3 Ways to Optimize Packaging to Protect Your Products A look at how to best protect your products so they arrive at your customer's door intact, without going overboard and wasting money and materials.

By Jane Porter

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Packaging your product so it arrives at your customer's door intact is clearly critical. But it can be tricky to figure out exactly how much packaging you need without going overboard and wasting money and materials.

"You want to get the best protection for the least amount of expenditure," says Sterling Anthony a packaging and logistics consultant based in Detroit. "Packaging is a very inexpensive type of insurance. … It's a very worthwhile investment."

Here are three advances in packaging that can help protect your products and save you money:

1. Software to guide packaging choices. Determining the optimal combination of box size and packaging material doesn't have to be a game of trial and error. Software, such as Cape Systems and TOPS Pro, can help you figure out the most cost-efficient packaging design, says Gregory Batt, who specializes in protective packaging in Clemson University's department of food, nutrition and packaging sciences. While such software programs aren't new, recent advances have enabled them to handle products with odd sizes and shapes or mixed pallet loads of different product sizes with greater accuracy, he says.

This software is particularly useful for businesses selling products of multiple sizes and weights. For example, you could choose either a variety of custom-sized packages or a one-size-fits-all box, which would contain material called "void fill," used to keep a product from sliding around in its box. Packaging software uses various metrics to figure out which box sizing options let you spend the least for the maximum protection, Anthony says.

For a small business, this kind of software could run about $1,000, depending on what features you want, according to Brad Leonard, CEO of Cape Systems. If you can't afford such an investment, Anthony recommends reaching out to one of the universities with top-ranked packaging programs, including Clemson, Michigan State University or Rochester Institute of Technology, which use this software as part of their curriculum and work with real-world companies seeking packaging advice. "They are waiting for small companies to come knocking on the door," Anthony says. At Clemson, companies often ask Batt if they can get involved with the packaging program's senior capstone project. "It essentially costs the company nothing in dollars other than some time on the phone," he says.

2. New types of protective materials. Companies can investigate some of the new ways to keep products from sliding around inside of boxes during shipment, says Edward Church, president of the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA), an East Lansing, Mich.-based organization that develops package protection-related testing. "Most of the advances in materials lately are around void fill," offering alternatives to traditional cushioning materials like Styrofoam and bubble wrap, he says.

New materials include blends of various polymers that are more effective at absorbing shock than single-blend polymers, Batt says. For example, a product called Arcel is made by blending polystyrene and polyethylene to create a foam with more shock absorption capabilities than traditional Styrofoam made of polystyrene. Another new blended material used in cushioning is E-por, which is crack resistant and more elastic than traditional foams.

Other void fill advances involve new methods of encapsulating air to provide cushioning for products, taking the idea of bubble wrap to a new level. For example, the company Pregis sells ChamberPak, inflated air tubes that come in a range of sizes to protect electronics during shipment. There's also the $995 AIRmove Bubble Packing Machine, which lets you create air cushions on demand with a hand-operated device that pumps and seals air into a roll of film. According to the trade publication Packaging World, one roll of AIRmove film produces the equivalent of eight rolls of bubble wrap, cutting costs over time and saving on storage space.

3. More precise pre-shipment testing. Pre-shipment testing simulates hazards your packages might encounter during transport, helping to minimize the risk of damage. In the last few years, tools to detect and simulate potential hazards have become more precise, Church says.

ISTA has developed 23 packaging protection tests that simulate how dropping, compression, vibration and changes in temperature and humidity affect different packaged products. Various packaging options are tested to figure out which will best protect your product.

Small businesses can look on ISTA.org to find out which of the 400 certified testing labs is closest to them. Depending on the level of testing you want, the service might cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, Church says. While this might sound like a hefty upfront investment, damaged products could cost you far more.

Jane Porter

Writer and editor

Jane Porter is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. You can find more of her work at Janeroseporter.com

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