Container Industry in Transition

Feb. 1, 2004
As the market for reusable containers is sated, manufacturers focus on specialized needs.

The ubiquitous plastic box has becomes just that — a commodity. Gone are the days when the fight was with money managers to justify a reusable container. Arguments of environmental responsibility never made an impact like showing how the bottom line could improve by adopting a reusable container program. Now, reusable containers are entering a new phase. Applications that didn't quite fit the old mold now benefit both user and manufacturer. Today, any changes in the container business, and there are many, are in direct response to the user's desire to save money.

The downside of making a quality product is that in order to grow the business, even at a moderate rate, manufacturers have to grow their market share — in terms of containers in service — exponentially. It means having to find a new set of customers almost every year. The trick is to find new, or unique applications, or to re-engineer former applications. The reusable container business, in general, says Rick Brasington, manager, food and custom markets, Buckhorn, has benefited from the rise of third party logistics providers. "The 3PLs have been able to 'close the loop' for many users who, in the past, had no way to get the containers back," says Brasington.

A good example is Wal-Mart's adaptation of what had been a specialized container for produce. The container, now manufactured by several companies, has become the default standard for moving produce from the field to the store shelf for many companies.

Customization of standard products is another growing area within container manufacturing. "An area of specialization that holds promise and is interesting," says Jack Fillmore, chief innovations officer, Orbis, "is the use of standard containers that have been cut and welded for special purposes."

Fillmore attributes the increased business of specialized containers to the fact that distribution loops are getting longer. Gone are the days for most auto manufacturers, for example, when virtually all parts of the car were made within a short radius of the assembly plant. "What we're finding," says Fillmore, "depending on the cost of goods being transported, in many situations it makes sense to create a customized packaging solution."

Who drives specialization in the container manufacturing industry — manufacturer or end-user — is not entirely clear. However, as Eric Fredrickson, marketing manager, IPL Products Ltd., says, all the good specialization programs he's seen have been initiated by the customer. "It not only takes a forward-thinking [end-user] company," says Fredrickson, "it takes a single individual with vision and drive to see the possibilities and champion the program. Everything we do is the direct result of somebody's attempt to reduce supply chain costs."

While cost reduction continues to be a big driver in specialization, Fillmore adds that parts protection is equally important. As fragile or expensive parts travel further distances, the cost of protecting those parts gains new importance. What once might have been cost prohibitive is now possible.

Brasington thinks the move toward more specialization within containers has plenty of drivers. "There are plenty of combinations," says Brasington. "Our people show a customer a standard container used in similar applications, process engineers within companies talk and plenty of what-ifs are discussed."

How to spend your money

Control the cost is the sign seen most often along the path to specialized containers. Toward that end, manufacturers suggest you look at alternative methods of molding such as injection foam molding, since you're dealing with aluminum dies rather than steel.

Vacuum forming and rotational molding are two other processes less expensive than injection molding if you're considering a limited number of specialized containers. Rotational molding excels when you need a complex, hollow or seamless product, particularly in large sizes.

Another way to save money is to not buy specialized containers. As strange as that sounds, larger manufacturers often work with customers to design specialized dunnage to protect the product inside a standard container. Both manufacturer and end user benefit from this type of arrangement.

"The customer can be more flexible," says Brasington, "as models or products change, and we can offer the economies of scale since we are using products from our catalog. The cost for the special dunnage is most often much less than a new container design."

Something old, something new

For the ultimate in flexibility and specialization, wood, particularly engineered wood, is hard to beat. However, if you need a high volume of containers, wood can be a challenge. Given the current problems with phytosanitary regulations for shipping overseas, engineered wood has moved in to satisfy requirements established by the U.S. and foreign governments.

John Knight, director, sales and marketing, Nefab North America, says as the phytosanitary regulations are implemented on a by-country basis, requests for his engineered wood products, which are all in compliance, increase.

"Our pallets and containers have always been specialized," says Knight, "particularly for products requiring security or special protection."

Knight says his collapsible, reusable containers are used to ship money and the paper to print money, as well as smart cards and bulky products, among many others. Nefab's process of wood selection and manufacturing, using hardwood plywood, make containers that are ergonomic and reusable.

Engineered wood is manufactured by bonding together wood strands, veneers, lumber and other forms of wood fiber to produce a larger and integral composite unit that is stronger and more stiff than the sum of its parts. Some of these products, like plywood, have been around for decades.

Standard or special?When it comes to specialization in containers, you're in charge. There's no single, perfect solution to the specialized container conundrum. Depending on what you want to ship where, in what quantities, and whether you want to get the containers back, the choices are many. From the basic box to the custom-molded shipping container, manufacturers are willing to work with you to find the solution that will protect your product in the most economical way. MHM

Special Parts Call For Special Containers

Improvements in manufacturing processes are critical to improving quality and increasing productivity in automotive engine assembly. However, many times, what seems like a simple process improvement change, ultimately affects the dimensional configuration of a component, and can have a major impact on the way that component must be handled and transported through the process.

Molded Materials Inc. frequently encounters these kinds of situations. For example, an automotive manufacturer changed the processing of its V-8 engine cylinder heads so all the manifold studs were assembled in place prior to shipping to final assembly. While the change improved the process, it also created the need for transportation dunnage trays with a design that maximizes interior space, accurately locates the individual cylinder heads, while protecting the critical sealing surfaces on the bottom sides of the parts.

Mark Marra, application engineer, says the tray concept is more complicated than it looks. "We color-coded the dunnage to distinguish left from right hand cylinder heads," he says. "Then we designed the trays to fit on a modified pallet equipped with Data Logic RFID tags." Seat belts are used to hold the lids in place during shipping.

Marra says the critical position tolerances for this tray design require the heads in the top layer be within .190-inch from the target. "The injection mold design used to produce the trays must provide maximum part density," he says. "The material thickness must meet the load carrying requirements and provide for accurate part positioning and part security." He adds that since the design was created, more than 10,000 units have been produced, helping to assemble more than a million engines a year.

Road to Success

If you're new to reusables, or if you have a new product line you think might be appropriate for reusables, here are a few ways to launch a successful program. The first thing you should do is benchmark your competition. Take a look around to see what others in your business have done and how it's working.

Your next step should be to check what's available. A quick way to do that is through associations such as the Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition (RPCC, and the Reusable Plastic Pallet & Container Association (RPCPA, These associations will provide you with information and lists of manufacturers and links to many of their websites. Here are other considerations:

-- Look for standard-size containers that fit your product before you start searching for a specialized product.

-- Determine the things that affect the size container you need.

-- Is your environment a palletized one or are products handled manually?

-- If you use pallets, look for containers that optimize the dimensions of the pallet.

--If you use conventional dollies or hand trucks, find containers that fit the equipment.

What are the restrictions of your conveyor or material handling system? Some conveyor corners might not be able to handle a container longer than 39 inches without jamming.

Eric Fredrickson, marketing manager, IPL Products Ltd., says his company makes a box for the office moving and storage industry into which you can load all the contents of the standard-size office desk drawer. Legal-size files can be placed in one direction, or two rows of standard files in the other dimension. "And the container fits on the standard-size moving dolly because that's how offices are moved," he says. "Offices are not moved on pallets."

Along with the size of the contents, you also have to consider the weight of your products. Various manufacturing processes create more durable containers.

Ask yourself, "Where do standard containers fall short?" If you need more ventilation for your product, if you have to place more items in a box than standard sizes allow, or if you can only get a limited number of containers on a truck, you might be a candidate for specialization.

For manufacturers of containers, the opportunity to bring a new size product onto the market is strictly a matter of volume. Tooling is expensive. If that cost can be covered — at a reasonable profit — manufacturers are willing to talk specialization.

"One of the things we consider," says Fredrickson, "is whether this potential customer has a set of requirements that are common to its industry. Is the potential there for us to sell more of these containers within that niche industry?"

Working with Customer Benefits Industry

When IPL Products joined forces with processors and wholesalers in the seafood industry, the results were a savings of literally tens of millions of dollars and a complete transformation of the way that seafood is handled and processed.

For decades, seafood processors and distributors used wood crates for holding and shipping live lobster and other seafood. IPL began working extensively with leaders in the industry to design the first plastic container with a precise fit for handling live seafood. The end result — the IPL FlapNest Live Seafood Container — reduces mortality rates, weighs less and saves freight costs. Within three years, the innovative container totally displaced limited-life wooden containers in the American Lobster industry.

"IPL was open-minded," says Spiros Tourkakis, president of seafood procurement and marketing executive vice president for East Coast Seafood, Inc., "and willing to listen to the customer. As a result, they delivered a product that met all of our requirements."

Ergonomic benefits

"The IPL plastic crates are much easier to handle and open than wooden ones," says Jeff Holden, president, Portland Shellfish. "The covers are easy to open, and the containers are lighter. Plus the crabs and lobster live longer in them because the circulation is much better than in wooden crates."

The 29-gallon plastic tote can contain 100 pounds of live seafood for transport from boat to shore to market. It is the same length and width, and has the same capacity of traditional wood crates for full compatibility. Buoyancy in the collar of the tote allows it to float even in open water with the lid opened or closed so lobsters remain submerged while the container stays afloat. Cover security features permit containers to be floated even in rough seas.

"The biggest advantage to us," says Bill McGonagle, chief operating office of the William Atwood Lobster Company in Maine, "is that the containers weigh less [than wooden crates] when wet. That makes a big difference when you're lifting crates all day long."

The wooden crates used by the company four years ago weighed 140 pounds when full. Because the plastic IPL seafood crates do not absorb water, they weigh only 116 pounds when full. "The number of arm and back injuries have been reduced substantially since we switched to the plastic containers," says McGonagle. Because the crates have a consistent tare weight of 16 pounds, lobsters do not need to be removed for weighing. This reduces the handling of the lobster and improves their mortality rate. Also, the crates have other design features that provide maximum circulation and minimum injury to the lobster.

The crates also save costs on shipping. The lightweight totes enable distributors to load more seafood on their trucks, reducing shipping costs. In addition, the nest-ability of the empty crates reduces freight costs on the return trip.

IPL also developed the IPL Lobster Tray to meet longer term holding requirements of lobster. The tray has secure compartments for individual live lobsters, providing optimum conditions for the lobster to survive and thrive in storage. "The trays are key to extending the lobster's life," says Marcel Saulnier, president, Oceanmar Seafood Products, Inc. in Canada. "The lobsters can't touch each other. With the trays, we can hold the lobsters for three to four months. It helps us regulate supply and demand."

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