Performance-Based Packaging

Aug. 1, 2003
Price does not always reflect the whole story when it comes to selecting transport packaging material, says Gerry Stone, Sealed Air Corporations special

Price does not always reflect the whole story when it comes to selecting transport packaging material, says Gerry Stone, Sealed Air Corporation’s special products group director of marketing. “The performance of the packaging material has an impact throughout the supply chain,” Stone says. “Choosing the right material can yield savings in warehouse storage space, inventory management, freight savings, as well as undamaged products. These are all part of a customized, engineered packaging program.”

Sealed Air has long offered its lab testing program to help its customers. The function of the test lab is to design and prove that the material selected provides the level of protection the customer is seeking. The lab also makes comparisons among material for the customer.

Stone says while many companies still view packaging as one of the last steps of manufacturing, most packaging managers prefer to be involved in the process sooner rather than later. “If we have an existing relationship with the customer and can work them to understand where their business is going, it’s possible to smooth the process of their new product launch,” he says.

Stone notes that working with customers, giving their packaging the best performance possible, serves to save money in other areas of the supply chain, not just in the selected container.

Making decisions

“My job’s easier when the customer says, ‘Here’s what I want to do. These are our performance requirements. Please help us …’” Every packaging manager has probably heard and said those same words. The speaker in this instance is John Garrett, senior development engineer, at the massive Dow resin manufacturing plant in Freeport, Texas. The message Garrett delivers is, as a user of transport packaging products, it might be more cost-effective for you to make purchases based on how a material performs, rather than to stick with a specific material. Probably the worst way to make material choices is to base your decision on commodity bidding, such as in an auction atmosphere.

It appears more packaging material users are heeding this advice. Spiro Petsalis, marketing manager for Dow’s rigid packaging products, says, “We’re seeing strong growth from our customers [pallet and container manufacturers] coming to us for help, to find products that fit the specific needs of their customers.”

More often than not, you rarely know whose resin is in your plastic pallets or anything about the corrugated in your containers. Engineers and scientists at Dow, for example, use a multi-pronged approach in the creation of products for you, the end user. Although Dow works with your pallet manufacturer, it’s you, the person dealing with pallets on a daily basis, that guides their research and development. “Our approach is to create material [resins] based on today’s needs and requirements,” says Petsalis. “We also put some resources into new technologies and materials that will allow our customer, the manufacturer, to lightweight, maybe re-design and downsize the amount of material.” Dow produces more than two dozen types of plastics, including its latest, Inspire Performance polymers. There needs to be a willingness from within the packaging-user community to try something different, says Petsalis. “Rather than just order the same material from different manufacturers,” he says, “if it [new material] gives the same performance, the new material might prove a better buy if it allows the maker to use less material.”

Protection is the key

Packaging for use differs from packaging for shipping. A good analogy is the egg in an empty box. While the shell might do a good job of protecting the contents, rolling around in the empty box negates any protection the shell might offer. Mark Thompson, material handling packaging engineer, Ford Motor Company, says innovations such as the air-ride trailer have certainly helped get auto parts to the assembly plants in better shape than the past, however challenges continue.

“As more parts travel longer distances, more often,” says Thompson, “we find that lab testing can diagnose damage problems and help us design better containers and carriers.”

Often Thompson’s packaging problems are brought to him after the fact. Damage has occurred to a panel or to a component and he is asked to learn why and how to prevent reoccurrence. Sort of a forensics medicine approach.

“There are a couple ways we design the package to protect the product,” says Thompson. “We can put recording devices in the package and high-speed video cameras in the container or trailer, then send it over the actual road.”

These devices record time, shock, handling anomalies and vibration. From the data gathered, Thompson builds computer programs that he can plug into his laboratory test equipment to simulate the precise conditions the trucks, rail cars, even ships experience moving between many points in the U.S. or the world.

“The actual monitors run the length of time it takes the vehicle to get from point A to point B,” says Thompson. “In the computer simulation we can take out the ‘down time’ or stops to speed our test process.”

The lab tests offer Thompson a bigger picture of how damage has occurred. He then works to solve the problem. The solutions can be tested in the lab, using the same conditions that caused the original damage.

Thompson is as cost-conscious as anyone. His philosophy is to engineer where you need to, and put your packaging dollars where they’ll do the most good. He says you can’t know too much about the product or the route.

“You have to understand the route the part will travel to be able to understand the data you collect,” he explains. “And you have to know what material is used in the parts to determine how the protective packaging can be changed.”

Sometimes it’s the little things that count — and hurt. Mark Kirchmer, director of business development, Molded Materials Inc., says, “Interest in better engineered solutions to help protect manufactured parts for assembly and shipping operations is a direct result of many companies efforts to implement the concepts of lean manufacturing.” However, in the speed to move parts, bad things can happen. Kirchmer cites an example of contamination to engine parts while they were being moved from a casting supplier to final assembly.

A combination of heavy parts and structural foam trays was creating the contamination. Molded Materials, using a special design process called stereolithography to create an image in three dimensions, developed a tray of completely different material. The tray uses rest pads for the parts that make contact only on the casting, not on the electronic components. An ergonomic value-add in the design was the creation of four handle grips in the bottom of the tray to make it easier for the operator to manipulate. Also, the new design, while retaining the same exterior dimensions, created space for three parts per tray rather than the previous two parts per tray.

In the automotive industry in particular, it’s imperative parts not be damaged in transport. Modular assemblies, already inspected and tested, are being moved from plant to plant and represent a large investment on the part of the manufacturer. Kirchmer says, “With proper design and efficient use of injection molding techniques, along with the right material for the application, manufacturers can eliminate transportation damage as a bottleneck in the work flow.”

Know the environment

There’s no better way to plan and design your protective packaging than by knowing what environment your product will pass through. Virtually everyone we interviewed for this article said words to that affect.

“Most of our clients don’t approach us with a clear vision of what it is they need,” says Tom Blanck, president, Packaging Solutions Group. “Or, they’re looking for a financial model of their packaging needs to determine if reusables are an alternative.”

Along with product damage problems, Blanck says there are an increasing number of companies approaching his firm looking for answers to questions about customer perceptions of packaging. “While they’re looking for optimum performance,” says Blanck, “they’re also looking for ways to solve problems of disposability or appearance.”

A larger issue, he says, is that companies are now seeking ways to communicate performance specifications to global locations. What might be an acceptable specification on corrugated in Asia, for example, is not acceptable in the U.S. “This is particularly a concern for companies receiving components packed in rice-paper corrugated that’s been held in conditions of high humidity,” he says.

Creating packaging today means knowing the mode of transport as well as the route tomorrow, says Blanck. “And working backward essentially, we have to put together a test protocol that can emulate that environment. That’s an area where a lot of people are just guessing.”

He reiterates, you have to observe the environment and start with a sound baseline. Then use the tests that represent that environment.

If you don’t know where to start with your packaging requirements, Blanck suggests the best place is at the beginning with a good game plan. “Know the environment the product will pass through and what tests need to be done before you do the guess work,” he advises.

Pallets and performance

Although the pallet is the base of the unit load, it does not garner much respect. Well, that idea might be changing as more companies look at the performance of pallets and how to extend the life of pallets through smarter purchases. Ongweoweh Corporation offers a complete assessment service for customers to help them make the right pallet purchase, regardless of material.

“We’ve designed our own analysis form to include things like rack measurement and design, whether the product is stacked in the warehouse, etc.” says Randy Brown. “We analyze the data, along with data on the customer’s current pallet or container, to assess the feasibility of creating a returnable system.”

He says once you’ve determined that transport packaging material can be reused, or the customer’s system is such that returnable containers and pallets make sense, you can design packaging that enhances the product.

“These designs are not specific to any particular kind of material,” says Brown. “For example, we’ve worked with Kodak to increase the thickness of corrugated containers they traditionally used, so the containers can be part of a returnable system.”

Brown’s approach is to look for ways to make the customer’s existing packaging system reusable, then how to enhance that system, beginning with the pallets.

“Performance-based packaging is what our products are all about,” says Mark Halverson, manager of the Eastern region for APA -- The Engineered Wood Association. “Too many decisions are not made on performance.”

The deciding factor, particularly when it comes to pallet choices, is price. And the decision is often made by a purchasing agent, not the pallet user.

A service available to anyone making a pallet purchase is the Pallet Design System (PDS), a computer aided design program developed at the Sardo Pallet and Container Research Laboratory, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and owned by the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association. This program evaluates the performance of a pallet and is used by many pallet manufacturers.

“With wood in general,” says Halverson, “and plywood in particular, the pallet can be designed to whatever the needs of the customer are. Members of the Engineered Pallet Network are all trained on the PDS software to create pallet designs based on performance.”

He adds that designing pallets to performance standards are not necessarily a cost thing, it’s about having a shipping platform that fits into the overall distribution system.

Halverson, like many others, says the first step in finding the right packaging is not just evaluating the material. “You have to evaluate the handling system,” he says. “If you don’t evaluate the handling system, you’re not really looking at performance.”

Halverson also recommends you have a list of questions and answers ready when you go shopping for pallets. The questions are based on performance more than they are on price. “For you to get the right pallet,” he says, “and for the supplier to provide you with the right pallet, you need to tell him if the pallet will be used on an AGV, conveyor or handled by lift truck, for example. Will it be shipped from your facility or sit in a rack? These are all performance-based approaches.”

He makes the observation that if you look at the performance standards in selecting your packaging material, there is a wide variety of options available. When you focus only on cost, it narrows your choices.

The Unit Load Design Center at Virginia Tech, directed by Mark White, is based on the premise that you don’t buy just any pallet to fit your package. You have to fit the package to the pallet within the system where it is used. For information on the center’s programs and services, contact them at

Small parcel environments

:If you’re looking for ways to determine if your shipments will survive the harsh, small-parcel environment, you can go straight to the folks who handle those precious items to learn how.

Bob Palmer, vice president national hub operations in Indianapolis told us about the FedEx program that started more than 15 years ago, for shippers. You can learn the details of the program from you local FedEx account exec or log on to and follow the electronic path.

“The purpose of our packaging lab is to help customers design packages that will transit the system,” says Palmer. “It’s just not true that you can toss your product into a box, load in the plastic peanuts [expanded polystyrene] and tape it up.”

The lab will evaluate your current packaging methods as they relate to shipping in the small parcel arena, and offer suggestions and advice. He says the lab has become a great sales tool for FedEx, especially if the customer has special packaging needs. “Over time we’ve monitored the system to see which packages make it and which don’t,” he explains. “We’ve learned all the do’s and don’ts.”

Some of that advice includes:

• Make sure the weight of the item in the box does not exceed the capacity specifications of the carton;

• Outer packaging has to be large enough to accommodate a FedEx tracking label;

• Be cognizant of the closure method you use;

• Evaluate the filler, or dunnage material.

“We’ve worked with customers to find the right internal dunnage, foam-in-place, air cushioning, corrugated cutouts, all types, he says.

Another area that causes concern in the small parcel environment is tape. Choosing the right tape can go a long way in guaranteeing successful delivery of your products.

“You should not use masking tape,” says Palmer, “or water-based tape.” Just the thought of packages with string or rope binding them brings a chuckle to Palmer, as well as trepidation. “I’ve walked out into the hub at Christmas time and seen gaily wrapped boxes, with bows and ribbons, running down the conveyor,” he says with a smile in his voice.

“We understand the need to limit packaging costs,” says Palmer, “so if the product is over-packaged, we’ll tell the customer that, too.”

Will the business of helping the customer continue to grow? Palmer certainly hopes so. He says what people ship, and how they ship things changes everyday, so the service will always be valuable. “The majority of the things that transit our system are high value,” he says. “Couple that with the fact that the items are time-sensitive, and you’ll see why the packaging is so important and has to be based on performance.”

Polymer Chains and Supply Chains

All plastics are not created equal, and with good reason. Most plastics, or polymers, encountered in material handling products such as pallets and containers, are in a class called ICP, or impact co-polymers.

Plastic pallets, while increasing in use, still occupy a small share of the pallet market — an estimated six million units of the 400 million new pallets that hit the street every year. Most of these plastic pallets are made by the injection molding process, with twin-sheet thermoforming running second.

There are other methods for making plastic pallets, such as the growing use of the structural foam process that uses lower clamp pressure, resulting in the same physical properties as injection molding, with less weight.

For transport packaging applications, polymers for injection molding that exhibit top-load strength, impact resistance and low temperature performance, are most important. Dow has more than 50 resins for injection molding projects.

John Garrett, senior development engineer, says at the end of the day, the pallet manufacturer is interested in purchasing material that allows it to make a pallet the end user wants. “They [pallet manufacturers] are selling their design and engineering expertise,” says Garrett. “The pallet maker gets to the end-user’s solution with a combination of design and raw material.”

As a pallet user, you need to be as specific as possible when selecting plastic pallets and containers. There’s a continuum, much like a see-saw, with stiffness at one end and impact resistance at the other. You can have a pallet that’s light and stiff, however it might shatter if dropped. At the other end, you can have a pallet that drops without breaking or denting — and when loaded in a hot environment sags and loses its load.

As a pallet or container specifier, you must have frank discussions with your pallet supplier so that he, in turn, can have frank discussions with the resin maker.

Through a combination of real-world tests, lab tests and experience, Dow creates a bank of knowledge, built on the customer’s requirements.

“In addition, we have to know, for instance,” says Garrett, “how the manufacturer will process the resin. Wall thickness of the end-product will affect the processing. The geometry of pallets varies by manufacturer and each ‘design philosophy’ affects the resin the manufacturer can use.”

Plastic molders don’t really sell parts, they sell time. The faster they can mold the part, the less expensive it is for you to buy. No matter how great a new resin might be, if it adds time to the manufacturing process, with no notable benefit to the end user, it won’t sell.

As a pallet buyer, you’re really purchasing engineering and design. And you can factor in just about anything you want. Currently, many purchasers are concerned with creep, or the deformation over time of the pallet. As Garrett explains it, after a load has been on a pallet for a while, the plastic goes through a transition wherein it changes from a stiffness-dominated behavior to a melt-flow rate-dominated behavior. The length of polymer chains, when put under strain, stretch. If you’ve used a polymer with long, intertwined polymer chains to create the pallet, they won’t “slip” or creep. A resin with short polymer chains will straighten and the pallet begins to “move.”

“We look at this [creep] performance a lot in the lab,” says Garrett. “We’ve developed a tensile creep test that replicates the behavior trend, allowing us to test the customer’s specific conditions.”

What are the trends and what should the pallet user look for? Experts at Dow who monitor the rigid packaging injection molding market, offer the following suggestions:

• Many thin-walled container applications are shifting from polyethylene injection molding to polypropylene injection molding and thermoforming;

• High-performance polymers are allowing faster cycle times and increased productivity. They also maintain stiffness and toughness;

• Expertise in material science is helping molders using gas-assisted or structural foam injection molding technologies to develop lightweight products exhibiting the same positive attributes as previous technologies.

Guidelines for Small Parcel Packaging

If you’re among the growing number of companies now shipping your products in single packages rather than unit loads, the Guide to Packaging for Small Parcel Shipments can help. This document was created by the Transport Packaging Committee of the Institute of Packaging Professionals (IoPP).

The authors analyzed many carriers’ environments that handle small parcels and the information is particularly suited to parcels weighing less than 150 pounds. You’ll find information about the primary hazards your packages will encounter and how impact and shock will affect your parcel.

Automated and manual systems are discussed as well as why orientation labels, such as “This End Up” mean little to carriers. Research has shown the parcel will travel in the most stable orientation, meaning with the lowest center of gravity down.

In lieu of company guidelines, you’ll find useful information to help get your products to the customer, undamaged. There is also a source list for further information. Download the publication at


The following companies provided information for this article:

APA -- The Engineered Wood Association,



Ford Motor Company,


Molded Materials Inc.,

Ongweoweh Corporation,

Packaging Solutions Group,

Sealed Air Corporation,

The Unit Load Design Center,

Customer Service, Not Cost Savings Counts

Despite all the attention lavished on cost cutting and ROI, a new survey indicates that logistics executives put customer service first.

Thirty-three percent of the logistics and shipping executives surveyed cited customer service as the most significant reason they have improved or plan to improve their company’s parcel shipping system. Following close behind with 23 percent was cost control, according to an independent survey commissioned by ShipNow Inc.

The survey was taken against a backdrop of optimism. Seventy-nine percent of the respondents felt that their company’s sales would increase this year.

This positive frame of mind may explain why 84 percent plan to increase investment in logistics infrastructure. Regarding priorities, 77 percent of those surveyed said parcel shipping has become a strategic function. Those planning to upgrade their parcel shipping systems cited the need to handle higher volume as the prime factor, followed closely by the need to share information, improve customer service, and control costs. Other factors were dependability, the ability to handle international shipping, improving the returns process, and integrating manifesting with pick and pack.

Regarding recapture of investment, 33 percent required an ROI of less than 12 months, and 28 percent wanted to see a return within 9 months.

Not surprising, the survey confirmed that IT departments work closely with the operations department in the research and recommendation of parcel shipping systems.

ShipNow’s CEO, Michael Kurgan, commenting on parcel shipping’s impact on customer care, listed the ability to access shipping information, change shipping instructions, and choose the best way to ship as key customer service issues.

“It starts at order entry,” says Kurgan, “where addresses should be verified by a shipping-related database.” He adds that superior customer service is reinforced with the creation of business rules that assure convenient delivery.

“There are nuances to parcel shipping,” he says. “One of them is rate shipping versus service shipping. Rate shipping is self-explanatory; get the cheapest rate. Service shipping on the other hand not only looks at the cost of shipping a parcel, but also sets parameters that can benefit the customer. For example, does the carrier use the class of service that gets the parcel to the customer at the right time of day?

“In a related example, one of our customers, a major catalog company, automatically upgrades parcels to next-day-air in cities where ground service is not flawless. And this is a company that designed sophisticated business rules to take full advantage of the cost savings associated with the various classes of ground shipping.”

Kurgan also says “The assumption that a parcel is going to arrive on time is a customer service mistake. Major parcel carriers have a failure rate of 1 to 1.5 percent regarding on-time delivery. For a company that ships 2,000 parcels a day, this failure rate, means 10 to 30 customers could be disappointed every day.”

For further information on this report, visit

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