It Begins With the Box

Attending an educational conference is not unlike drinking from a fire hose. While you’re happy to survive the experience, often you’re left with only a flavor of what really happened.

So it was at the Material Handling & Logistics Conference, sponsored by HK Systems and Irista. The event ran like one of the company’s well-lubricated palletizers as attendees shuffled from meeting to meeting, mining wealth from an endless stream of information. And while transport packaging was not a specific topic on anyone’s agenda, I could not help but take note of how many times the subject appeared in what seemed unrelated educational sessions.

Allison Mitchell, distribution guru for Starbucks, spent her first few years on the packaging side of the company’s business. She was tapped to head the team that brought up the company’s automated DC in Reno, Nevada. As she noted, in designing a distribution center, the smallest things can create the biggest challenges. Mitchell pointed out that the size of packages dictated the movement of material through the DC. While it would be preferable to pick orders in case or larger lots, broken-case lots have to be accommodated. Also, because of Starbucks product (and aroma is part of the package), the company opted for electric-powered rather than propane-powered lift trucks.

During a conference session billed as the need for speed, or the latest in conveyor and sorter technology, print-and-apply labeling played a major role. It does no good to have high-speed conveying if you can’t get a label on the carton. As labeling machinery technology improves, and labels are applied at higher speed to cartons within a range of sizes found in a typical DC (specifically within a 36-inch-envelope), conveyor manufacturers have been able to crank up the speed.

It was in sessions on palletizing and unitizing where the importance of transport packaging stood out. The underlying message here was that material handling professionals need to pay attention to packaging when it’s time to make automation decisions and purchases.

Phil Reece of Forte Automation Systems discussed the benefits and limitations of robotic palletizing. As he noted, it’s not a matter of robotics being better than conventional palletizing, it’s a matter of choice and adaptability. (Ironically, limitations on automation are often set by manual processes up and down stream from the machines.)

“If your choice is a robotic arm with a vacuum end effector, you have to be sure the cases being lifted are properly sealed,” said Reece. He went on to describe disasters that occur when a robot picks up a carton that is not properly sealed. Another packaging concern for robotic palletizers and high-speed labeling machines is the current quality of containers. An increasing number of corrugated containers are coming from Asia. These are made of what can most generously be described as rice paper.

“The high dust content of these cartons,” said Bill Gunner of ID Systems, a label-applicator manufacturer, “creates a challenge in keeping the label on the box.” Reece’s concern about the fragility of these cartons was similar. “The boxes coming in from Asia often lack the rigidity to be picked up and stacked,” he said.

Of course, at the base of any unit load strategy is the pallet. Part of that strategy, the selection of pallets, will depend on accurate inventory profiling. I asked if the material content of the pallet played a part in determining a unit load strategy. Richard Rogers, director of the solution design functions at HK Systems, opined that material was not a major player in determining a strategy. “However,” he said, “plastic pallets, or the stacks of empty pallets to be more accurate, are still a concern for fire marshals and insurance companies.”

To help you develop a unit load strategy, or otherwise blind your boss with more numbers than she cares to see, Rogers and HK Systems, have created a slick Unitload Comparator, available free on the HK Web site (www.hksystems.com). It’s an Excel spreadsheet application into which you plug all the information you have, or can dream up, to determine the what, when, where, why and how of unit load strategies.

Clyde E. Witt, executive editor

[email protected]

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