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Manufacturers are being forced to adjust to the demands of e-commerce, especially when it comes to selecting the most efficient packaging solutions, says Mike Stein, director of global marketing with Signode Industrial Group.
SCB: How is e-commerce affecting manufacturers, especially as it relates to the issue of packaging?
Stein: What we see more and more with e-commerce is that primary and secondary packaging, which typically would be cased or palletized for shipment, is now being utilized directly for shipments to customers. Manufacturers have to be more thoughtful about the options they have with regard to their primary packaging, so that product can get shipped to a customer’s home without needing to be repackaged or reprocessed to protect it in transit.
SCB: What types of packaging solutions are you seeing that address this issue?
Stein: There are a lot of elements. Some of it has to do with the external containers themselves, the kinds of boxes or containers. It also has to do with the types of dunnage that are used — how the product itself is packed within the container so that it's protected from moving around.
SCB: Up to now, a lot of manufacturers and distributors have only had a small selection of packaging types on which to draw. Sometimes it doesn't at all match the product that's inside. Are we seeing more options available out there now? And how do you sustain operations if you have all these different options?
Stein: Part of it has to do with understanding what those options are. And part has to do with selecting the correct ones, based on the types of products that are being packed. Flexibility isn’t just about the package itself. It also involves the equipment and systems that are being utilized to put those products into the packaging.
SCB: What do you mean by flexibility? How can these operations become more flexible?
Stein: For example, you can have a standard cardboard tray, put the finished product on it, and secure it to the tray with a automated film wrapper. Regardless of the size of the product, you can ensure that it's secure and held in place, without having to mess with different carton sizes, or types and amounts of dunnage.
SCB: Of course, the ideal solution is to have a package that fits the size of what’s inside it, so you don't have a lot of dunnage, and you're not shipping a lot of air.
Stein: Depending on what the consumer and manufacturer are looking for, sustainability becomes a factor in terms of how much material is being disposed of. You can always use more dunnage to protect an item in a box. To your point, the ideal is to suit the package to the item, but the number of SKUs of packaging can start to skyrocket. If manufacturers are producing 5,000 items, they don't want 5,000 different boxes in which to ship them.
SCB: How do you go about testing and validating the various solutions, to determine which ones are right for you?
Stein: If you're dealing with certain lower-value retail items, where the item is durable, maybe you're not as concerned. More and more, though, we're seeing companies ship high-value items that are more fragile. So you have to make sure that the packaging is going to provide the necessary protection.
We have testing facilities, and there are industry standards for how these tests should be done that mirror various conditions. Anything from a simple drop test, to shock testing, to what a truck over the road would experience. We have a rough-handling test that demonstrates what product would go through when handled by a forklift in a factory, or being delivered to the shipping dock. These tests are important to make sure that the packaging is providing the protection that the customer needs. At the same time, you don't want to add more cost than you have to. You want the most efficient, cost-effective way that's going to prevent any damage in transit.
SCB: How does the concept of "green" packaging figure into your calculations?
Stein: It figures in quite a bit. Wherever possible, we try to utilize recycled materials in the creation of our packaging. And we try to make sure that whatever packaging we are utilizing is then recyclable.
SCB: How do these decisions affect the larger warehouse and distribution environment? What benefits can they bring?
Stein: In the past, a lot of warehouses might be geared around pallets. Now they have to have the flexibility for product to be distributed to a higher number of customer locations. We're seeing a lot more automation in the warehouses, with high-density facilities closer to where the markets are, which means that they have to have more efficiency. They have to fit in smaller footprints, and have greater efficiency to handle all of the materials that are being redistributed.
SCB: How different do things look back at the manufacturing plant?
Stein: In manufacturing, you may need to invest in more equipment within your packaging line. Where before you might have had standard methods of packaging and palletizing, you now need flexibility in your production line. Companies need to find the trade-off between what they’re investing in production equipment and what they need in the packaging that's going out the door.
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