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Transport Packaging: Guidelines for Smart Shippers

Feb. 1, 2006
“The high-speed material handling systems of carriers’ hub-and-spoke sorting facilities are mystifying to watch, unless it’s your products passing through. Then the scene becomes terrifying.”

By now, most of the bills from the holiday season have arrived. Once again we ask, "Who bought all this stuff?" And, "Where is it now?" I have some information about who delivered all that stuff (I'll give you a clue; it wasn't Santa Claus.) The numbers recently landed on my desk with the thud of your aunt's fruitcake. I can't pin down a number for how many things arrived damaged or late, but the quantity of small parcels delivered between Thanksgiving and Christmas is staggering—not unlike how the hundreds of thousands of people who delivered all those bags and boxes must have felt on December 24.

Making a rough calculation based on numbers from the United States Postal Service, UPS, FedEx and DHL, I estimate the number is, well, huge. USPS delivered about 20 billion packages and letters during the holiday season; UPS delivered about 14.1 million bags and boxes per day; FedEx handled six million items per day; and DHL logged 1.9 million bundles per day.

How all of these parcels get to their destinations is the concern of the Institute of Packaging Professionals (IoPP, Naperville, Ill.) and its Transport Packaging Committee. The committee issued its first guidelines for small parcel shipments about four years ago. The document has been revised several times as material and technology has changed. The most current revision was published in July 2005 and certainly helped many shippers get through another hectic holiday season with most of its packages unscathed.

The guidelines offered by IoPP (downloadable from its website, are intended to assist in designing packages and other shipping units that will perform satisfactorily in the small parcel carrier environment. It is a not a document filled with detailed material specifications and design procedures. It's a listing of desired performance criteria for transport packaging. And it's more. It's an understandable explanation of the what and why of transport packaging.

Even if you are not a packaging engineer, if you are involved in some aspect of shipping your products, you can benefit from reviewing these guidelines. For example, one of the key elements in creating successful transport packaging, is knowing the environment through which the package will travel. Too often this vital piece of information doesn't surface until a damaged product is inspected. Then it becomes obvious that the package was not designed for the mode of transport used.

As the guidelines point out, "Many of the more severe hazards are due to automated sorting and handling equipment used by larger ground and air express carriers." And that's just inside the building. Wait until those parcels are loaded into containers and carriers, then taken on the road. Shock, vibration and compression join with abrasion, corrosion and static electricity to destroy the efforts of even the best package designer.

The high-speed material handling systems of carriers' hub-and-spoke sorting facilities are mystifying to watch, unless it's your products passing through. Then the scene becomes terrifying. Tens of thousands of packages of all shapes, sizes and weights zip through with the speed and efficiency we've come to expect when we click that button that guarantees next-day delivery. Depending on the carrier and the destination of the parcel, it can experience a ride through numerous sortation centers. On trips as short as 300 miles, carriers may load and reload a package five times and send them through three sorts that include manual, mechanical and automatic handling on high-speed belts, slides, chutes and rollers.

Reading the IoPP's Guide to Small Parcel Shipments is a good first step in preparing for the unpredictable environment of small parcel handling.

"The highspeed material handling systems of carriers' huband-spoke sorting facilities are mystifying to watch, unless it's your products passing through. Then the scene becomes terrifying."

Clyde E. Witt
[email protected]

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