By Bob Fiedler | Principal Associate & Packaging Engineer, Chainalytics
Our last packaging blog explored packaging’s form and function: containment, protection and communication. However, some shippers may not be aware of the myriad problems and hazards their packaging and products can encounter during the distribution cycle.
We are often asked: How do I best protect not only my product through transportation and its many distribution cycles, but also my brand and company from excess damage and costs?
The answer? Packaging optimization and testing!
The field of packaging optimization emerged in the 1970s, driven largely by companies like UPS, which used laboratories to simulate distribution environments to predict and avoid possible packaging failures. Today, effective packaging protocols test against proven packaging standards established by ASTM. These standards were developed to (a) ensure a package can withstand rough handling, warehouse stacking, in-transit stacking, vehicle vibration, loose load vibration, rail switching and ambient conditions of temperature and humidity and (b) support the product and its package throughout its many distribution cycles, whether truck, rail/intermodal and/or air.
In our experience, the steps below have helped shippers achieve significant reductions in product damages and steer clear of issues like who must pay for damages sustained in transit.
Five Steps to Ensure Your Product Survives Your Distribution Cycles
1. Define Your Shipping Unit.
Depending on where and how your product is shipped, distributed or displayed, your shipping unit is a combination of your product + its box; your product + box + pallet; etc.
2. Define What You Consider Acceptable Damage.
Some shippers are only concerned when some functional issue of the product is compromised. Others are concerned with the appearance of the packaging used to protect the internal product. Defining what damage is to your company allows you to measure, test and alleviate the problem. Without this initial agreement on what you define as “damage,” you will never know when you have accomplished your objective of shipping a product successfully.
3. Define Your Distribution Environments.
Every time your product enters a different distribution environment—whether a loading dock, warehouse, truck, railcar, ship or plane—it encounters different hazards. For example, truckload shipments typically encounter only low drop heights with dropped pallets; single packages on the final leg of their travel may experience significant drop heights; LTL’s multiple cross-docks and manual handling create the most hazards for shipments; while products shipped via rail/intermodal can sustain damage as a result of the sheer physical force encountered during routine switching operations.
4. Determine Your Unique Assurance Level.
What level of confidence do you want to have when your product goes through its many distribution environments? ASTM specifies three level of assurance that you can select based on your product’s value and end-use, desired or tolerable level of anticipated damage, number of units to be shipped, knowledge of the distribution environment and other criteria. For example, a shipment of cereal would move at Level III; an average level of assurance would use Level II with medium test intensities; and a shipment of pacemakers might move at Level I assurance. The level of assurance must be balanced against the increased cost of packaging to minimize damage.
5. Set Up Your Testing Procedures.
Based on the first three steps above, your testing procedure can incorporate any of ASTM’s 18 distribution cycles. There are distribution cycles for truck, rail, air, export, import and even specialized military requirements. Some distribution cycles are for single shipping containers; others cover unitized loads such as palletized boxes. All distribution cycles use standard ASTM test methods as the basis of test schedules that simulate specific hazard elements such as rough handling, vibration or warehouse stacking. A sequence of test schedules make up the test plan for each distribution cycles.
As you go through your shipment protection process, consider that as a shipper, you’re best served by understanding that the relationship between your product and its packaging needs to be equal to each physical distribution hazard level. This will assure that you will design a protective system that functions well in all hazardous environments—saving you money, time and excess stress in the process.
Bob Fiedler is a Principal Associate of Chainalytics’ Packaging Optimization Practice and Packaging Fellow with the Institute of Packaging Professionals (IoPP). He earned a lifetime achievement award from ASTM D10 Packaging Committee in September 2014 and worked closely with Alfred H. McKinlay to create and establish ASTM D4169 as the leading global package testing protocol.