Chain of Thought

Spot Bad Loads, Get Fewer Bad Products

After walking the Pack-Expo show in Vegas for three days, I kind of felt sorry for some of the equipment on display. It might have been fatigue setting in, but consider: this is the most attention stretch wrappers, pallets and reusable plastic containers will get all year. Once this equipment gets purchased and put to work, its contribution to supply chain integrity is often forgotten.

Maybe my empathy for the exhibits was more fatigue than feelings, but Pat Lancaster, chairman of Lantech, manufacturer of stretch wrapping systems, confirmed for me that the kind of solutions his company sells are often misunderstood. His conclusion is based on his own eye-witness accounts. He told me he has spent half of his time lately in customer plants. What he noticed is that film breakage and its consequences happen more than people realize. He said as his company's products got better over time he would have expected wrapped loads to get better. As the old song goes, it ain't necessarily so.

Shippers tend to focus on products, labeling and packaging when making process improvements in their operations. Once those elements are combined into a unit load they go through a wall into another, darker space and the knowledge of that load gets dimmer too. Things like carton specs and when those loads go out of spec are forgotten, if they were ever known.

That's a shame when you consider how proud of their products manufacturers can be. The stretch wrap that was designed to protect those products during shipment is a “second class citizen” in Lancaster's words.

“Labor reduction has caused owners of the process to have many competing tasks and stretch wrap isn't seen as important to quality,” he told me. “Meanwhile there's still a push to reduce packaging and therefore reduce costs.”

So what do many manufacturers do to make up for the lost protective properties of the reduced secondary packaging? Add more stretch wrap to the load. Unfortunately, that causes more damage, not less, according to Lancaster.

“Precision is what matters where stretch wrap is concerned,” he said.

He also told me that when stretch film was identified by manufacturers as a packaging problem the focus was on film breakage. But Lancaster says the new focus should be on just plain “good loads”—those that ship well and keep products in “as-made” condition.

“It's about the right amount of containment force, not just pre-stretch,” he told me. “There needs to be more recognition of bad loads.”

For example, if a palletized load set next to another stretch wrapped load shifts and hits its neighbor, that can cause film abrasion and weaken the film's effectiveness. If that damage goes unnoticed on the dock and the pallets are loaded onto a truck, any further forces during transportation can continue the chain of events that started with the initial film damage.

Once the products are delivered, any damage is usually blamed on the carrier or the transportation process, Lancaster said. The manufacturer who built the bad load may never find out about it or learn from their mistakes.

“At the same time, damage is expected during transportation, so not much attention is paid to it,” Lancaster added. “Therefore bad loads keep going through.”

Another common mistake he sees that has become one of the chief characteristics of a bad load is when the stretch film covers the pallet entry holes so when forks break the film, its integrity is severely compromised.

As Lancaster demonstrated during Pack Expo, new pallet wrap systems can measure the amount of film wrap force that's applied to a load, whether too much or too little, according to pre-set standards for the product.

The message he wanted to leave with every supply chain manager who visited his exhibit—whether they be responsible for shipping or receiving unitized products—is that when you notice product damage, look at upstream equipment, not just what happens in a trailer. Damage is a chain too, and it often starts with the shipper's unitizing process.

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