Is Clamp Handling Destroying your Products?

By Rob Kaszubowski, CPP | Packaging Engineering Manager, Chainalytics |  Clamp truck handling is on the rise. This mode helps quickly move products through the supply...

By Rob Kaszubowski, CPP | Packaging Engineering Manager, Chainalytics | 

Clamp truck handling is on the rise. This mode helps quickly move products through the supply chain. But it also puts some extreme horizontal forces on products’ packaging. How much pressure is too much? Read on.

It  was bound to happen….the rise of machines! Well, not exactly Terminator or Skynet, but the rise of clamp-handling machines. As consumers demand same-day or next-day package deliveries, companies must adapt their product handling to move products through their system and supply chain faster.

Clamp handling allows for less manual labor and quicker truck loading or unloading. Lately, our packaging consulting team has definitely seen an increase in this mechanical handling mode and means of moving packaged products. An especially high volume of products arrives from Asian manufacturers in intermodal containers. These loads are often floor loaded and consolidated, with the assumption being that when the container arrives in the United States, it will be unloaded by clamp.

Why Clamp Handling is Not a Silver Bullet

Not all products and their packaging survive clamp handling. Here’s a closer look at this mode’s advantages and drawbacks:

What makes clamp trucks useful?

  1. Trailer cube optimization. It sounds fancy, but this term simply means we don’t need to use pallets to load or move products and can floor load directly into the trailer. That saves us 5.5 cubic feet of space per pallet. Assuming the maximum of 60 pallet slots per trailer, these pallets would consume 8 percent of our trailer capacity. Without these pallets,we’ve just added a significant volume to our payload. In the packaging and logistics world, space is money, especially if you are currently “cubing out” your trailers.Pallets utilize 8 percent of trailer space
  1. Pallet cost savings. Get rid of the pallets and you save money – pretty straightforward. Assuming a minimum cost of $8.00 per standard 40 inch x 48 inch pallet and a potential of 60 pallets per 53-foot trailer, with potential savings of $480 per trailer! Not to mention the space savings from having to inventory and store (and refurbish and cull) thousands of pallets.
  1. Less time unloading trucks. Less unloading means less labor costs, so remaining staff can handle, load or unload multiple trucks.Clamp truck product damage - multiple boxes

What are clamp handling’s pitfalls?

  1. Most packaging isn’t designed to withstand clamp truck handling. In the 1980s, corrugated board shifted from Mullen burst board to ECT grade board (read about it here). The fibers in ECT paper are oriented to help support vertical stacking and compressive loads. But clamp handling compresses boxes horizontally, so packages may require additional internal packaging structure or increased board weight in corrugated shippers to withstand multiple clamp truck touches.
  1. Lack of operator training. Could clamp handling be causing product damage before your product even leaves your facility? Depending on the forces applied and location on the package that is clamped, you may very well be breaking your product or at least creating packaging fatigue.

    Operator training is a must because it requires more skill to effectively operate a clamp truck than any other truck front end (except maybe a push-pull). But here again, it takes more than six months experience to move from novice status to proficiency, during which time many packages suffer their demise via over- or under-clamping hazards. Few companies employ or enforce clamping rules to keep losses to a minimum and experienced clamp truck operators are a very small pool of the labor force.
  1. Equipment Use. Until recently there were no options for variable control over clamping pressure outside operator “feel.” But “feel” is the hardest part of the training for operators to “get.” New products from Cascade and Loron have proprietary, programmable controls that are also operator dependent (they will slow down the operator’s speed).

    These control systems are bound to improve.  We’d like to see is a smart controller that scans the product prior to pick up and automatically controls the clamping force based on pre-programmed values.

Clamp handling is evolving, but it is still in the early stages of mechanical handling: There is a fine line between applying enough force to grasp and pick up one or multiple boxes, and applying so much force that you significantly damage the product packaging. Each organization applies different top end forces for their equipment based on their specific product mix; rarely does an organization measure or request maximum clamping forces in the supply chain in which their products travel. Clamp handling package damage - partial lift (1)

We have seen high variance in the amount of force individual operators apply: Many just push the lever to the maximum force. Most trucks apply a standard force (say 1,200 lbs); few are tuned or measured in pounds per square inch (PSI).

What about e-commerce shipments? What happens to your product or packaging after it is clamp handled multiple times and then shipped via UPS or Fedex to your end customer? You have to figure your product will be touched by a clamp truck a minimum of four times before it even leaves your manufacturing facility:             

  • Pick-up off production line (clamp)
  • Set down and pick-up again for storage (clamp)
  • Pull from storage and move to staging for shipment (clamp)
  • Load into trailer (clamp)

This number of touches only increases as your product moves (and is clamped) throughout the supply chain and additional distribution centers, LTL or small-package environments.

So now we have a package that is 1) not designed for clamp handling and 2) compressed with horizontal force multiple times and 3) subjected single parcel shipment – which can be one of the most treacherous modes of shipment a package can see.

If you are currently using clamp trucks, are you creating product damage before your package leaves your facility? Are you aware of all the modes of handling in your entire supply chain?

I’m sure you know what goes on within your own production facilities and warehouses. But what happens at the distributor or retailer distribution center? What modes of handling are they using?

And, probably most importantly, is your packaging designed to handle those methods of handling–is it designed for distribution?

Rob Kaszubowski is a Senior Manager in Chainalytics Packaging Engineering competency, where he is focused on reducing product damage and implementing packaging cost savings initiatives.

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