28 March 2017
Calls for Greater Efficiency and Savings Dominate US Packaging Expo
With the industry under pressure from both the cost and the environmentally concerned, systems offering savings on freight charges, while reducing packaging waste, were the headline acts at the recent Pack Expo International event.
Achieving big savings through minor tweaks was the abiding theme of the recent Pack Expo International event in Chicago. Overall, it was also widely acknowledged that the rise of e-commerce had created even greater demand for courier services, while changes to shipping-cost structures had placed added pressure on retailers to minimise both the size and weight of packaging.
In line with this, several exhibitors had on offer innovations designed to eliminate any waste of time, space, weight or packaging materials. Others, however, focussed more on making the best possible use of existing infrastructure.
While most exhibitors majored on the big cost savings to be gained by making small improvements on large volumes, some at the show were more concerned with improving the efficiency of smaller-scale packaging runs. In part, this was spurred by the recent explosion of craft brewing in the US, as well as the needs of other small-scale, short-run, artisan-led manufacturers.
Perhaps the most impressive example of innovation came courtesy of Utah-based Packsize International, which was showcasing its 'right-sizing' system, designed to meet the needs of any pick-and-pack warehouse required to despatch goods of a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Introducing this latest addition to its range, Brandon Henderson, the company's Director of Professional Services, said: "Basically, what we are showing is on-demand packaging. Our system has the facility to create right-size packages in a matter of seconds – 8-12 on average.
"It can also be fully integrated with a CubiScan 225 machine, which measures the length, width and height of everything that goes through it, then communicates those dimensions to the pack-size machine. We use a cubing algorithm that makes the most efficient possible square box for any items that have been scanned.
"The product is then placed into the box and forwarded to our Pack Link system. We have also teamed up with Storopack [a specialist German supplier of packaging materials] to create the world's first rightsize void-fill.
"The Pack Link system can automatically choose how much void-fill to put in the box, based on the product dimensions supplied by the CubiScan and the box dimensions, as determined by the pack-size machine. Overall, you could expect to save roughly 20% on your corrugate spend, 50% on your void-fill and between 5% and 40% on your shipping costs."
Of late, rightsizing packaging has become a crucial issue for the industry, especially for the many e-commerce retailers reliant on pick-and-pack despatch warehouses. In light of this, a number of major package-delivery companies, including FedEx and UPS, have introduced a billing structure based on a combination of a package's size and weight – the so-called DIM Factor – as a means of deterring companies from shipping half-filled boxes.
Perhaps a trifle unusually, Packsize is so confident in its system that it is literally giving its equipment away. Explaining the wisdom of this particular tactic, Henderson said: "We give the machine to our customers for free – and it's worth more than US$300,000. There is a catch, though – you have to buy all of the corrugated fibreboard from us.
"While the cardboard cost may be a little bit more per square foot, if you have a smaller box you use less corrugate, so your total spend goes down. On average, we are saving our customers somewhere between 40% to 60% on void-fill spend."
Texas-based Tops Software Corporation, meanwhile, was focussing more on matching shipping boxes to contents, albeit on a rather large scale. Outlining the company's thinking, Reet Randhawa, its Director of Engineering, said: "What we offer is shipping optimisation software designed for use when loading mid-size products into a truck or a container. With the majority of our systems, users are inputting the data manually, but it is fully-integrated solutions that are now the growth area.
"When they come to us, most customers are looking for accuracy, whether with regard to packaging design or order fulfilment. Typically, they are using a home-grown system, which provides a rough estimate, but fails to deliver true 3-D optimisation. In our experience, customers that use our system can save between 3% to 15% on their annual shipping costs."
Although the software will most obviously benefit high-throughput customers, Randhawa believes that even small-volume shippers could make use of the system, saying: "We have a wide variety of huge customers – from Procter & Gamble to Toyota and Home Depot – as well as many far smaller customers. We have customers who only dispatch one container a month, as well as those who are shipping 12,000 containers year."
While Tops Software is focussing on saving space in-between pallets and other large units, another company – Ohio-based Primary Packaging – is looking more at reducing wasted space within any given pallet. Explaining his company's innovative approach, Northeast Regional Manager Duff Long said: "This is probably the most unique package on show here today. It's called the ConservaCube and it offers a number of benefits when it comes to shipping and packaging retail products.
"First of all, it's a perfect cube, so you don't waste any space, as you might with cans, buckets or bales. It doesn't need a box to support it, as it is quite capable of supporting itself. In fact, it can support up to three tonnes and the bottom bag won't break or deform."
In essence, the system works by channelling dry product into a series of internal vertical column dividers. When filled in the correct order, these then give the pack its rigidity.
Clearly convinced that the system is poised make more wasteful alternatives redundant, Long said: "This form of packaging is an absolute shoo-in to replace pails. Pails use 90% more plastic than our bags for the same amount of product. Our system can get up to 50% more on a pallet as there is no air between the packs. Obviously, this would then reduce your freight costs."
Of course, reducing costs wasn't the only issue addressed at the event, with many exhibitors also keen to promote their new consumer-facing graphics and labelling systems. Looking to take a lead in this particular sector was Ohio-based Century Label.
Having noted a particular shift in consumer demand of late, Joe Kay, the company's Key Account Manager, said: "We are now seeing an unbelievable growth in shrink sleeves. Everyone wants a shrink sleeve rather than a pressure-sensitive label. I believe this is largely down to the growth in 360° advertising [the process of maintaining brand visibility on every possible occasion]."
Part of the reason for the recent rise in demand for shrinkwrap has been the surge in the popularity of craft beer across the US. As a consequence, numerous small-volume brewers have opened across the country, often producing short-run seasonal beers.
Maintaining that this has created an opportunity for companies such as Century, Kay said: "A lot of breweries are canning now and putting a pressure-sensitive label on a can is just ugly. With seasonal beers typically produced in small runs, they don't meet the minimum required by the bigger beverage can producers and that's where we can come in.
"We can help a brewery producer package 10,000-15,000 cans of seasonal beer with a shrink sleeve. It is a big market for us, with a lot of people preferring a can over a bottle."
An innovative packaging system created by Oskar Blues, a Colorado-based craft brewery, proved to be another sign of the growing impact of the sector. Explaining the USP of its particular system, Jason Dan, the company's Big Can Handler, said: "What we provide is an alternative to the glass growler [a jug used to hold beer for take-out purposes]. When you decide – after a few pints – that you really like a particular beer, you can get a big can to go. You purge the can with CO2, fill it directly from the bar tap, seal it and then you are good to go.
"The machine itself costs $3,900, the cans are 43 cents each and it's 16.3 cents for a lid. For decorative purposes, we supply self-applied labels. Our goal is to make the system available anywhere that sells craft beer to go – grocery stores, bars, restaurants, breweries, even gas stations. We only launched at the end of 2014, but we've already sold more than 900 systems."
Pack Expo International 2016 was held at Chicago's McCormick Place exhibition complex from 6-9 November. The show featured more than 2,500 exhibitors and attracted 45,000 visitors.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Chicago