If It Looks Like a Box

Sept. 1, 2006
There's a 50-year past-due argument about boxes and crates.

It's refreshing to encounter someone not interested in being everything to everybody. Associations, companies, yes, even magazines, push the notion that bigger is better. To get bigger, think outside the box. By thinking outside the box, in theory, you conjure up ways to do better what you're already good at doing.

Then along comes a guy like Jeff Duck. His thinking is not inside or outside the box. For him, the secret to success lies within the structure of the box. Wooden boxes to be more specific. Or, wooden crates, actually. Or, both. Well, that's part of the problem, says Duck, defining what's a box and what's a crate.

In real life, Duck is more of a computer quack than a packaging engineer. In a humorous way, Duck (Some of us are tagged early in life with names that predestine we must have a sense of humor to survive.) is now stepping off the plank into the Sea of Controversy. His Internet forum, www.WoodenCrates.org, won't bring about world peace, however, it might eventually define the difference between a box and a crate. Or at least give us a definition we can stand on. And, help users and makers of wooden boxes and crates.

Eighteen years ago Duck created what continues to be the world's only wooden box and crate design and costing software. He's been on many standards committees and a member of numerous organizations dedicated to improving the quality of what others might consider an afterthought part of transport packaging.

"I've talked with more crate makers in the world than anyone else, by far," says Duck, unabashedly, "and have a clear, fundamental understanding of the variations of box/crate construction and why they work—and fail."

Duck's Web site has attitude. Humor seems to roll off this guy's back. When I asked if he plans to keep the forum light and humorous he says, "If you think I'm funny, yes, you'll get more humor. Otherwise I'm just annoying." I understand.

The reason he's taking a light approach to a rather dull subject is because Duck feels the crating industry is asleep on the bus, as he puts it. "Everyone in each seat doesn't even know there's someone in the seat next to them. I hope to bring the industry together, in part by raising their blood pressure."

He adds that there is a 50-year past-due argument as to how boxes and crates should be made. "If, after a year there's someone I haven't pissed off, then they haven't visited the site yet," he says.

There is a serious side to this Web site; educating wannabe packaging-technical people in the mail and parcel industries. A modern-day source of information is critical, says Duck, because many of the current standards date from the 1930s.

"For the purpose of transport packaging," he says, "the difference between a wooden box and a crate was defined at that time [1930s]. And these standards are the result of people testing the performance of existing styles and developing tables to guide us as to when to use which style."

So what's the problem? "The problem," answers Duck, "is that crating is customizing. You can't easily specify how a container should be constructed in every possible situation." So what? What's the problem here?

Following the standards from the 1930s has created holes of inconsistency all around the industry, he claims. Because in the absence of rules there are no rules, people are free to make their own rules— and a box becomes the new crate, and the crate becomes the new box, and no one knows which is which.

Duck has his forum moderators all in a row, so no question will go unanswered. He likes to end is essays with, "So, what do you think?"

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