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The pill packages had likely been contaminated by trace amounts of a fungicide used to treat the 6-inch-tall wooden platforms, which carried them from factory to warehouse to retailer. The cost of lost production and yanking Tylenol and Motrin off store shelves: $900m.
The lowly shipping pallet — a ubiquitous tool of modern commerce — has a habit of causing trouble. The wood harbors bacteria, spoiling a shipment of produce. A pallet cracks, sending a stack of televisions tumbling to the floor. In a fire, a stack of wooden pallets is tinder.
Jeffrey Owen thinks his Lightning Technologies, based in Oxford, Michigan, has the answer: a virtually indestructible, lightweight, hygienic and fire-retardant pallet with an embedded tracking chip. The Lightning pallet is made of wood, but it's encapsulated with a polymer coating that makes the wood durable and easy to sanitize. The chip records everything about the pallet's journey in real time: temperature, humidity, accidents and, of course, whereabouts.
The high-tech pallets have logistics experts doing cartwheels. "Today there's no way to measure how the product is handled or controlled for temperature," says Bob Spence, a vice president at Del Monte Fresh Produce. "And God forbid there's a recall." With a smart pallet, he says, "you have the ability to trace that product quickly and determine what field sold it. Then maybe you don't have to go back and recall everything."
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