When it's time to find the best deal on a piece of packaging equipment or material, buyers should talk first with current suppliers. Other useful sources of direction include third-party auditors, industry tradeshows and the mountain of information that's currently available online.
Package design and development centers, such as those offered by material providers like Sealed Air (Danbury, Conn.), are one place to start. "Our testing labs offer a good way for us to work with the customer to determine what is the best way to solve a packaging problem," says Tom Windisch, product manager for Sealed Air's Insta-Pak product line. "It's no cost to the customer and it helps them wade through the many options."
Of course, the customer always has the option of taking the data from the test lab and trying to find a better price on the open market. That's a chance companies like Sealed Air take. Taking the consultative approach, providers of packaging machinery and material use customer data to evaluate what is needed.
"People are looking for solutions that are scalable." says Windisch. "They have to look at more than the cost benefits of protection. The cost of space in the warehouse to store additional material, for example, escalates and has to be factored in."
Working with customers to contain costs is good business, says Kevin Rudd, executive director, NetPak, the industrial packaging arm for Network Services (Mt. Pleasant, Ill.). Network Services is an $8 billion company consisting of 78 member-distributors. Its industrial packaging component does about $1 billion in sales per year.
"Our member-owners work with customers all the time," explains Rudd. "Continuous improvement is a lesson we've learned from the auto industry and our customers are always looking to us for ways to reduce packaging waste."
As an example, Rudd says he's seeing an increase in the use of lighter, high-performance stretch films. "As automation has increased in many distribution centers, so has the use of film because more people are wrapping loads rather than putting things in cartons," he says.
As another way to control costs, Rudd says packaging distributors are instituting just-in-time delivery of corrugated so customers won't have to carry an inventory of carton sizes they have limited use for.
"The end user does not want to buy a six-weeks supply and sit on it," says Rudd. "Distributors help the customers look for better ways to manage the assets of packaging material."
A good way to manage packaging assets is to make use of packaging audits offered by Network Services and other suppliers. These audits can be as elaborate as running the product to be shipped through a test lab, similar to services offered by Sealed Air, or a simple price-comparison of material provided by different vendors.
A thorough audit begins with damage reports assessing where along the supply chain the damage occurs. The product delivery process, from manufacturing to final customer, is fraught with hazards. Examining the whole process, says Rudd, can reveal not only where the problem happens, it can also yield ways to remove waste.
An objective audit is best completed by a third-party packaging specialist. Auditors look for patterns of damage. Such audits begin with a thorough examination of the shipping environment. Along with the normal hazards of exposure in truckload and less-thantruckload (LTL) shipping, distribution centers and sortation hubs present special problems.
Packaging must be designed to survive repeated bumps and vibration. This repeated exposure to conveying and sorting has a cumulative effect on the goods and the package material. An audit must include observations at each point of contact. The major hazards encountered traveling to, and within the sortation hub include shock, vibration, compression and varying climate conditions.
Another thing auditors look for is how the trailer will be loaded and unloaded from the time the package leaves the distribution center until it reaches the end user. While high-speed automated handling can be tough on packages, manual handling, with its frequent drops from more than 30-inches, can be even tougher.
When the environment has been studied, the fragility of the product being shipped is considered. The level of fragility will give some indication of how much impact the product can sustain. Typically, fragility assessment is done in laboratories testing to ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) Test Methods D 3332 and D 3580 from ASTM International, a standards development organization, and the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA).
Based on the results of fragility testing, package and shipping container designs can be recommended. Sometimes the audit can lead to product redesign if it's determined that the cost of the packaging material is too high relative to the items being contained. If the audit is done by a material supplier, the seller may find ways to reduce the amount of material purchased. The goodwill generated, however, can lead to a longer-term relationship. A third-party auditing firm is more likely to be material and equipment neutral.
Bayer Corp. (Shawnee, Kans.) invested more than $120 million in its distribution center for the growing veterinary supplies market when a shift in its distribution policy quadrupled the number of orders it ships per day.
"We had been hand-erecting and taping boxes," says Larry Geivett, distribution supervisor. "That was no longer practical. We went from 500 or 600 orders per day, up to 1,600 to 2,500 per day."
The new policy meant they were shipping individual, smaller packages instead of less-than-truckload (LTL) shipments. Geivett still had to ship any order before 4:30 p.m., regardless of order size.
"We needed a steady supply of cartons," says Geivett, "because we were picking right to the shipping carton rather than into totes, then re-packing the merchandise."
At Pack Expo (Las Vegas), the annual packaging industry show in sponsored by the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (Arlington, Va.), he saw a demonstration of Lantech's (Louisville, Ky.) then-new case erector.
"The level of control over the box in the machine tipped the scale for us," says Geivett. "Most machines use a lot of pushing motions, which almost always leads to crushed boxes. This machine pushes the box over a slider plate into the exit drive, and even then the box is held square by the slots in the major flap folders."
Typically, such a machine at a tradeshow runs only the best boxes, guarded over by a squadron of engineers. However, the Lantech engineers showed no fear. They took one of Bayer's boxes, ripped open the glue seam and then beat the corners on a table.
"They put the terribly damaged blank [as a flat, pre-formed box is referred to] into the machine's magazine. It made the box and taped it," says Geivett, still with a bit of amazement in his voice. And the demonstration was repeated so often that he video recorded the process as proof for his managers.
The adventure of online shopping is that a product can always be found cheaper, somewhere. Two aspects of online shopping have had an impact on transport packaging, particularly the material side of the business. First, the increase of online (and catalog) shoppers has increased the amount of transport packaging material being purchased by online retailers. It's also generated development of new products and technologies to serve the online retailers, particularly in-carton dunnage.
"For many companies," says Rudd, "such as Amazon.com, where suddenly it is dealing with many products, not just books, there is a demand for a variety of material to fulfill their packaging requirements. That's where the distributor can step in and make quick assessments."
Online shopping has also changed the way packaging buyers get information. In the past, a salesperson could sit down with the customer and explain the benefits of one product over another. Now, with the ease of finding information on Web sites, customers are making that first cut, or finding out about new material or new machinery on their own.
Rudd says online shopping is a double-edged sword. "We don't get to talk with the customer and up-sell them when they order online. Both parties, however, have become more accurate in order placement and fulfillment." Regardless of how a packaging purchase is made, price, quality, availability, reliability and technical support are critical.
Current suppliers, packaging audits, tradeshows and online shopping, offer valuable information to buyers of packaging equipment and material.
Bayer runs 10 box sizes on its two case erecting machines. Changeover is accomplished with calibrated hand wheels keyed to the box measurements.
Save Tape: A Case For Automation
Loveshaw, an ITW Company (South Canaan, Pa.), has put together some information on cost savings related to manual vs. human application when taping a carton. Ergonomic-related costs aside, one person using an automated case sealer can do in five minutes what a person using a hand taper can do in 30 minutes. A human being hand-sealing boxes uses more tape than a machine. Sealing a 12-inch box with a 17-inch strip of tape, the automated taper can close 3,176 boxes with a 1,500-yard roll. Compare that to a hand-taping operation that consumes 6,352 yards of tape (because of waste) to achieve the same results.
5 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying a Shipping Case
Choosing the proper shipping case is essential in the care and preservation of the product. South-Pak (Atlanta), a provider of stock and custom cases, has compiled this list of mistakes managers should avoid. These suggestions apply to other transport packaging items as well.