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Fixed transit pack sizes are often inefficient in that on each palletised load inches of space are often being wasted in all three dimensions. Rodney Abbott reports

Bespoke transit packs with investment in the primary pack can often bring about immense savings further down the supply chain. Despite the great strides taken by plastics transit pack makers in recent years, more traditional materials still have a strong role to play, particularly corrugated.

Modern machinery can be set to make individual cartons fit and that’s one of the strengths of the corrugated industry.

Consequently, it spends an inordinate amount of time designing boxes that are either driven by the primary pack or packs that actually fit onto full and Euro standardised pallets that make every lorry load cost-effective.

Packs that fully utilise the pallet can reduce distribution costs by as much as 10%. Often the cost of the primary pack has to be increased to realise greater overall savings so the solution lies in selling packs by performance, rather than specification alone.

There are many reasons why plastics has made inroads into the transit packaging industry but material use is obviously a matter of application.

The big plus with plastics lies in the product’s returnability and the savings to be made. RPCs can be bought and charged to the user per trip. Their life is long and they can be ground down and recycled. While corrugated can be used more than once, essentially it is a one-trip operation.

When viewed from a cost perspective, plastics doesn’t stack up. A plastics tray costs £30-£40. A corrugated equivalent will cost no more than 40p. Therefore, putting some foods into a plastics tray that is going to sit in a supply chain is a big expense.

There are economies to be found in the frozen and fast food sector, if only because plastics packs can be loaded, delivered straight to the store, unloaded and returned.

The problem with plastics is that it is difficult to brand the goods that are in transit. Plastics trays often cannot be branded because the loop varies from one day to another, with a broad range of products being used in the same tray.

At the other end of the scale, corrugated trays are provided to fruit and vegetable suppliers. These operations couldn’t support a plastics product. Nevertheless, the product can be heavily branded throughout the entire packaging chain to point of sale.

The other advantage with corrugated is that it can be supplied flat. Corrugated transit case suppliers are able to produce a flat blank and sell customers equipment with which to erect the trays.

Flat packs can be stored by the thousand in a warehouse and be used effectively over, say, two weeks whereas made up plastics packs incur daily deliveries. Finally, empty plastics crates have to be shipped back in another lorry that is effectively empty and not recharged with product.

Demand for corrugated packaging has remained relatively static for the last three years and looks likely to remain so for the next three years. Positive factors include the growth of microflute and display packaging. On the down side some users of corrugated, including electronics companies, have moved production overseas.

The biggest change within the corrugated fibreboard industry sector in recent years has been the move by manufacturers to microflute packaging. This has come about due to the need for transit pack protection allied to high quality graphics used to promote the sale of the contents.

The development of the microflute segment has created a new area of activity and has developed competition between corrugated case manufacturers and traditional carton-board manufacturers.

Comparing corrugated one-way packaging to plastics re-usable packaging can only be done in specific situations. Corrugated pack costs vary with size. So do re-usable pack costs but to a lesser extent.

A spokesman for SCA says: “A very big factor in the total supply chain cost of transporting and displaying a product is the cost of distribution. This can be as much, if not more than the pack cost.

When the products do not fill the plastics re-usable product efficiently, the difference in distribution cost is significant for manufacturer and retailer. This will bring the cost equation shown in the chart more to equilibrium or in many cases in favour of corrugated.”

At first glance leading edge technology is not apparent in this sector, if only because secondary packaging is utilitarian and lacks the glitz that accompanies its more glamorous primary sister. Nevertheless, it is there – a sleeping giant that will soon awake to regiment a family that is often difficult to keep tabs on.

Internet shopping and home-delivery was heralded as the dawning of a new-age in our retail experience but it has so far failed to make a significant impact in the market. According to the DTI, this is because we’re now too busy to wait at home all day for the goods to arrive. Services are failing at the most critical point – delivery.

But now a team at Cambridge Consultants Ltd (CCL), one of Europe’s leading technology companies, has combined its expertise in detection and tracking devices, wireless communications and real-time information management to come up with a practical, customer-focused solution to this problem.

Using a range of technologies, CCL has developed a system in which packages are tagged with small radio transmitters, enabling them to be monitored in real-time as they are transported from the warehouse to the customer’s front door.

This does away with the need for each item to be manually scanned and can also ensure that packages are loaded onto the correct vehicle before it leaves the depot. The goods are then automatically tracked as they progress through each stage of the delivery chain.

A GPS system on the delivery vehicle communicates with a remote server via GSM and its location is fed through predictive software that computes the expected time of arrival based on current location, road conditions, and historical trends for travel in that area at that time of day.

Arrival time estimates are continually updated right up to the point of delivery and customers can easily arrange an ‘alert’ via their 3G mobile phone or have an SMS text message sent to them at an agreed point prior to the arrival time.

This removes the need for inconvenient morning or afternoon guesswork. For example, if it takes an hour to travel from work to home, the alert can be pre-arranged to inform the customer when his or her delivery is 70 minutes away from their home.

“I think anyone who’s had to take a day off work to wait for a delivery will have found the experience frustrating. I know I have,” explains business development manager Alex Blyth.

“Our system solves this problem by strengthening a number of weak points along the whole delivery chain and, by adding in some new links, it also shows what CCL does best.

“We are able to bring together experts from a range of disciplines and apply their disparate knowledge to a real business problem.

“In this case we have a product that enables our clients to add value to their customers’ experience, enhance their operational efficiency and ensure that they can deliver on their promises.”

Planning is crucial, particularly where budgeting is concerned and Kryotrans has had the foresight to secure a e2M+ EC grant to develop a new concept in the transport of sensitive medical items.

The system will be capable of regulating the temperature of the items being transported at any external ambient temperature for extended periods of time.

Both a heat bank and a cold bank will be used within the container to provide accurate and rapid temperature regulation.

Tracking and communication, using the latest telemetric technology, will provide real time data access while goods are in transit.

The value of intelligent packaging design has been apparent to composite materials manufacturer SP Systems in drawing upon DS Smith Tri-Wall’s expertise in transit packaging.

SP Systems supplies glass and carbon fibre composite material in reel form to the yacht and wind turbine construction indus-tries.

It required a pack that could accommodate varying lengths of product, be stacked four high in storage and provide secure protection to a valuable product during transit.

The material is temperature sensitive and some specifications require up to two months storage in refrigerated conditions.

A novel aspect of the Tri-Wall solution was to create a single die-cut blank of high performance corrugated board for the transit case, from which four rectangular rings could be snapped off to provide supports for the reel – two at each end.

By incorporating the supports into the single blank, material otherwise stripped away for waste has been utilised, optimising the board usage and reducing overall cost.

The packing operators have also seen benefits in using the integral fitments, removing the need and time to locate and reconcile separate inventory items.

Application of the product often requires protected storage of partially used reels and the top opening, reclosable case with its core supports provides this and also enables the reel to be easily unloaded and reloaded without damage.

This innovative design has increased packing speeds, reduced storage space and inventory and has optimised space utilisation in the unitised transit loads adopted by SP Systems. With the high product value of individual shipments, the elimination of transit damage has been a major benefit.

Closure security is invaluable and a new fastener from Bampton Packaging, no more than 1in high, has been designed for closed-loop transit situations.

LOCK-SERT is a simple device that has been designed to reduce costs, minimise the impact on the environment and increase flexibility and security. A quarter turn fully locks or unlocks the device and its ingenious design means that the locking shaft is withdrawn into a timber frame when not in use.

Locking and unlocking is achieved by using a tool that can be unique to every customer. A standard-headed version is also available, operated either with an Allen key or screwdriver.

Bampton Packaging managing director Mike Brown believes LOCK-SERT will be particularly effective in the returnable transit-packaging arena.

“It allows packages to be bought in easy-to-assemble modular panels of timber and plywood made from sustainable sources so the size and shape can be determined in a variety of ways an infinite number of times,” he says.

“A damaged panel or component can be replaced, even when the case is loaded in some instances so the package is quickly ready for use again. Interchangeable internal fitments, based on the same concept, add to the system’s versatility, making reconfigur-ation of any package a simple and fast operation.

“On return journeys, the side and end panels can be bulk stored within a fully assembled container, eliminating the need to transport volumes of fresh air in empty cases.”

Demands on transit packaging have never been greater. In addition to the constraints of economics and performance, there is the need to minimise its effect upon the environment. The world around us is changing and we must change with it.

Changing the type of thickness of stretchfilm to wrap pallets has enabled Antalis Packaging – the successor to Wiggins Teape – to save customers such as Friskies up to 25%.

“The use of plastics in particular has increased across many applications due to raw material improvements which have given a better yield,” says Antalis marketing services manager Emma Bastock.

“After conducting site audits we have been able to show our customers considerable unit cost savings relating to stretchfilm.

“This trend of cost, rather than price, is definitely gathering momentum in the purchase of secondary packaging materials.

“Buyers are switching on to the concept that the cheapest price does not always deliver the most secure pack at the lowest unit cost.

“Another driving force of cost has been the enforcement of the packag-ing waste regulations across the industry.

“We are now seeing both corrugated and plastics users looking for optimisation of product use – lamina-ted/bespoke board and yield tests on film performance.

“The market in plastics has grown at about 5% every year as a result of a more convenience-led lifestyle. Plastics has benefited from this growth area through adapting product applications such as carry handles for multipacks of drinks.

“The corrugated sector has now begun to respond to this consumer demand shift by offering point of sale products such as corrugated six-pack drink carriers and high quality point-of-sale printed product.

“We foresee shrinkage in the use of traditional materials such as tissue and greaseproof paper as these are being replaced by plastics.”