I recently spent a few days in Charlotte at the MHIA Spring Meetings. I had been asked to participate in a panel discussion focused on trends in automation. At a couple of the event’s networking sessions, discussions about other trends in material handling, particularly transport packaging, surfaced.
A networker’s thought process goes something like this: “Because, in your position as a journalist, you get to see a lot of what’s going on, what do you think of…?” Fill in the blank.
There’s always some hesitancy on my part when this happens, not because I’m blank, but because I want to say, “Wait! You’re the people I call to find those answers.” As one of my colleagues noted, a trade-press journalist is much like a consultant. We call the reader and ask him a lot of questions, write it all down and feed it back to him. The difference is, we don’t send him a bill.
Here are a few things material handling managers, not necessarily packaging professionals, were talking about. Most heartening was the talk involving company managers looking in the direction of the end of the packaging line at the beginning of the production— and distribution—design process.
Years ago, we watched as dollars were squeezed from every pore of the manufacturing process. As those dollars trickled to pennies, the focus for finding money shifted to the warehouse and distribution.
And, while many companies continue to improve the distribution part of the business, they’ve found ways to be more productive when it comes time to package the goods. They’ve tweaked the fine-focus adjustment knob on the Japanese-built muda machine and found that transport packaging offers some marvelous opportunities to save money. Software programs are now directing order pickers at the start of order selection which size carton to use and how much dunnage to insert, if dunnage is necessary. Controls on the machines that produce the dunnage can regulate the output for the perfect fit.
Less waste, more money. So the trend seems to be company management paying more attention to what was once an afterthought in the distribution process.
There was also a lot of talk about sustainability. It’s a touchy subject with packaging people, since packaging material, pallets in particular, have long been the example held up to the world of how not to be environmentally conscious. Whether due to public awareness, government intervention (or a threat thereof) or some combination of the two, managers are finding more notes in the e-mail box from the boss, asking, “What are we doing to…?”
For a global company, working within the framework of European regulations for transport
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packaging is setting the pace for what can and should be done in America.
And, then, there’s China. Stuart Hoggard is a journalist who writes about packaging—in Asia in particular. In a recent column, Hoggard noted that China’s new packaging legislation is basically a waste law. “In the next five years,” he wrote, “China is going to require light-weighting of packaging, forbid packaging that is neither recyclable nor biodegradable, introduce post-consumer waste household sorting, set up waste collection systems, build recycling and reprocessing plants nationwide, and monitor and control recycled material quality.”
Like most crises, we didn’t get ourselves into this sustainability fix overnight—and we can’t be expected to get out in a green flash. We do have to start somewhere and sometime. For forward-thinking companies, transport packaging is the place to start, and now is the time.