March 2, 2017
material handling update | Packaging and Labeling

The complete package

The complete package

When companies go to solve a packaging problem—like figuring out how to keep their boxes from getting crushed in transit—they often focus on just one aspect of their packaging. They can get a better, more complete answer by looking at the entire unit load.

By Susan K. Lacefield

It's a mistake a lot of companies make: thinking about their packaging in a fragmented fashion. What type of dunnage to use is considered independently from what type of box to use. The type of box is considered independently of what type of pallet to use. The pallet is considered independently of what type of stretch wrap or packaging film to use.

This fragmented approach can lead to a number of problems. First, companies risk over-engineering their packaging—in other words, they end up using more, higher-quality packaging than is strictly necessary, which inflates their costs. Or the reverse happens: Looking to save money on packaging, companies start reducing the amount or quality of a particular piece of packing material without considering how the change will affect the unit load's protective capabilities. Or, if they're trying to reduce product damage, they risk focusing on the wrong part of the packaging. For example, if their corrugated boxes are consistently being crushed during transit, they might assume the fix is switching to a higher-quality box, when changing their pallet or stretch wrap might be a more cost-effective solution.

A better approach, according to many experts, is to think about packaging holistically and look at what's known as the entire "unit load." Unit load optimization and design considers the combination of the product on the pallet with all of the materials used to protect and secure it, including packaging material, corner posts, reinforcers, packaging film, and straps. "It's making sure that [all components of the] load work together efficiently," says Laszlo Horvath, director of the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech.

Focusing on the unit load gives companies a better idea of how a product will stand up to supply chain-related stresses than they can get by simply testing the primary packaging (the first layer of packaging), according to Ben Eugrin, director of the supply chain solutions group at CHEP, a pallet pooling specialist that also provides unit load optimization solutions. "Remember that the unit load is where a product spends 90 percent of its life," he says. "It's only really broken down at the very end of the chain. So it's critical to be able to test that entire unit load—not only to make sure that it's going to make it all the way through without falling apart, but also to prevent weakening that could cause damage down the line."


Unit load optimization is typically done through computer simulation and physical testing in a lab setting, which is more efficient and effective than conducting trial and error tests on actual shipments. These testing services are available through some packaging and pallet companies, specialty consulting firms, and research universities with packaging schools.

As for how companies use these services, clients sometimes turn to labs for answers to straightforward questions, like "What's the actual load-carrying capacity of the pallet?" or "How much product can be stacked on this pallet?" Other times, they're looking for answers to more open-ended questions such as how to reduce product damage, how to increase unit load stability, how to reduce overall packaging and freight costs, or how well a new packaging solution will work.

For example, a tissue manufacturer that was contemplating a switch from high-quality corrugated to recycled corrugated for its packaging contracted with CHEP to run some tests to see how the two stacked up. After nearly a week of testing at CHEP's Innovation Center, a state-of-the-art testing facility in Orlando, Fla., the company's engineers concluded that the recycled version protected the contents just as well as the high-quality material did. Based on the results, the manufacturer made the switch, which ended up saving it $300,000 annually.

When it comes to testing, the more comprehensive, the better. But companies don't always heed that advice. When shippers go to test or model various packaging alternatives, one thing they commonly overlook is the pallet—to be specific, what pallet would be best for their product, according to Horvath. There's a mistaken belief that all pallets are the same, when in actuality, quality can vary greatly. So when the Virginia Tech Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design analyzes a unit load, it may look at such details as what size pallet should be used, how thick the corner boards should be, how stiff the boards should be, and how big the space between the boards should be.

Designing (or specifying) the optimal pallet isn't always as cut and dried as it sounds, Horvath notes. "If we are designing a pallet for a specific unit load, then it's relatively simple, but if we are designing for a range of product loads, as is often the case, then it can be a rather complex proposition," he says. In such cases, the lab will either use a flexible air bag to simulate the worst-case scenario or work with the client to determine which product would put the most stress on the pallet.

For best results, the testing or modeling protocol should factor in the stresses the unit load will encounter during the distribution process, says Tom Blanck, principal for the consulting company Chainalytics, which provides packaging optimization services. "One thing that gets overlooked is the dynamics of the situation—the fact that the payload and the pallets are in active movement, constantly shifting, changing, and being subjected to shocks and supply chain hazards," he says.

To determine whether the product and its packaging can withstand the rigors of transportation and storage, lab testing will need to re-create conditions under which the unit load will be transported, stacked, and loaded, says Mohammed Ansari, manager of CHEP's Innovation Center. For example, in the lab, the test unit load may be put on a platform that shakes it to replicate conditions inside a trailer barreling down a bumpy road. Or unit loads might be stacked on top of one another in a rack to simulate the stresses they will be subjected to during warehouse storage. The tests might even include re-creating the atmospheric conditions the unit load will encounter if it's stored outside or in a freezer.


Proponents of unit load analysis and testing, such as Blanck, acknowledge that the process is "not inexpensive" but insist that "a test is worth a thousand words" because it allows you to see how all of your packaging will perform under real-world conditions. It also saves the time and costs associated with making packaging changes and waiting to see how the modified version performs in actual use.

Eugrin agrees. "The question really is: Can you afford not to spend money on unit load optimization and testing?" he says. "The alternative is rolling the dice, trying to do it yourself, and coming up with the wrong answer." That wrong answer may result in damaged product or an unstable load that could topple over and injure someone.

Packaging impact test
UPSTANDING PLAYER: Technicians at CHEP's Innovation Center use this inclined impact test unit to assess load stability. After being placed on the blue carriage, a unit load is dropped and hit along all four sides to see if it will remain upright or topple over.

In addition to reducing damage, testing can help companies achieve their sustainability goals. Simulations and tests allow them to make informed decisions about reducing packaging or fitting more product on a pallet.

There can be some hassles involved, however. For example, if products are high-value, companies will have to create a "dummy load" for the testing process rather than risk damaging actual goods. This can be time-consuming and expensive, Blanck cautions.

Of course, all the simulation and testing in the world won't do you much good if you don't apply what you learn and share the data you collect. Blanck recalls working with one client that was experiencing problems with product damage. The client came up with several new packaging designs and asked Chainalytics to run some performance tests. What Blanck and his team found, however, was that the company did not need to change its packaging. Instead, it simply needed to do a better job of following its existing packaging requirements and best practices. (For some steps you can take before embarking on full-blown testing, see the accompanying sidebar.)

Indeed, Pat Lancaster, chairman of stretch-wrapping equipment maker Lantech, goes so far as to say that the problem is not so much that the industry lacks information about how to create optimized unit loads, as that the knowledge is not being applied.

Instead of just focusing on creating the perfect load, Lancaster urges companies to establish a "feedback loop" that ensures that information about damage levels gets back to the plant or DC. "If plants understood the damage level, they would be able to implement fixes," he says.

Either way, getting packaging right will become an increasingly high-stakes endeavor as supply chains amp up their efforts to run leaner and with less waste. "Supply chain systems have gotten so good that they are like fine racing engines," Blanck says. "They now run faster, but they are also finicky. Everything needs to be right for them to run right. Bad packaging can clog up the system like bad gas in a good engine."

About the Author

Susan K. Lacefield
Editor at Large
Susan Lacefield has been working for supply chain publications since 1999. Before joining DC VELOCITY, she was an associate editor for Supply Chain Management Review and wrote for Logistics Management magazine. She holds a master's degree in English.

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