Design for Distribution @Big Blue

From laptops to servers, as manager of corporate packaging programs Robert Sanders works with various elements of IBM Corp.'s (Armonk, N.Y.) global supply chain.

"We're trying to find out if the product's physical dimensions are within practical limitations. Will it fit through doorways, onto elevators and into airplanes?" he asks. "The developers' focus is how many more MIPS they can put into that frame. Our job is to keep an eye out for practical aspects."

To keep track of these practical requirements, IBM has many long-established machine mobility and stability standards that specify maximum heights, widths, and depth, as well as weight and tiltability requirements. Proposed designs are checked against these standards as part of the development process. When client requirements exceed these limits, engineers have to get creative.

"When they start to push the boundaries of what that allows, we get into some negotiations with the engineers to try to find alternatives," says Sanders.

As a packaging engineer, he does what he can to influence design to make products as rugged as possible. The more rugged a product is, the less packaging that's required. It's a trade off, but Sanders notes he'd rather see money go into the product than into packaging. One small change can translate into logistical advantages all the way down the line.

For example, Sanders reports that a new IBM Thinkpad laptop designed with special hard drive mountings reduced fragility by 50 percent. This improvement in ruggedness let them dramatically reduce the amount of protective packaging, which created transportation efficiencies and reduced warranty claims as well.

"The package effectively supplements the products' inherent ruggedness to meet or exceed the hazards of the distribution environment," says Sanders. For IBM's products, these hazards include shock, vibration, moisture, humidity, handling, temperature extremes, contamination, and electro-static discharge. "The supply chain being global in scope, that's an everincreasing challenge, delivering a factory fresh, pristine product to an end client in Oklahoma when that product came from Shenzhen, China."

When asked how he measures the performance of his area, Sanders says they look at box costs and transportation charges. But they also look at any downstream savings that save clients trouble, such as callbacks and warranty claims. Since January of 2002, IBM has documented $50 million in supply-chain cash savings just from improvements in product packaging.

Packaging engineers at IBM Corp. are often brought in during the earliest phase of the product development process to maximize distribution efficiency.
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