In the rapidly growing world of e-commerce, where guaranteed one- or two-day delivery times are now the norm, warehouse automation and similar tactics are becoming key differentiators. Retailers and brands are continuously looking for new ways to keep up with ever-increasing order volumes and customer expectations for fast deliveries.
Today’s warehouse automation market offers more choices than ever before. All of them need to be taken into consideration in order to make an automation initiative successful.
By deploying different types of automation to supplement manual processes in warehouses, a third-party logistics provider can effectively speed up quality fulfillment times. Among the options to consider is a packaging machine.
An automated packaging machine that produces correctly sized boxes can enhance the customer experience. Consumers receive small products in oversized boxes far too often. Oversized boxes create the need for wasteful void fillers, such as air pillows or bubble wrap. Packaging a tiny product in a large box increases brand shipping or transport costs, reduces volume capacity, and is bad for the environment.
A wrongly sized box might be caused by human error (e.g., a warehouse associate selecting an incorrect size). But it can also be the result of a system issue, where the dimensions of the product aren’t accurately recorded in an electronic system, which then pairs the product with an oversized box.
With the surge in e-commerce volume, capacity increases and output consistency have become key warehouse metrics. The increase has only been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave many consumers no other option than to shop online. That trend continues even as in-person shopping restrictions are loosening up.
Now that more people are becoming used to the convenience of online shopping, things will never be the same. In a consumer-driven environment, brands and their logistics partners need to prepare long-term solutions for dealing with peak season rushes, rather than being solely dependent on seasonal temp workers.
By implementing an automated packaging system in the warehouse, 3PLs have the opportunity to create as many as 1,000 customized boxes per hour for single and multi-line orders. Products are measured by a 3D scanner so that they can be matched with custom-fit boxes. A shipping label is then automatically applied to the box, and the package is moved to the outbound shipping area.
Producing a unique, perfectly sized shipping box eliminates the need for void fillers. This improves productivity while optimizing labor and reducing shipping costs. Removing plastic, such as bubble wrap, air pillows and tape, also makes the shipping process more environmentally friendly.
This type of automation could be a good fit if products to be fulfilled meet the following criteria:
- Small-parcel delivery for B2C e-commerce is the ideal type of operation for an automated packaging line;
- A high percentage of single line orders can benefit more from this type of automation, even though multi-liners can also be processed;
- Variable product sizes can take full advantage of the unique, right-sized shipping carton for every order, and
- To achieve a positive return on investment, brands need to be able to process at least 5,000 orders or more per day.
If these criteria are met, up to 90% of the manual pack-out operation can be replaced with an automated packaging machine. Depending on seasonal and promotional spikes, there’s still a need to maintain manual pack-out, with the automated line producing a consistent output per shift.
The desire for sustainable packaging solutions is especially noticeable in today’s fast-growing e-commerce world. Consumers, many of whom receive multiple packages every week, are increasingly expecting "green" packaging from brands.
Having the correct packaging is essential for creating brand awareness. Outer packaging provides a great opportunity for brands to make positive and impactful first impressions on their customers. 3PLs can further enhance their value-added services by integrating advanced software and hardware into their packaging systems. These can be utilized to print logos or trademarks directly onto boxes. They can even go a step further and create personalized marketing messages, often by using a brand’s customer database.
Last but not least, it’s important to note that returns are an inevitable part of the customer journey. Customers might not like the way their product looks, might not be satisfied with a product’s fit, or might want to make a return for a wide range of other reasons. Returns have become particularly common in e-commerce. Warehouse automated packaging machines can be used to create resealable boxes. These are easy to open, close and reseal, in case a package needs to be returned.
There’s a wide selection of tools out there for helping brands select the right kind of packaging, many of which are eco-friendly (e.g., using sustainable void fillers and paper tape). When analyzing key factors, such as logistics challenges and the warehouse environment, a brand or retailer might find that an automated packaging system that creates tailor-fit boxes, eliminates the need for plastics, and enables desired capacity increases is the ideal solution.
Konstantin Bohmeyer is vice president of consumer products with Arvato Supply Chain Solutions North America.