NWPCA’s funding provided the impetus to obtain additional funding to construct the first phase of the planned forest products research and extension center. The Pallet Lab was the first building in what is now the Brooks Forest Products Center, which was the first building complex in what is now the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

Dr. George Stern was appointed the first director of the Pallet Lab, and he sought the advice of NWPCA’s Board of Directors to establish priorities for research projects. Even after his retirement, Dr. Stern remained active at the laboratory. In his final years, he was instrumental in the design and construction of the Pallets Move the WorldTM sculpture now at the entrance to the Brooks Center. At the dedication of this sculpture, brass plaques were unveiled which honored: Thomas Depew (past president of NWPCA); Dr. Walt Wallin (research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] Forest Service, and creator of an early computerized pallet design program); Bill Sardo (the founder and longtime chief executive of NWPCA); and Dr. Stern himself.

All of us involved in the wood pallet industry today are indebted to these individuals, plus several other leaders and NWPCA members who had the foresight and drive to establish the Pallet Laboratory 34 years ago. The sons of some of those leaders are on today’s NWPCA Board of Directors and on NWPCA Committees.

Dr. Marshall White was named the second director of the Pallet Lab. Upon his retirement from Virginia Tech a few years ago, a plaque in honor of his years of service was added to the sculpture.

Dr. White was also the first director of the Center for Unit Load Design, which is located along with the Pallet Lab at Brooks. NWPCA provided $50,000 start-up funding for the Center for Unit Load Design.

Conception and Birth of PDS

Soon after the Pallet Lab was established, wood pallet industry leaders in NWPCA recognized the need for standard design procedures to determine the structural adequacy and expected performance of wood pallets of various species, grades, designs, and constructions.

On July 1, 1980, a cooperative research project began between the USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory, the USDA Forest Service Northeastern Forest Experiment Station, Virginia Tech and NWPCA. Officially entitled A Research and Development Project for Developing Design Technology for Wooden Pallets, this “four-year cooperative pallet research, development and application program” had the goal of “development of pallet design standards which could provide pallet users a necessary means of communication with pallet manufacturers for defining expected performance.”

Research on the design and performance of wood pallets began in earnest as the Pallet Lab organized and geared up to tackle this major project. Principals from the three cooperating organizations discussed and planned the required research, graduate students to conduct the research were recruited and enrolled at Virginia Tech, test equipment and fixtures were designed and built, and some of the first PCs ever manufactured were loaned to the project by IBM.

Finally, after more than four years of work by many researchers, and considerable blood, sweat and a few tears, PDS Version 1.0 was released in November 1984. It arrived on wood pallet manufacturer’s desks – usually along with their first PC and dot matrix printer.

Soon to follow were presentations on PDS at NWPCA’s annual meetings, PDS Training Courses at Virginia Tech and publications about PDS in magazines and journals. PDS was extremely well received by a very grateful industry.

Continued Development of PDS (1985 – 2009)

The research and development effort which led to the first version of PDS has continued ever since. Each new version of PDS incorporates the latest data, engineering and technologies from NWPCA’s continuing program of research and development. The goals of this research are increased understanding of the relationships between the design and performance of wood pallets and the entire unit load.

In general, a new version of PDS has been released about once a year. The start of a new series indicated a nearly complete rewrite of the software, with extensive new features and developments.

The Version 2.x series began in 1992, at which point there were three separate PDS programs: PDS-Stringer, PDS-Block and PDS-Panel. During this series, new mechanical property data for most species and grades of pallet components was developed.

The Version 3.x series began in 1999, and this single Windows version replaced the previous three DOS programs. During this series, a new engineering-based computer simulation was developed to predict pallet durability, design of remanufactured pallets was added, effects of moisture content percentage on pallet performance were better quantified and pallet component grades were standardized and simplified.

The Version 4.x series began in 2007. Described as a three-dimensional (3D) graphic design and specification tool for wood pallets, Version 4.0 was intended as the first in a series of increasingly powerful new versions.

At this point, PDS can be used to design wood pallets of almost any type or style.

Next Developments for PDS (2010 – 2015)

Despite the tremendous advances we’ve made in 30 years of PDS R&D, we can’t rest our efforts to meet customers’ continuous needs for cost-effective, reliable, safe and efficient unit load shipping platforms.

NWPCA released PDS Version 5.1. This was the 33rd version of PDS over its 29 year history. The major new feature in Version 5.1 is its integration with LoadSync™ - software recently developed by NWPCA that will enhance the communication of pallet and unit load design information between wood pallet manufacturers and their customers.

PDS will remain – first and foremost – the premier design tool for wood pallets. And it will remain the state-of-the-art tool for manufacturers of wood pallets. After all, you – and not your customers – have the expertise and knowledge to design the most practical, efficient and economical wood pallets to meet your customers’ unit load handling requirements.

Wood pallet manufacturers produce the key component to successful unit load material handling – the pallet – the interface between the equipment, forces and impacts of the material handling environment and the customer’s valuable, sometimes fragile, unitized load. And PDS is the key tool in designing this key component.


John McLeod, III, is Director of The Pallet Design System™. John joined the staff of NWPCA in 2005. He leads the association's research and development efforts dedicated to the continuous improvement of this engineering design tool - now used by 400 wood pallet manufacturers in 24 countries. Prior to joining NWPCA staff, John served for 20 years as a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Wood Science and Forest Products at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. During that time, John was the principal researcher and programmer of PDS.