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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — The pending introduction of robotic distribution centers by the U.S. Postal Service will boost demand for pallets from North American plastic pallet makers.

By 1998, 20 of the Postal Service's largest distribution centers will have robots to load mail onto pallets. The time savings will lead to quicker turnover and will require a greater supply of pallets, said Ralph Walker, a post office mechanical engineer.

Walker spoke at the International Association of Packaging Research Institutes world conference in Melbourne.

Growth in pallet demand also is fueled by the Postal Service's decision to replace wooden pallets with twin-sheet, thermoformed high density polyethylene pallets. Walker said the service needed the strongest, most-durable and most cost-effective material for its pallets.

In 1994, U.S Postal Service commissioned Michigan State University's School of Packaging to conduct extensive life-cycle tests on eight types of pallets made from wood, metal and plastics.

Twin-sheet thermoformed HDPE pallets ranked highest for the Postal Service's needs. Tests showed HDPE pallets were lightweight at just 19-20 pounds, averaged 55 uses, and cost $15-$16 each.

Walker said that of the 5 million pallets now used by the Postal Service, 3.75 million are HDPE.

Walker said wood pallets, introduced in 1973, still are being phased out, so strong growth opportunities exist for HDPE pallet makers.

``Our use of pallets is increasing and plastic provides the best qualities, so there will be growth,'' he said.

The Postal Service sources its HDPE pallets from a range of North American manufacturers, including Penda Corp. of Portage, Wis., and Cadillac Products Inc. of Troy, Mich.