Matching a product with a box should be a simple task. After all, people have been sending things in corrugated cardboard for 116 years, and the entire packing and shipping process is increasingly optimized and automated.
But the fact is, matching products to boxes has become increasingly complex because of the increased optimization and automation. Manual or automated packing? Peanuts or air pillows? Hot or cold sealing? The number of options keeps growing, making it more difficult to choose the very best and most cost-effective combination of materials to use to ship a given product.
At the same time, changes in many supply chains — the rise of imports, the growth of additional sales and marketing channels — mean that the number of potential pitfalls is also growing. Here are a few of the challenges.
SPANNING THE GLOBE
Packaging engineers say that regardless of whether merchants are importing or exporting products, they now face issues that require not just a glance at some old stress-tolerance tables but some original thinking as well.
Perhaps the biggest emerging difficulty is maintaining quality control over packaging materials themselves. Many importers are running into high levels of damage in goods shipped from China because of inferior packing materials. “They just don’t have the virgin tree fiber material,” says Larry Rutledge, manager of packaging design development at Memphis-based FedEx Corp.
Although China recycles a lot of its own paper and imports a great deal more from developed countries, particularly the U.S., it still must turn to other sources of fiber to meet the rising demand. Nonwood fibers such as wheat and rice straw account for nearly 85% of the pulp China produces, according to a 2005 PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) study. Faced with a shortage of paper at home — PWC estimates that 17% of Chinese land is forested, compared with about 33% of the typical developed country — Chinese paper manufacturers make boxes from many other kinds of pulp. They use “anything they can — rice, bamboo, you name it,” says transport packaging consultant Alfred McKinlay of Pattersonville, NY.
The problem with nonwood fibers is that they’re not as strong as wood fiber, according to McKinlay. Shorter fibers are only about 50% as strong as conventional corrugated, says Rutledge, and the sometimes humid conditions of ocean travel can weaken the material even further. You can end up, Rutledge continues, with a box that’s only half as strong as it was when it left port: a box that’s only “50% of 50%.”
For distributors who receive a shipment that they intend to forward, Rutledge recommends a simple visual check to see if the boxes are still holding up. “If your container has pretty upright square sides and corners and edges, that’s an indication that it’s been handled pretty well,” he says.
And if not? FedEx packaging engineers recommend putting the box inside a larger box with additional packaging protection.
To prevent this sort of problem in the first place, Rutledge suggests specifying quality levels in packaging in vendor agreements, in the same way as other service and quality levels are specified. He advises using the packaging codes of either the U.S. Postal Service or one of the three major parcel networks as a source for guidelines.
OUTSIDE THE BOX
The boxes themselves aren’t always the cause of packaging problems. A case in point: Hewlett-Packard’s difficulties selling its inkjet printers in India a few years ago. In this instance the receiving procedures were to blame, says Kevin Howard, a packaging consultant with Vancouver, WA-based Packnomics. As senior packaging engineer for HP at the time, Howard investigated the situation, visiting a distribution center in Mumbai.
“They hired armies of people to break down pallet loads because they don’t have pallet jacks, they don’t have forklift trucks,” Howard recalls. “The general manager of the major distribution system for HP [in Mumbai] had never seen a forklift truck before. There was nothing unitized, and everything was moved one at a time and hand-stacked in warehouses…and because they don’t have any step stools or anything, they have to stand on your boxes to stack other boxes higher up.” The high humidity also took a toll on box strength.
All in all, the supply chain for which the box had been designed was different from the one in which it was being sold. To solve the problem, Howard redesigned the laboratory tests and told HP that it could fix the problem by spending a few more cents per printer in plastic, which hardened the printers enough that they could withstand the degree of abuse received.
“We were really able to reduce damages by over 95% with really just a few cents’ worth of changes,” Howard says. “The payback was something like 30 to 1 for what we spent vs. what was saved by having made that change.”
Closer to home, manufacturers and retailers that are relatively new to direct-to-consumer shipping often don’t realize how much more handling these items encounter than the full truckloads of palletized goods that are shipped to stores or other resellers.
Many shippers will be tempted to simply make the toughest box possible and use it for every kind of shipment, Howard says. But using unnecessarily strong — and expensive — packaging on products that don’t need it will damage your bottom line.
Howard says it’s important to think pragmatically about probable risk of damage vs. the cost of fixing that risk. “Once you start playing with the numbers, that gives you some guidance as to how much protection you really want around your product. But very few companies think deeply enough, I think, about that combination of statistical probability,” he says.
Nor do many companies realize that technology has added more distance between engineers, designers, and executives. Roger Cunningham, a supply chain consultant at Marietta, GA-based DCB and Co., notes that many operations executives no longer have a direct, physical knowledge of their supply chains, and this makes it easier to make mistakes. At many companies, product and packaging engineers are no longer in the same building, and maybe not even on the same continent, making it more difficult to achieve a high level of teamwork.
The growth in the number of third parties involved in packaging design has also increased the potential for miscommunication. “The problem comes in the coordination between not only groups inside a company but with all sorts of suppliers that they’re dealing with,” says Kent St. Vrain, vice president of marketing and business development for Paxonics, a Boston-based developer of collaborative software.
St. Vrain recalls one time when a manufacturer he knew decided to move the logo from one flap of a new folding carton to the other. So far so good, except that the person who finally took the file to the converter used the next-to-last version — and printed 1 million versions of the wrong carton. “It happens all the time,” he says.
Packnomics’s Howard remembers when product engineers at HP could just walk over and ask him if any adjustments to the design could streamline packaging — a dialogue that sometimes saved the company millions. There’s huge savings potential for U.S. companies “if they can get beyond some of these design books and start to think about this a little more holistically.”
Others agree that the packaging decision shouldn’t be a last-minute consideration. “Packaging is not just a shipping decision. It’s not just a topic for the shipping manager and it’s not just a topic for the marketing folks who are designing the product,” says Steve Holmes, a spokesperson for Atlanta-based United Parcel Service. “It’s also a part of the buyer’s decision.”
Bennett Voyles is a New York-based business writer.
What’s new in packaging materials
Here are a few of the latest innovations
Automatic Packaging Systems has a new system that makes it easy for packers to knit together its Autobag, Accu-Count, and Kit-Veyor automatic packing systems without a lot of manual integration work. Devicenet allows for seamless integration with Automatic Packaging’s Accu-Count 100/200 counters and Kit-Veyor 80G automatic kitting system, according to a press release. A programmable system, DeviceNet provides a single point of access to each of the modules it knits together, along with advanced diagnostics. www.autobag.com
In recent years demand has grown for more environmentally friendly dunnage. Cushion Cubes is yet another product designed to meet this need. Not only are the cubes made entirely of recyclable fibers, they are also reusable for multiple shipments, according to manufacturer UFT Technologies. The one-inch cubes, which look somewhat like torn bits of egg carton, are loose but then lock around the shipped items. Despite being made of recycled fiber, the patented cubes have an ability to reset after compression, so that they provide cushioning even after a bump. The cubes can conform to an item’s shape, which UFT says makes them suitable for irregularly shaped and fragile items, including tools and automotive parts. Though UFT introduced Cushion Cubes last year, a spokesperson says they’ve become more widely available thanks to a Website launched this spring. www.cushioncube.com
This packaging technology provides seven times the cooling power of melting ice with less packaging waste, according to comanufacturers MeadWestvaco Corp. and NanoPore. Introduced this past fall, this lightweight system typically weighs half as much as ice-cooled packaging. In addition, it can be activated within five minutes with no prefreezing or refrigeration. “What we’re doing is evaporating water in a vacuum, which creates cooling,” explains Steve Pohlmann, general manager of NanoCool. Cooling is activated at the push of a button on the package. www.nanocool.com
Polyair recently introduced VCI-2000, a packaging line that provides the same anticorrosion protection that the company has offered, but in a more environmentally friendly package. The flexible polymer package includes vapor inhibitors that protect ferrous and most nonferrous metals from corrosion. In a press release, Polyair president Alan Castle said that the material protects carbon steels, stainless steels, copper, brass, aluminum, silver, and galvanized steel. The product of a joint venture with Grofit Plastic, the VCI-2000 line is also curbside recyclable and made of more than 30% recycled paper. www.polyair.com
STANDARD SIZES FOR KORRVU
Introduced this spring, this packaging program from Sealed Air offers eight standard designs of its Korrvu packaging, which was previously available only on a custom basis. Especially useful for fragile electronics, such as laptops and cameras, Korrvu secures the shipped product in a kind of clear film pocket suspended in a corrugated frame. Sizes range from 7-1/2″ × 5-1/2″ × 2″ all the way up to 17″ × 17″ × 8″. www.sealedair.com
Manufactured by Storopack, this biodegradable loose fill is made mostly of cornstarch. It dissolves with just a little moisture, addressing the concern that today’s packing peanuts are tomorrow’s eternal monument. Scott Dowrey, senior vice president for marketing at Storopack, says that Pelaspan-Pac Natural is the first natural product that Storopack has put on the market that performs to nearly the same level as a polystyrene product. “You wouldn’t know it was a starch product unless you were told,” he says. Introduced in January, the product is available at roughly the same cost as polystyrene and even looks the same. www.storopackinc.com