Automated Packaging System is 'One for the Books'

This case history about Alibris, Inc. comes courtesy of Sealed Air. It has been selected and edited by the MHM editorial staff for clarity, content and style.

At a 100,000 square-foot warehouse in Sparks, Nev., Alibris, Inc. - a leading supplier of new, used and hard-to-find books - receives and ships thousands of book orders worldwide each day. So, for Mark Nason, vice president of operations for Alibris, and Brian Duarte, director of operations for Alibris, productivity and throughput are important to the success of the company.

"We were excited to learn there is an automated packaging systems available that met our criteria of easy integration into our existing processes, reliability, ease-of-use and reasonable cost," Mark Nason stated.

Alibris found such an automatfed packaging system - a somewhat "novel" packaging method - with Sealed Air Corporation’s new PriorityPak® automated packaging system. The smart-sensing technology on the PriorityPak® system scans an item’s dimensions and then delivers the correct amount of the Cold Seal® cohesive-coated PriorityWrap™ Rigid Board from two supply rolls to the PriorityPak® system. As the two sheets of PriorityWrap™ Rigid Board are fed into the system, a patented XRS Roller System creates a crescent seal that suspends the product between them, minimizing product shifting and providing additional corner protection. The protective package locks and seals the products in place providing superior product protection from the rigors of shipping and handling.

Volumes of Research
With a network of more than 10,000 independent booksellers worldwide, Alibris sells books on its Web site and through partners like Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Borders. Alibris prides itself on what the company calls its "three touch" method, the touches referring to the number of times a book is handled from the moment it enters the warehouse until it is sent to a customer.

"We are always looking to remove the ‘touches’ that books go through once they arrive at Alibris," explained Brian Duarte. "We have fine-tuned the process down to three touches - open, receive and ship."

When books arrive at the Alibris facility from a bookseller, an employee opens the package. The book is then given to another employee or "receiver" who checks the book’s condition, keys in an order number to retrieve a packing slip, puts the packing slip inside the book and places it into the appropriate tote, depending on its sales channel or carrier assignment. Once the tote is full, it is placed on a conveyor belt and, because the totes are marked with a bar code, is automatically sent to the correct packaging lane. Then, each book is packaged, labeled and shipped at a single station.

As Nason and Duarte reviewed and evaluated various packaging system options, they kept the "three touch" method in mind. They visited several companies, including one in nearby Reno, Nev. that was using Sealed Air’s PriorityPak® system, to see first-hand each system in operation.

"I actually took a stopwatch with me to each site visit in order to time the packaging process. During our visits, we looked at each machine, how it was set-up, how easy it was to use, the throughput of the system and the resulting package. We also discussed at length with company staff the economics of each system," Nason explained.

According to Nason and Duarte, they witnessed that the package on a competitor’s machine did not always adequately seal on the sides. Also, they discovered other packaging companies lacked adequate technical support or ease-of-integration into existing packaging lines.

"The packaging system needed to integrate easily into our existing process, especially in terms of labeling, packaging and branding," Nason added.

As Alibris took a closer look at Sealed Air’s PriorityPak® system, Mike Ovesen, an automated systems specialist for Sealed Air Corporation, provided hands-on assistance. Ovesen helped Alibris determine the materials it would need to package a common-size book, including the type and width of material, and how many material roll changes would be needed during a typical day of operation. He also supplied samples of the final package created by the PriorityPak® system so that shipping tests could be conducted and various departments within Alibris, including marketing, could evaluate its performance and aesthetics. As part of the decision-making process, Alibris looked at many possible variations.

Historical Reference
Since its start in 1998, Alibris has evolved in the types of packaging it uses to package single books. In the beginning, the company used flat cardboard folded over a book and stapled at the ends. Some customers voiced concern regarding the staples which made the package difficult to open. And although the packaging was tough, according to Nason, it needed aesthetic improvements.

A few years later, the company switched to cardboard"t-fold" packages. Although the "t-folds" were more expensive than the previously used flat cardboard, this process produced 50 percent more shipments per employee each day. However, the "t-fold" packages also had some drawbacks. Because the books could shift inside the "t-fold" package and there was no cushioning, some books were scuffed during transit. The company also experienced some "fall outs" - the book would literally fall out of the package - during shipping. Finally, because of the openings inherent in a "t-fold" package, the package was not water-resistant and at times moisture would get into the package during shipment.

Sealed Air’s PriorityPak® system was installed at Alibris’ Sparks, Nev. facility to package single books for both domestic and international shipments. For three days, Sealed Air oversaw the installation, trained Alibris employees on its use and monitored the system to ensure it was running properly.

"The team from Sealed Air trained me and three others on how to use the system," stated Duarte. "However, there wasn’t really much training needed because the PriorityPak® system is very intuitive and easy to use."

Once the tote filled with books is conveyed to the packaging lane with the PriorityPak® system, the packaging operator removes a book from the tote. The operator then removes the packing slip from inside the book and scans it, which alerts the PriorityPak® system to the proper address and postage to print on the label. The operator places the book on the bottom material web of PriorityWrap™ Rigid Board and hits a button to begin the packaging process. As the book moves through the system, the smart-sensing technology on the PriorityPak® system scans the book’s dimensions to deliver the correct amount of the Cold Seal® cohesive-coated PriorityWrap™ Rigid Board from two supply rolls to the system. The specially formulated Cold Seal® coating sticks to itself to create a seal adjacent to all four sides of the book. With the print-and-apply label system, the address and postage label is automatically applied to the top web of material. The package is then dropped onto a conveyor belt and delivered to a bin for shipping. The whole packaging process takes only seconds.

"We were floored with the workmanship of the system," exclaimed Nason. "Also, the PriorityPak® system is twice as fast as any of the other packaging systems we evaluated. It truly is top-notch."

Textbook Results

Almost immediately after the installation, Alibris experienced increased productivity. According to Nason, the PriorityPak® system enables the company to produce at more than twice the rate achieved with the cardboard "t-fold" packages. The company now averages 2,500 to 3,500 packages per day processed through a single PriorityPak® system.

Also, the reports Alibris receives from the post office regarding loss (some due to fall outs or labels being separated from the package) dropped by 25 percent during the first month of using the PriorityPak® system. And, because the system creates the seal of the package adjacent to the book, the book cannot shift and scuffing damage has been reduced.

According to Nason and Duarte, there also are a few unexpected benefits to switching to the PriorityPak® system. Because the PriorityPak® package is nearly five ounces lighter than the cardboard "t-folds," the company is saving on international shipping costs due to the reduced weight of the package. Domestically, because of the low-profile of the PriorityPak® package, a higher percentage of packages are eligible for flat rate shipping which saves Alibris even more.

Another nice surprise is the reaction of the packaging operators. "The operators love it," said Duarte. "They are definitely impressed with the new system."

The cardboard "t-fold" packages were rough on the hands of the packaging operators. With the automated PriorityPak® system, the operators do not even touch the actual package. In a warehouse environment, Duarte explains, the packaging operators are responsible for production and quality, and the PriorityPak® system makes their jobs much easier.

Initially, Nason projected Alibris would achieve a return-on-investment in six months with the PriorityPak® system. As of mid-July 2005, less than three months after installation, Alibris is 70 percent through its projected ROI. According to Nason, he believes Alibris’ annualized savings in postage, materials and labor will equate to more than $325,000.

Library of Solutions
In addition to the new PriorityPak® system, Alibris uses many packaging solutions from Sealed Air Corporation. The company uses Sealed Air’s Jiffylite® cushioned mailers for packaging oversize, oblong or smaller single books. The PriorityPak® system is outfitted with 15-inch PriorityWrap™ Rigid Board rollstock material to fit a standard-size book and Jiffylite® cushioned mailers, according to Duarte, are a great lightweight and durable "companion" for packaging odd-shaped books. The Jiffylite® cushioned mailers are pre-printed to feature Alibris’ branding preferences.


Alibris also uses Sealed Air’s Fill-Air® inflatable cushions for void-fill in cartons with multiple books being shipped to a single location. Duarte states, "We always believed peanuts are messy and cumbersome to work with." Therefore, they chose Fill-Air® cushions for a void-fill solution because they are easy to work with and provide a professional image.

Other Sealed Air products in use at Alibris include Bubble Mask® adhesive-coated air cellular cushioning and Cell-Aire® polyethylene foam to line the bottom of cartons containing multiple books for shipment.

The Next Chapter
"We are always looking toward the future," explained Nason. "One of the advantages of the PriorityPak® system is its integration into existing packaging lines and its modular design, which enable us to add more applications and features at a later time."

As Alibris experiences increased productivity and cost savings with its new automated packaging system, Nason and Duarte contemplate a second PriorityPak® system and continue to seek efficiency solutions for Alibris.

MHMonline.com welcomes relevant, exclusive case histories that explain in specific detail the business benefits that new software and material-handling equipment has provided to specific users. Send submissions to Mary Aichlmayr(Mary.Aichlmayr@penton.com), MHM Editor. All submissions will be edited for clarity, content and style.

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