Data-driven packaging solutions: Prepare for success with the right directions

  • April 08, 2021
Manager working with foreman in warehouse checking stock levels.

Taking your packaging system to the next level? You’ll only get there efficiently if you know the facts. Sure, you can rely on hard data — the numbers don’t lie, right? Well, not exactly. It’s the often elusive “soft” data that can make the difference between going the distance or falling short. Soft data is uncovered by supply chain mapping, a thorough understanding of product fragility and the desired customer experience.

Like anyone else, packaging engineers need to know where they’re going
It stands to reason that a package engineering project with defined goals needs precise information to achieve them. That data falls into two categories: hard and soft.

Hard data is the sort of cut-and-dry business facts found in various financial systems and readily available. For example:

  • Current and future packaging/products volume
  • Component costs
  • Labor costs
  • Freight costs
  • Product and packaging dimensional weight

Soft data can be challenging to find, but it’s crucial for project success. For example:

  • Supply chain mapping:
    • Material handling equipment interaction
    • Customer receiving requirements
    • Inter-company receiving requirements
    • Number of touches
  • Product damage — why, how and when:
    • Customer ill-will
    • Replacement costs
    • Time consumed with customer service

Bringing these divergent yet essential data sets together helps our engineers arrive at the best possible solution.

There are three primary types of packaging projects: packaging cost reduction, product damage reduction and new product introduction support. Let’s look at how both hard and soft data are essential to ensure project success.

Packaging cost reduction
Using only hard data for these kinds of projects can seem adequate. After all, it’s easy to pick the most expensive packaging component and target it for a cost reduction. However, the component may be an essential element of an engineered packaging system. Without proper testing and analysis, changing one part may have unforeseen consequences during implementation. The packaging system may alter the natural frequency, leading to a more significant vibrational input into the product. Or maybe the system isn’t strong enough to properly support triple-stacking during over-the-road transport. Understanding a product’s weak point and the supply chain through which it travels is critical to evaluating the damage/cost/opportunity trade-offs that you must consider for a successful project outcome.

For example, a supplier of muffler clamps to a major motorcycle manufacturer decided to make a simple change in its packaging. The company replaced the strong, threaded sealing tape on its boxes with less-expensive sealing tape. Unfortunately, the supplier conducted no testing before making the change. As a result, the packages failed when the muffler clamps inside made contact and cut the new tape. That outcome happened often during manual handling on the manufacturing line, spilling 200 muffler clamps across the factory floor and halting production each time.

Product damage reduction
You can reduce product damage by optimizing distribution handling methods, improving packaging system designs, re-engineering products or changing transit modes. But focusing on any one of these areas with only hard data creates a scattered approach. The easy thing to do is blame the carrier. The result: your company will switch to another carrier for the sixth time in two years. If all those carriers damage the product in a similar way, it’s likely not a carrier problem.

Soft data can enable a comprehensive approach. Start by conducting root-cause analysis and exposing the sources of the damage. This step can lead to a conversation about the cost/benefit trade-off between improving packaging, improving the product and improving handling risks in the distribution network. It’s often a multi-tactic approach, with damage reduced by addressing the root cause(s). You can then determine different priorities based on ease of implementation, cost of change and impact on the end consumer. This approach evaluates the problem from a supply chain perspective. It looks at the total cost of ownership, rather than a single element of the problem. The result: “knee-jerk” reactions don’t impact the fix.

New product introduction support
Product development that includes innovative packaging design helps optimize the system. Hard data may cause a company to ship its products without the castors installed to allow triple stacking within a sea container. Soft data will reveal that they must precisely space the bottom deck board to prevent a pallet from bouncing down a warehouse’s conveyor. Other soft data may inspire implementing a pallet with four-way access to satisfy a large customer’s material handling requirements.

A major fitness equipment manufacturer, for example, wanted to ship a weight bench and associated parts via small parcel carriers. By adjusting the packaging system design, the manufacturer stayed within FedEx and UPS girth limits and avoided a $150 surcharge per shipment. A minor re-engineering of the product — allowing the end consumer to do some at-home assembly — reduced package size and avoided the surcharge.

— By James Bisha

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