It's rare that packaging gets much attention in discussions on supply chain management. And that's dangerous. Packaging is one of the many elements of SCM that has to be got right for successful day-to-day supply chain operations.
Those who think that packaging doesn't matter are the same ones who think that distribution center operation is no more complicated than "boxes in and boxes out." Of course, packaging specialists can get a little carried away with the world-saving attributes of their arcane specialties, but the truth is, we wouldn't have much of a supply chain without packaging.
As for what packaging does, it's hard to know where to begin. Consider a few of the many diverse roles packaging plays. Among other functions, it:
There's no doubt more. Packaging is much, much more than "the box it came in." And the science of packaging involves far more than how to orient the corrugated for efficient mill runs.
Some specialty areas
There are separate and distinct packaging techniques and attributes in different industries. Packaging for electronics and technology is a world unto itself, as is food packaging. Frozen food has a unique set of concerns, as does the beverage segment. Wine alone has seen a series of packaging revolutions, from synthetics to replace natural cork stoppers to screw-top closures. From a logistics standpoint, the wine "box," made possible by special spouts/closures that keep air out during pouring, radically alters the shipment and cube/weight characteristics of store/consumer-level units.
Relatively recent packaging developments are having a tremendous effect on reverse logistics. Actually, a return to fundamentals is having that effect. Time was when packaging was recyclable, returnable, reusable. Then, materials and manufacturing became so inexpensive that we turned to what we thought was disposable packaging.
The elements of the equation have been changing, though, and practices that were once socially acceptable and economically attractive are less so. The increase in the use of returnable totes, bins, and boxes has been noticeable, although petroleum price increases have made plastics more expensive. The logistics implications of these alternatives to disposable/recyclable corrugated include both the routing and handling for the reverse trip, as well as the cube implications of the nesting and collapsible options.
Returnables can also involve cleaning requirements to eliminate contamination and extend their usable life.
It's a lot to think about.
Back to school
One early leader in the field was Michigan State's School of Packaging, where Dr. Diana Twede has succeeded Paul Peoples as resident guru. And the school's Hugh Lockhart has developed a comprehensive approach to the analysis of packaging, "The Packaging Matrix," that links the full range of packaging functions (not simply those related to supply chain operations) with the environments in which packaging comes into play. The functional groupings of protection, utility, and communication are matched with human, biospheric, and physical environments.
Eight of the matrix's nine cells relate in some fashion to supply chain operations and/or physical handling at either the consumer or the commercial level. In the physical realm—supply chain operations—elements of protection include cushioning, external shipping containers, corner posts, air bags, filler materials, and compression strength for stacking. Utility components include stretch wrap, shrink wrap, self-heating and self-cooling packages, freezerto- oven capability, ergonomically sized containers, and handles for carrying. Communications examples include warning and/or handling signage (e.g., "this side up"), RFID, pictorials, and temperature/stacking limitations.
Biospheric elements protect products (and those who handle them) and permit extended supply chain/shelf life times. They encompass amber colors, UV absorbers, oxygen barriers/absorbers, films, wet strength external packaging, controlled atmospheres, edible films, time/temperature indicators, and pictorials.
In the human environment, protection functions are exemplified by tamper-evident features, child-resistant closures, and designs that don't demand scissors or knives (or hand axes) to open. Utility functions include reclosable and/or easy-to-open designs, ergonomic shapes, talking packages, and the like.
Where packaging plays—and pays
You may correctly deduce from the above that we think packaging is integral to supply chain management, indeed, to the whole of a product's success.
We also submit that packaging takes on added importance in extended global supply chains. There's more handling, often involving less sophisticated people and equipment. Ocean container transport involves different stresses than over-the-road trucking might. Standards might be different— and variable—in diverse sourcing locations.
National regulations and consumer sensitivities are certainly different. It's our challenge to define packaging requirements throughout the supply chain if we expect to preserve the safety and quality levels we've been taking for granted for all these years.