You might think that setting up a packing station is no big deal. Just gather up the necessary equipment and supplies—a work table, a bunch of empty cartons, tape, and a pile of labels—and you're good to go.
But that could be a costly mistake, say the experts. By failing to give sufficient thought to the packing process and the design of the station itself, you could set yourself up for a host of problems, including injuries, inflated transportation costs, and money spent on packing materials you don't really need.
Where do companies go wrong when setting up packing stations? What follows is a rundown of some of the most common pitfalls and tips on how to avoid them.
Pitfall #1: Wasting packing materials. When selecting packing material for a given shipment, packers are often left to make their best guesses as to how much they'll need. Yet "guesstimating" can prove costly. If packers don't use enough material, the result could be product damage. But if they use too much, it means unnecessary expense for the company.
Overdoing the dunnage can also put your company's image at risk. "Consumers get really angry when they receive cartons that are mostly filled with packing peanuts, plastic pillows, or paper," notes Steve Martyn, CEO of GRSI Inc., a packing system designer and systems integrator.
This is where an automated dispenser with presets for specific types of products and box sizes can be a lifesaver, says Tara Foote, director of marketing for Ranpak, a manufacturer of dunnage, void filler, and dispensers. "It gives you more control over the amount of material," she says. "You know every time that there will be two feet or four feet of paper going into the box because it is set to dispense that size."
Another way to minimize waste is to choose packaging material that's reusable, says Foote. If there's a mispack or an order is pulled back for some reason, you can simply use the paper, cushion wrap, or packing "peanuts" in another carton.
Pitfall #2: Choosing the wrong cartons. It might sound like a trivial matter, but shipping items in the wrong sized cartons can lead to enormous waste and inefficiency. If the box is too big, the company ends up paying to ship air. If the box is too small, the packer will have to remove the items and repack them, which can slow throughput.
Failure to choose the right carton can cost a high-volume shipper millions of dollars over time, says Martyn. For example, too-large cartons may be assessed dimensional-weight charges by parcel carriers and lead to less-than-optimal trailer and container utilization. And consider this: If an operation shipping 8,000 cartons a day had to fill out every carton with four air pillows at 2.5 cents each, it would spend $800 daily to fill that space. Multiply that by the number of days worked annually, and you're nearing $200,000—money that essentially will be thrown in the trash, Martyn says.
Carton selection errors are more common than you might think. Packers select the wrong box about 25 percent of the time, says Jack Ampuja, president of Supply Chain Optimizers, a consulting firm that specializes in packaging optimization. And the problem isn't limited to operations that offer a large—and confusing—array of package choices. "We see packers struggle to find the right box out of six," says Ampuja.
To avoid these problems, many high-volume packing operations turn to computer-aided carton selection, Ampuja says. When automation is not an option, careful training with regular refreshers is needed.
Pitfall #3. Trying to do too much in too little space. Trying to do multiple tasks in tight quarters may save space, but it creates inefficiencies and interferes with work flow, says Foote. "We have seen operations where ... [packing station operators] build the box, fill it, tape it, label it, verify it, mark it, put promotional materials in it, then ship it out—everything short of picking the order." Yet sometimes there's barely enough room for the packers to move around, she observes.
If space is at a premium, avoid using bulky, static equipment, Foote suggests. "Some pack stations still use manual kraft [paper] on a roll or bubble on a roll—essentially material on a big stick. That takes up a lot of space." Instead, consider choosing equipment that can follow the operator or be pushed out of the way, like dunnage dispensers on swing arms or on movable carts.
It's also important to keep your long-term needs in mind when setting up packing stations. Because companies often end up adding new products or carton sizes as their business grows and changes, Ampuja recommends leaving enough space to add new packing stations or expand existing ones.
Pitfall #4: Staying with manual processes when automation makes sense. These days, you can buy a machine for almost every packing station task: box makers that build a carton around an item, dunnage and void fill dispensers, automatic label printers and applicators, box closers and sealers, and more. How do you decide which packing activities to handle manually, and which to automate? Volume and speed requirements are the main considerations, says Ampuja. "If there isn't enough volume, then the [cost of] the equipment can't be justified," he says.
Complexity also comes into play here. For operations that handle large numbers of products with varied shipping characteristics, machines that swiftly weigh and measure the items and then select the appropriate box may prove well worth the cost.
Another consideration is the likelihood of human error and the potential cost of those mistakes. If your shipments require quality checks at the packing station or you hire temporary workers to handle seasonal volume spikes, then error rates may be unacceptably high. In these situations, automation can reduce variability and boost accuracy and consistency, says Martyn.
If you do use automated equipment, make sure you're getting the most from it by training operators in proper techniques, says Foote. It can be hard to switch from manual to automated processes, and workers often try to continue doing some tasks by hand—a practice that can slow the whole operation down. You may need to convince them to let the machine do the work for them, she says.
(For a case study of one company that benefited from automated packaging systems, see "Koch cranks up the volume" from the November 2008 issue of DC Velocity.)
Pitfall #5. Failing to design the station with the worker in mind. You can't afford to give short shrift to ergonomics, because you'll put your employees at risk of short-term or even permanent injury, Ampuja warns. An ergonomics specialist can help you get things right, but there are common-sense steps you can take on your own.
For example, to reduce the risk of back injuries, make sure the materials in your packing stations are stored at the appropriate height. If your workers have to turn, twist, bend, or reach to get at supplies, consider extending or reconfiguring the packing station. If your packers have to build pallets, try using a scissor lift to raise or lower the pallet so they are always working at the same height.
Rotating packers to different types of work so they're not doing the same repetitive motions every day is helpful, as is providing training on how to avoid repetitive motion injuries, Ampuja says. It's also important to have adequate lighting for workers to read effectively and perhaps a padded floor mat to ease back and leg strain. Consider what the packer does after the box is packed: Does he or she have to carry the box—which may now be at maximum weight—more than a few paces, lift it high, or place it down low? If so, consider using carts or conveyors to move boxes to the shipping area.
One often overlooked aspect of packing station design is the need to accommodate workers of all sizes. It's common to see packing stations that are comfortable for tall men but are physically challenging for their shorter counterparts. "It's important to set it up for the average height of your workers, not for the height of the person who's designing the station," Foote cautions. She encourages companies to adopt "flexibility within reason"—using tables and dispensers that allow packers to adjust heights and angles as needed.
Teach them right
As important as it may be, good packing station design can only go so far toward optimizing operations. The other part of the equation is training packers to do their jobs properly.
As an example of one way to go about it, Ampuja cites the case of a shipper that developed an in-house training film. Project managers interviewed packers at the company's DCs about what worked and what didn't, and developed a script based on their findings. The result was a film starring one of the company's most experienced packers, who talked about what he does and demonstrated "dos and don'ts." The film was used not only to train new hires but also as a refresher course on best practices.
As for what else companies can do to uncover inefficiencies in their packing operations, Ampuja offers this suggestion: "Go out and try to do that job yourself. You'll see where the issues are immediately."
Editor's note: This is a revised version of the article. It includes several paragraphs of information that were added to the original version, which was posted on March 15, 2010.