Why Single Parcel Shipment is Nothing Short of a Logistical Miracle

By Noah Rabinowitz | Packaging Designer, Packaging Optimization | Chainalytics | Everyone has horror stories about damaged goods arriving on their doorsteps. The universal nature...


By Noah Rabinowitz | Packaging Designer, Packaging Optimization | Chainalytics |


Everyone has horror stories about damaged goods arriving on their doorsteps. The universal nature of these woes has caused people to make many assumptions about how their packages are handled by single parcel delivery services such as FedEx, UPS, DHL, etc. 

But beyond assumptions, how are your packages actually being handled? More to the point, how can you prevent damage to your goods when you ship through these services? I recently had the opportunity to tour a Parcel Sorting Hub and came away with a few key takeaways that are important to understanding what your package must be designed to withstand in a single parcel environment.

  1. Packages are not all loaded with vertical fluting. Corrugated board is a packaging and shipping staple, capable of supporting surprisingly large loads. However, the strength of the board is directional. The corrugated flutes are capable of supporting forces pushing down on them, similar to columns in architecture. When force is applied laterally, however, the board strength is severely compromised. Similarly, most compressive strength comes from the corners of the box, where the force get transferred from the top of the package, down the flutes, and into whatever the package is resting on. When you can evenly stack packages on top of each other, forces can be distributed from the top of a load to a trailer floor.

    Single parcel is a whole different environment. Shoes, books, cookware… almost everything can be shipped through the large parcel carriers and the unpredictable nature of the packages means they don’t have the luxury of optimizing loads the way TL freight shipments can. As such, packages are arranged in an intricate jigsaw puzzle, unique to that particular load. When this is done, some boxes are even turned on their side, significantly compromisingly the compression strength of the package.

    Unfortunately, this causes some packages (and even some products inside their boxes) to absorb more force than they were built to absorb. Packages are loaded to support a stable truck load, which means some packages will be subjected to extreme forces, others, in the same truck will experience much less. Since you can’t predict how your products will be arranged, preparing for the worst is the best way to ensure undamaged goods. If you’re shipping predominantly through single parcel, selecting Mullen burst board over the traditional ECT grade corrugated may be the way to go.

  2. Not every sorting facility uses the same technology. This fact is particularly important when considering how packages are being handled. The more “touches” a package receives, the more potential supply chain hazards it may see, and opportunities for damage arise. Every time a box is picked up there’s a chance it will be dropped or hit a wall, or corner, or even other packages. Because of this, it is a goal of all shipping channels to reduce the amount of handling packages receive. As an effort to limit the amount of touches, shippers are now automating a lot of the process. As an example, UPS “Worldport” hub in Louisville, Kentucky, for example, is fully automated and packages are only manually handled going in and out of the facility. By way of contrast, the sorting facility in the metropolitan feeder facilities are partially automated and much of the sorting is still done manually.UPS Video Louisville KY
  3. Small parcels are handled very differently than large ones. Perhaps the most surprising thing to see was how small packages are handled. When packaging gets too small it cannot be placed on the conveyor belts, small packaging has a tendency to get stuck somewhere in the system. To alleviate the problem, these smaller packages are gathered and put in a large bag that’s large enough for the conveyor belts, so once it’s filled up it will be tossed on the belts where the packages move to the next leg of their journey. Here the bags are opened and inverted, dumping the small packages down a slide where they can be manually sorted. Sorters scan the packages, toss them into a slot assigned by zip code, and then when the slot area is full the packages are put in a new bag, now labelled for the appropriate zip code. Next, they go back onto the belt to finish sorting.

    This method is a pretty clever workaround to unavoidable problems. However it does introduce a different set of problems. While these packages can now make it through the sorting facility in these bags, they are handled much more than larger package, which increases potential for damage. On the flip side, large packages that do not fit on the conveyors are handled manually and may require an additional handling or oversize fee. 

As you may have noticed, the technology and handling methods used don’t observe “this side up” and “fragile” stamps. These stamps don’t mean much to the shipper you use; they can be helpful within the manufacturer’s supply chain, or to the end user, but when packages are being shipped single parcel, there is no special treatment for fragile items. This makes package design even more important. If your product is fragile the only “special treatment” it will receive is the packaging robusticity you design into your package.

Overall the tour a sorting facility offered many insights. As a package designer, I can see that the handling methods employed are very important to understand, so packages reach their destinations carrying undamaged goods. The facility I visited sorts over 40,000 packages an hour during a typical shift. However a hub, such as the “Worldport” hub in Louisville can process 10 times the volume of a metropolitan sort in an hour! Single parcel shipment is nothing short of a logistical miracle, so give them a break and upgrade your packaging when you use them.

A packaging designer in Chainalytics’ Packaging Optimization practice, Noah Rabinowitz works to optimize packaging within the context of clients’ supply chain capabilities and requirements and to reduce costs and/or damage in shipping, handling and storage.

Read more about how Chainalytics’ packaging optimization helps our clients packaging navigate complex environments:

Video: UPS Worldport Time Lapse video | UPS | YouTube

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