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Single Parcel Distribution Test Design for E-Commerce

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a major boost to e-commerce, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting a 45% year-over-year increase from the second quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020. For brands experiencing a significant increase in e-commerce sales or embracing e-commerce for the first time, designing packaging to hold up under the conditions a single parcel may face in shipping can be a challenge. Products that are damaged during shipping are costly to your brand’s reputation and can ruin your relationship with customers.

Testing your packaging to ensure it can protect the product at all points along its journey from your packaging line to its final destination is integral to the process and to your brand. While the process can be daunting, there are two main things you need to understand before you get started: the distribution environment your product and its packaging will encounter during shipping and the available testing standards that simulate how your package will perform in that environment.

Know Your Distribution Environment

Distribution environments can be complicated. Depending on the product, a package may encounter a wide variety of conditions between packaging and arrival at its final destination. These conditions can be broken down into two main categories, ambient conditions and handling conditions.

Ambient Conditions

Ambient conditions can vary wildly depending on the distance your package will travel and the geographic location(s) it will travel through. Factors to consider include the humidity it will experience, the range in temperatures it will face and how much exposure it will have to elements such as sun light and, potentially, precipitation. Some products may even need to remain refrigerated or frozen during shipping to preserve quality.

Handling Conditions

Handling conditions have a similarly broad range and depend on whether your packaging will ship via rail, truck, air or some combination of the three. While we’re primarily focusing on products that will ship as single parcels, there may be portions of their journey where they travel as part of a unitized load. Packaging decisions can also vary depending on whether a package is primarily hand-carried or if it will be lifted with a crane or forklift. At times, other packages may be stacked on top of it, meaning the package will need to support additional weight without being crushed.

Insights from Technology

While an expert can make a fairly accurate projection about the conditions a package will face in the distribution environment, there are ways to take some of the guesswork out of the process. Several companies make small, disposable sensors that can be placed in test packages and shipped through the normal distribution channels to capture a variety of information about shock, temperature and sunlight, along with location and time, to provide an opportunity for real-time data analysis.

Know Your Testing Standards

There are two main bodies that issue widely accepted single parcel test standards. ASTM is one of the world’s largest international organizations that develops standards. It is comprised of a large group of experts who develop and democratically approve those standards. The other organization, ISTA is a private industry association with standards generated by its board of directors. While the standards developed by both organizations are valuable, ASTM standards are more widely accepted than ISTA standards. For food and beverage brands, for example, the FDA recognizes more than 400 ASTM standards, but recognizes only the ISTA 3A, 3B and 3E series.

These organizations have developed hundreds of standards that cover the wide variety of options for packaging sizes, shapes and materials. It would be impossible to summarize all of them here, but an example that compares a few of the available standards is helpful in illustrating the relationship between knowing your distribution environment and knowing what options are available for testing.  The table below lays out the steps in three testing standards that can be applied to double-walled carton that is 1.8 cubic feet in size and weighs 5 lbs.

Testing Standards Example
StepISTA 3A SeriesASTM D4169 DC 13 AL IIASTM D7386
1Precondition to ambient for 12 hoursCondition to adjusted settings from standard of 73.4 +/- 2°F (23 +/- 1°C) and 50% +/- 2% for 72 hoursCondition to adjusted settings from standard of 73.4 +/- 2°F (23 +/- 1°C) and 50% +/- 2% for 24 hours
2Condition to determined temperature and humidity “Controlled” conditions will use 73°F and 50% humidity for 72 hoursHandling – Six drops from 15”Handling – Four drops from 18” and two drops from 20”
3Shock – Eight drops from 18” plus one drop from 36”Vehicle Stacking – Apply and release 278lbsVibration under Compressive Load – Bottom face for 60 minutes and side face for 30 minutes
4Vibration – Random with overall Grms level of .46Grms and with 105lbs topload for total of 120 minutesLoose Load Vibration – Fixed Displacement for 30 minutesHigh Altitude (optional)
5Vibration – Random with overall Grms level of .46Grms for total of 30 minutesLow pressure (optional)Handling – Two drops from 20” and four drops from 18”
6Shock – Seven drops from 18” plus one drop from 36”Vehicle Vibration – Random60min with overall Grms level of 0.54120 min with overall Grms level of 1.05Vibration – Bottom face for 30 minutes and side face for 30 minutes
7n/aHandling – Five drops from 15” plus one drop from 30”Handling – Two drops from 14”, three from 20” and one from 32”
8n/an/aConcentrated Impact – Drop height 36”

The details included for each step are instructive in deciding which standard best applies to your package and its distribution environment. Differences include the temperatures the packages are exposed to during testing, drop heights, the amount of compression force applied to the package, and other factors. ISTA 3A requires dropping the package from a height of 18 inches

seven times and a height of 36 inches once, while ASTM D4169 DC 13 AL II calls for five drops from 15 inches and one from 30 inches. A thorough understand of your package’s shipping environment will help you decide which of those standards best simulates the conditions your package is likely to encounter.

Get Help from the Experts

The wide variety of conditions a package may encounter in its distribution environment and the long list of available testing standards from ASTM and ISTA can make designing distribution tests for single parcels a daunting task, but a knowledgeable packaging engineer with experience designing and testing packages for e-commerce distribution can help you guide you through the process.

For more information in single parcel testing, you can watch our recent Learning Share webinar on the topic or download our white paper, which focuses on single parcel testing for medical devices.

If you need help developing new packaging or updating your existing packaging to better withstand the e-commerce distribution environment, get in touch. Our team has led this process for some of the most iconic brands in the food, beverage, CPG and life sciences industries.

Designing Packaging for Distribution

3 Crucial Considerations for Designing a Packaging Strategy for Distribution

Determining what will happen to packages during distribution is a complex task requiring a variety of skills and experience. A trial-and-error approach is never optimal so it is important to evaluate all possible variables that may negatively impact a packaging strategy and develop a process-driven methodology to avoid rework and expensive mistakes.

This article offers an overview of three crucial factors often overlooked when designing a packaging strategy for distribution.

Understanding Your Distribution Environment

Mapping the logistics network from the manufacturer to the point of sales and all points of contact in between should be the first step of packaging design for distribution.

Three important factors are often analyzed too superficially:

Reconsider Product Design

Experience shows that distribution damages are drastically reduced if packaging engineers are involved early in the design of a product. If a product is damaged during either testing or a real shipment, packaging is the first thing engineers usually look to improve. A new material, improved dunnage, or a different container are all tempting options to try to solve the problem quickly. However, a distribution failure can also reveal a weakness in product design. For example, if a corner is too sharp or the selected material does not offer sufficient resistance to fatigue.

Offsetting such structural weaknesses by changing the packaging strategy may come at a high cost and it could be cheaper to start over and re-design the product, especially in the long term.

Product designers and packaging engineers should work together rather than in silos.

Do Not Underestimate Environmental Factors

Compression, vibration, and shock are the most observed factors in packaging distribution testing. While these are surely aspects to be taken into consideration, the environment is often a silent killer.

For example, the stacking strength of a corrugated box can be reduced by as much as 20% if the relative humidity goes from 0% (dry) to 50%. Similar results apply for fatigue and other structural properties. Heat can increase ductility in polymers or increase the viscosity of water-based inks, causing smearing of the artwork.

If transportation happens across different climate zones, taking environment into consideration is a must for a solid distribution strategy.

Think Ahead when Selecting Primary Packages

There is usually a bias toward primary packaging when allocating investments on a packaging strategy for a given product. The reason is simple: the primary package is seen as way to deliver a brand’s value proposition. In contrast, secondary/tertiary packaging are perceived as pure means of transportation with little value for consumers. This approach can lead to critical distribution failures.

A primary package designed to go into a specific RFC may not fit well into a different corrugated box or a shrink bundle. Structural integrity, dunnage and headspace are all variables that may play a role and are difficult or expensive to adapt on-the-go.

Thinking about all levels of the packaging hierarchy up front makes packaging design more efficient as well as cost-effective.

Scalability Considerations

In addition to selecting a package that is robust enough to protect the product throughout the distribution environment, one factor that often gets overlooked during package design is scalability.

Though an effective packaging strategy should work given the current outlook of a business (existing volumes, clients, distribution channels etc.), it is also important to take future scenarios into consideration.

Is the business projected to grow sharply in the next five years? Is it expanding to new geographic areas around the globe? Will other products or handling technologies be added to the current portfolio? These are all important questions to ask at the beginning of the design phase to avoid the pitfalls of a short-sighted packaging strategy.

Here are few examples:

  • An increase in volume of product shipped may lead to the necessity of stacking products with an additional layer in the warehouse. This may ultimately lead to static compression failures if not adequately planned for.
  • Shifting from LTL to FTL may require a different unitization strategy (e.g. stacking more boxes per pallet requires more robust shrink wrap).
  • Adding a new client from a tropical country can lead to distribution failures from humidity and heat, as described earlier.

If a business is planning to expand in the next five years, now is the most convenient time to take corrective actions and avoid costly packaging strategy changes along the way.

Involve Customers and Carriers Early

Testing is an effective way of predicting the performance of packaging in its distribution environment. Amazon, for example, has developed its own testing methodology and technology to drastically reduce damages due to transportation. Amazon suggests that its packaging selector reduced product damage rates by a staggering 24%.

While this technology is proprietary to Amazon, the methodology behind it is something other companies can learn from. Unless products are shipped through a heavily regulated channel, a solid testing strategy should be developed by the packaging design team. Even if your testing is based on standards developed by organizations like ISTA, it is important to involve customers and carriers early in the design process.

The key factor that businesses tend to miss is that testing is done in a lab, while products are shipped in the real world. How roughly will the product be handled by humans? What is the maximum temperature that will be reached inside a container? What is the vibration profile that most accurately mirrors the one of a specific distribution mode? While the packaging design team can surely answer these questions with estimated values, the feedback from customers and carriers is a crucial step that will help you avoid costly mistakes.

Moreover, retrieving real world information on distribution channels can be made automatic with supply chain visibility tools. This technology uses sensors to monitor packages during transportation by collecting real time data such as temperature, humidity, shock, light and location. This provides packaging engineers with accurate data on which they can build a successful distribution strategy.

To summarize, it is important that the packaging design team leaves the lab often to get a firsthand view of what happens to the packages at all touchpoints along the supply chain. They’re likely to discover surprises that lab testing won’t reveal.

Conclusion

It is always difficult to predict what will happen to packages as they move through the supply chain and experience increased hazards. Incorporating these three concepts early in the design of a distribution strategy is a simple but effective way to avoid unwanted and expensive blunders.

In order to ensure your package will arrive at its destination intact, leverage experts who have knowledge of regulatory standards, package validation and distribution qualification to avoid wasting critical time or experiencing expensive pitfalls.

If you need assistance with developing packaging for your distribution environment, our engineers have extensive experience and are ready to help. Contact Us.

If you need more in-depth information about developing packaging for distribution, check out our resource library, which includes a variety of infographics and white papers that offer valuable information on the topic.