Like many aspects of material handling, transport packaging has traditionally been viewed as a necessary evil and a costly liability. A more contemporary view embraces this critical supply chain component as a path to improving customer service, accelerating material movement, boosting supply chain sustainability and reducing costly product damage.
To explore cutting-edge concepts in transport packaging and get a feel for the products likely to appear on the Pack Expo 2009 show floor, MHM interviewed Ralph Rupert, a thought leader in the art and science of transport packaging.
The center develops methods to optimize the relationship between the design and performance of unit loads and maximize the overall efficiency of unit-load material handling systems. Its team of experts studies the mechanical interactions among containers, pallets and unit-load material handling equipment, focusing on total system optimization.
Rupert manages all testing for the Center for Unit Load Design and Virginia Tech's Pallet and Container Research Laboratory, which performs research and development, provides technical assistance and offers educational programs focusing exclusively on pallets and containers.
Material Handling Management: What are your thoughts on the immediate future of the industry of transport packaging? What are some of the biggest trends you are seeing?
Ralph Rupert: The future is growing — more and more companies understand the benefits of transport packaging. They no longer view packaging as a liability but an opportunity to move product faster and with less damage. To compensate for better use of packaging, companies are looking to automate packing lines to improve throughput.
Less maintenance and less operator involvement — basically, doing more with less — are the new trends.
MHM: How do you think sustainability will continue to impact transport packaging?
Rupert: I am a firm believer that packaging has been working on sustainability for years. We just used to call it “cost savings.” Sustainability will continue to be a focus, and it will take suppliers time and effort to prove sustainable issues.
The bigger problem is the apparent lack of performance in the equation. It is implied that the product will still be protected, but many decisions are based on the bottom line, whether that is cost or sustainability.
MHM: What are end users looking for today in a transport packaging solution?
Rupert: Moving product faster has been, and will continue to be, the prime motivator; however, many facilities are recognizing that damage reduction must be part of the operation. If product is damaged in transport, it is harder to use the excuse that the product was not adequately protected. What is needed is a total system evaluation of the packaging, pallet and material handling system interaction. Many suppliers are training their design staff to understand these interactions. It is no longer just the cost of the equipment but the total cost of the system, including operating capital — packaging, pallets, etc.
MHM: What types of automation, machinery and equipment can we expect to see at Pack Expo 2009?
Rupert: I expect most of the equipment to be the same as in previous years. With the current economy, most capital investment is either replacement or traditional expansion. Companies are not looking to push the envelope and are looking for proven technology and quick paybacks. Equipment will be more automated, not so much in software, but in lower manpower required for operation that may be achieved with faster throughput.
MHM: What do you see on the horizon in terms of automatic identification, data collection and information management?
Rupert: This is still a distant-horizon issue. Internal data collection will continue, and the need for barcodes, etc., will exist. When the collected information can be transferred between the product manufacturer and the downstream entities, the demand for this information will boom. But that time seems to be pretty distant.
MHM: What are some projects currently underway at the Center for Unit Load Design?
Rupert: Most of our research focuses on the interactions between packaging, pallets and the material handling system. One long-term project is comparing the unit-load stability of the new stretch hooding with traditional stretch wrap. The stretch-hood material provides a greater vertical tension than stretch wrap that may provide better overall unit stability.
The second project is using pressure-sensitive films to map the load distribution across pallet decks under deck deflection. This will help package designers better understand how unit-load forces are distributed onto individual product containers.
The center is also heading the packaging program at Virginia Tech. This current study option in the Wood Science Department is expanding to a full major within the next couple of years. We will continue to focus our education and research in the area of transport packaging, including corrugated packaging and pallets.
More information about the Center for Unit Load Design can be found at Booth C-970 at Pack Expo 2009.