Send them packing

Packing is a simple task requiring little or no thought: You pack the goods, seal the box, and send it to the shipping department. Right?

Not quite. This job is tougher than it sounds, and it can wreck your company when handled badly.

“The packing station is the function with the lowest productivity, and the one where the most labor is required,” says Bill Kuipers, a partner in the consulting firm Spaide, Kuipers and Co. “It tends to be one of the most serious bottlenecks in any operation.”

Yet many fulfillment center managers ignore the process.

“I beg clients all the time to stop and watch a packer for five or 10 minutes,” Kuipers says. “Don’t say a word; just watch. What appears in the first 20 seconds to be a smooth operation morphs into a situation in which you want to rush over and tell them what to do.”

Let’s say you’ve decided to take a fresh look at your packing unit. Here’s a guide on how it should work.

Successful packing begins before the goods reach the packer. “The majority of people pick orders onto a cart or into a tote, then deliver that order to a packing station,” says Wayne Teres, president of Teres Consulting.

But that means you need room for carts around the station, and a system for removing empty ones.

The packing station also has to accommodate all the needed tools.

“Most people make their stations too small,” says Kuipers. “Once you fill them with tape guns, computers, radios, and so on, it’s amazing how little room is left in which to pack boxes.”

But those challenges are modest compared with the ones that lie ahead.

Think outside the box

First, there’s the box problem. Packers may have up to 15 carton sizes available, and all need to be stored within reach, either above the station or behind it.

In addition, there has to be a method of requesting boxes when supplies run low. And if a packer misjudges the carton size, he has to do something with that already constructed box.

Are you handling the same items multiple times? You can streamline things by picking straight to a box. This can be “a huge home run” for firms selling apparel, DVDs, shoes, or anything with predictable packaging, Kuipers says.

Case in point:, a marketer of online printing services and supplies.

“We used to have bottlenecks due to five different workflow areas being squeezed into one or two shipping stations,” says production manager Krystal Cipriani. “We’d cut a job in one area, then move it on a cart into a line to get shipped, so we’d have a whole line of carts to get through.” But Cipriani figured it out.

“We built shipping stations off every single machine so that we could ship from the spot instead of moving the product,” she says. “On the cutting machine, one person cut while a second person now caught and shipped. On the folding machine, instead of folding and stacking, one person folded and shipped.”

PrintingForLess also cross-trained its employees and started rotating them between tasks every two hours in order to avoid repetitive strain injuries.

The result? The average time to package an item fell from 30 hours to 30 minutes.

“Now we’re running 60% early of our promised delivery date instead of 2% late,” says Cipriani. “The changes definitely added to the cost of shipping — more label makers, computers, scales, stations — but the efficiency is good.”

And if most of your boxes fall into only a few sizes? Take a page from Henry Ford and switch to an assembly line, or a series of “speed lines, each one devoted to a particular box size,” Kuipers advises.

“One person makes the boxes and places them on a conveyor line, the second person drops the orders into the boxes and puts a label on them, and the third adds dunnage and seals it,” he says. “Productivity is much higher because it’s a semi-automated process.”

While conventional packers might process only 25 packages per hour, a speed line can handle 100, Kuipers estimates. And you can automate part of the job with a bagging machine.

Then there are the numerous mini packing holdups that can translate into one big headache.

Want to save time? One way is to rewrap fragile items like teapots or coffee cups with bubble wrap while they’re still on the warehouse floor.

“It’s more time up front, but the order clock isn’t running,” Kuipers says. “Any time you can save time in the pack station, it’s a good investment.”

Another benefit of prewrapping fragile items is that you avoid inconsistent wrapping styles, which can save on materials and reduce damage to products.

How do you determine the right amount of bubble wrap to use? Test it — by mailing a couple of packages to yourself.

It also pays to install computer terminals and scanners at each packing station.

“The packer scans the order, then each item as it goes into the box,” Kuipers says. “It’s rarely reliable to have someone read the order and check off each item, because they’re thinking about packing.”

Still another labor-saving device is to divide the job among multiple employees.

“The most efficient places I’ve seen don’t require the packer to add the dunnage and close the box,” Kuipers says. Instead, the packer puts the box on a conveyor.

“Another person handles dunnage for 10 to 18 feeders, then puts the filled boxes into a taping machine,” he explains. “The 10 to 30 seconds that a packer would invest in each box is moved into one streamlined function.”

This set-up also gets the boxes away from the packers more quickly — a good thing during peak times.

And how do you handle products requiring special attention — such as skis, canoe paddles and throw rugs?

“You don’t want these items handled by a new worker,” Teres says. “Have one or two specialized packing stations with workers trained in these difficult-to-pack items, and you’ll have a better chance of the packages arriving as customers want to see them.”

He adds: “The secret is in the sort. Sort the easy orders and give them to new people.”

But don’t expect miracles.

“There’s rarely a silver bullet that’s going to double your packing number,” Kuipers notes. “But you can improve it by taking pressure off regular packing. Skim off as much work as you can with high-productivity techniques. If you can double or triple the productivity on just 20% of your orders, it can be a huge difference.”

Finally, you might consider adding more packing stations, assuming you have the space. “Most companies don’t, but space is inexpensive compared to not getting orders to customers,” Teres says.

W. Eric Martin is a freelance writer based in Concord, NH.

Present tense


“Do away with it,” says Wayne Teres, president of Teres Consulting. “Seriously, it’s a nightmare.

And what if that’s not possible, given the goods you sell and the kind of service you want to provide?

Then go for it. But remember that it’s a time-consuming job.

“A good gift-wrapper can wrap maybe four to 15 packages an hour,” says Teres. “It’s a slow process.”


  • First, add stand-alone wrapping stations with extra-large work surfaces to the packing assembly line and have pickers deliver orders that require full or partial wrapping to these stations. Doing so means that you don’t have to install gift wrap and bows at every station.

  • Next, place trained gift wrappers on these stations to ensure a consistent look. “Customers are paying extra, so you want it to be good looking,” Teres says.

  • Another trick is to eliminate the gift wrap itself and use boxes that are decorated to look like they’ve been wrapped. This option is ideal if your products are relatively uniform — such as clothing or books.
    — WEM

No-stress boxing

Like everything else, packing often forces you to think on your feet. You have to be aware of potential ergonomic issues and address them as quickly as possible.

For example, switching to a carton-sealing machine from individual tape guns will reduce the repetitive motion of taping while increasing the speed of boxes passing through the system. Too many firms realize that only after there’s a problem.

Issues often hide where you least expect them. once used double-corrugated boxes because “paper products are easily demolished on the way to customers,” says production manager Krystal Cipriani. “But it caused carpal tunnel issues, so we switched to double boxing (a box inside a box) and haven’t had any issues.”