Air-Tight Case for Inflatable Dunnage

Aug. 1, 2004
How to capture, hold and use air is evolving at a rapid pace, as manufacturers of air-encapsulating dunnage products respond to the needs of shippers.

When the topic is dunnage, it's really a discussion about what you do with air. You're relying on something you can't see, yet can't do without. Granted, there are many forms of protective packaging that fall under the umbrella of dunnage; container inserts, specially molded pallet/container combinations and customdesigned engineered wood products are examples of large dunnage. The more common small stuff includes expanded polystyrene, injected foam, molded fiber inserts, even crumpled paper as traditional ways of using air to protect the product.

What started as a novel idea during the dot-com era, says Scott Douglas, product manager at Sealed Air, is now an acceptable form of transport packaging. "Our customers [for inflatable cushioning material] know that clean, protective packaging material makes an impression on their customers, the end users." He adds that from a business perspective, inflatable cushioning material is cost competitive with other forms of dunnage, protects better and offers a wider range of benefits to the shipper and receiver.

Currently industry estimates for loose-fill dunnage range to about a $400 million market and about $125 million for inflatable dunnage, says Tom Trauscht, vice president, sales for Pactiv.

The trend in transport packaging, however, is air-filled or air-encapsulated envelopes in various configurations. It's not new technology. The first machines for creating air pillows debuted at Pack Expo in 1996. The reasons for the surge in the use of these products, however, are many. According to Harry Reynolds, vice president of sales, FP International, the ability of machine makers and systems integrators to more closely match the generation of air pillows to the speed of the conveyor line has been essential. "In a short period of time, we've evolved," says Reynolds, "from stuffing newsprint into boxes, then to loose-fill material, and on to this current technology, always catching up with the speed of the line, and taking a lot of labor out of the equation."

Another reason is offered by Mitch Solway, director of marketing, Polyair. "It's [air pillow] an environmentally friendly product and a clean form of dunnage," he says. "This appeals to customers. And since there are a million ways to lose a customer, you don't want packaging to be one of them." Solway adds that the general upturn in the economy, substantiated by increased online and catalog sales, has also helped drive the need for more dunnage sales.

These custom and generic forms of inflatable packaging use various names: air cellular cushioning, pillows, cocoons and air-bags.

Experts say the best reason to use air is it's the cheapest and best dunnage material available. Capturing that air is another matter.

Bubbles came first
Any discussion of inflatable packaging has to begin with Sealed Air's Bubble Wrap, since that's where it all started, some forty-odd years ago. And almost from the beginning of its existence, engineers have been working on a way to ship the wrap without the air. That breakthrough came a short while ago when the Inflatable Bubble Wrap packaging system was introduced.

Bubble Wrap, and now other forms of air-filled cushioning material, fulfill packaging's primary job — protect the product — exceptionally well and at a cost most everyone can live with. Inflatable products offer superior cushioning when compared with crushed paper because bubble recovers after impact. Sealed Air's inflatable bubble product creates a three-quarter-inch bubble, requiring less dunnage material; however, it's the impact resistance that appeals to most users.

Tests by Sealed Air have shown, when a carton is dropped three times from a height of 30 inches, lofted paper products (the primary target for bubble wrap) lose more than half their original thickness. Compare that with bubble's ability to retain more than 95 percent of its original thickness and ability to absorb more than 60 percent of transmitted shock, and you can see why bubbles appeal to many shippers.

The strength and durability of air is attested to by Bruce Witt, president, Logical Moving Solutions. He has combined the use of air pillows and ingenuity to solve problems for his own business and create some new products for others.

Witt has been in the households goods moving business for 30 years and has seen the damage done by the misuse of corrugated. "One of the first uses we found for the 4" x 4" and 4" x 8" air pillows was to wedge them between pieces of furniture," he says. "Using corrugated and sponge material were awkward, time-consuming, expensive and didn't do a good job." The benefits of air pillows are that at the end of the move, the material can be reused or tossed into the recycling bin.

Another use Witt has for air pillows is inside packing crates he designed. Based on his experience, he determined there are basic sizes of items and containers common to all users. He created a plastic container that can be configured in different ways, ranging from three cubic feet to six cubic feet. He also used Coroplast material to create cells inside the boxes and uses the air pillows to provide a structurally strong, completely reusable packing system.

"We can fill the container [with air pillows] here and ship it to the site where it will be loaded," says Witt, who uses machines from Loersch Packing Systems. "Or, we can send the machine and operator to create the air pillows on site, on demand, for a fee per containers we pack."

Making bigger bubbles
New versions of air-transfer film technology machines, such as the Novus C from FP International, create inflatable products with multiple chambers, linked by a neck. The advantage of these air cushions is to move air from one chamber to another on impact. Other multi-chamber types of bags, using one-way valves, also provide excellent protection.

"This baffling effect," says Reynolds, "absorbs the shock better and serves to immobilize, or stabilize, the product in the carton."

Another use of containing the air in chambers to protect the product is demonstrated by Pactiv Corp.'s Pactiv 9000 Air Paq. (This machine is part of a technology alliance between Pactiv and Air-Paq Inc.) Pactiv uses a single intake valve to inflate a multi-chambered envelope as a way to ship individual assembly components, pharmaceuticals or valuable small parts.

On impact, the air travels from one independent chamber to another through a series of one-way check valves. If one section is punctured, the others remain inflated to protect the product.

Machine placement
In the world of high-speed shipping and handling, the bottleneck for getting the product out the door is frequently at the packing station. Engineers continue to search for ways to match the speed of carton packing by humans with the speed of the conveyor line. One of the better ways to achieve this is to have dunnage material, ready to go, as close to the packer as possible. In the early stages of inflatable products, the cushions were made away from the line, then carried in bins to the packing stations.

Now, air-transfer machines that do not require a hook-up to shop air are located along the line, in some cases, where pillows can be inflated on demand. In other scenarios, pillows are made away from the line and a shuttle-and-bin system keeps the flow of dunnage material going to the operator.

"Keeping up with the line speed is not a major challenge for us," says Bob Kreger, general manager, Loersch Packing Systems, maker of the Lpack Packing System machines. "Our machine speed is fast enough to keep up. It's the number of lines and configuring the system in high-volume operations where everything is different."

A technological breakthrough in machine speed came about recently when Loersch and FP International each developed machines that load the air from the side of the bag rather than in the tube-like configuration. All the major manufacturers now offer side-loading machines that run faster and are easier to maintain.

Economic advantages
With dunnage products there are many hidden costs, particularly in the more visible forms of the material. Along with the cost of providing storage space, you have to think about clean-up. Users of inflatable dunnage often begin with praise for how clean the product is at their end as well as for the end user. Along with a cleaner, dust-free work environment, packers have a safer place as well.

Another economic advantage is that inflatable dunnage plays a twofold role. It can serve as void fill or protective packaging. And in this world where everything has to carry a company logo, retailers have found another avenue of exposure for their names on the sides of the air pillows. Yes, marketing opportunities and customer relations have come to dunnage.

"We've had any number of users say it's a way to create that valuable, front-of-mind asset," says Kreger.

Film for creating the pillows is preprintable so special promotions and coupons, as well as new product introduction is now possible with dunnage, once the lowest critter on the material handling food chain.

Cushion-inflating machines are still in the embryonic form as manufacturers match their engineering capabilities to the needs of the customer. "Our new Novus system," says Reynolds, "has a sensor that determines the length of the pillow, or number of pillows, required for the cartons." Engineers determine what the length of the air cells should be and the machine makes a small slit, or perforation, in the material for the operator to use as the separation point. Reynolds says systems like this come close to matching the line speed of loose-fill machines.

The ability to locate on-site inflatable systems, producing the dunnage material right where it's needed, follows the trend toward flexible, modular workstations. Another advantage to any on-demand system — inflatable dunnage being the latest — is a reduced need for storage of material either at the point of use or in valuable warehouse space. It's estimated that a single, compact roll of inflatable cushioning material can provide protection comparable to 11 bags (14 cubic feet) of loose-fill material such as expanded polystyrene.

Along with the benefit of reduced need for storage, usually there is an overall decrease in weight and volume of packaging material required. Estimates by Pactiv Corp. indicate that it takes about 1/250th the space to store new material compared with expanded polystyrene material providing the equivalent level of protection.

Sealed Air says one carton of its 16" x 21" bags for its Fill-Air RF system is equivalent to 18 bags of loose fill, reducing material volume by 90 percent. Also, if a shipment needs to be unpacked or repackaged, the cushion can be deflated and stored for use at another time.

If you opt for the reusable forms of inflatable cushioning material, solid waste disposal can be reduced 90 percent to 98 percent, depending on the number of times the packaging material is reused. Add to this easy-to-operate systems and flexibility, and it's easy to understand why inflatable cushioning dunnage material is filling the shippers' needs. No one is predicting kinder or gentler handling by parcel delivery services, the only thing that might slow the trend toward more inflatable dunnage would be more product durability.

High-tech Approach to Dunnage
Dunnage is becoming more sophisticated than something crumpled and stuffed into a box to keep a product from moving. The choice of which dunnage material to use is becoming integral to the manufacture and handling of many parts, particularly in the automotive industry.

An example of this was shown at this year's North American Material Handling Show.

"Our original design was for the shipment of side-curtain air bags," says Joe Borer, automotive market manager, Buckhorn.

According to the Department of Transportation regulations, air bags must be shipped in enclosed containers. Engineers at Buckhorn figured a structuralfoam plastic bulk box, with a lightweight, ergonomic-friendly vacuum-formed lid, was needed.

The project turned out to be a bit more challenging. Horizontal layer tray dunnage for this type of air bag is best because long, flexible parts need to be separated from each other to make removal easier. The trays, however, have to be removed from the box, by the operator, to get to the next layer.

In automotive assembly, you don't want to create anything that takes up real estate along the assembly line. Also, any container and dunnage have to be ergonomically designed and efficient since they will be reused and sent back to the manufacturer.

"Our solution," says Borer, "was to build a vertical steel frame [in cooperation with the dunnage supplier] to fit into the bulk box. The horizontal frames, with dunnage trays, were attached to the vertical frame with hydraulic arms."

Rather than remove the empty trays, the vertical arms allow the tray to be lifted when the layer is empty. When the material has all been consumed, the arms are lowered into the box.

"We eliminated any ergonomic issues, made better use of the line space and assured the returnable material was returned," says Borer.

This new dunnage system is highly flexible and can accommodate any part shipped in layers within a bulk box, says Borer. "The dunnage trays are attached to the horizontal frames with cable ties. When a program change requires a change in the dunnage design, the ties can simply be clipped, the old trays removed and new ones dropped in."

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