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Look in Customer's Box And Check Out Dunnage
Review of dunnage options available on the market.

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 2/1/2001

In order to protect yourself against possible claims, and maybe even to explore the possibility of cross-selling opportunities, it may pay you to understand more about the customer’s unit load packaging and handling environment. One part of that exercise is to look inside the customer’s box and check out the dunnage.

Dunnage is the packaging material that goes in a box to protect a product from shock and vibration. It may take the form of void fill material, such as foam peanuts or expanded sheet filler, or blocks and braces.

Dunnage traditionally has been expendable, but in recent years reusable dunnage systems have become more popular. They have gained popularity in conjunction with the increased use of reusable packaging systems and have spawned some growth of third-party management opportunities. Types of material commonly used in reusable dunnage include foam of various kinds, corrugated plastic pads, plastic sheeting and forming, and formed metal parts. Expendable dunnage systems also continue to evolve, filling a growing demand for more cost-effective and more environmentally-friendly solutions.

Reusable dunnage has become popular in automotive and is now spreading to many other high-volume assembly applications, such as electrical appliances and power equipment. Some large household appliance manufacturers reportedly are in the early stage of adapting. They are looking at some of the value-added opportunities for reusable dunnage.

The initial impact of reusable dunnage was to reduce solid waste build-up at the assembly line. As the reusable concept has evolved, however, other value-added opportunities have risen to the forefront, such as better presentation of parts to workers or robots. These have the potential to improve housekeeping and ergonomics and facilitate automation.

One technique to improve assembly line housekeeping and ergonomics is kitting. Kitting often utilizes formed trays to hold all the parts of a particular assembly, eliminating the need for the assembler to work from different containers at the same time. Kits are designed to present parts in sequence. They start from the outside and work toward the middle for ease of access to parts. A part left over in the kit is a quick signal to the worker that it may have been left out of the assembly.

Another trend is contracting for sub-assembly operations. This is a predictable result of assembly plants attempting to simplify their operations and out-source more labor. However, sub-assemblies can require larger trays or racks to facilitate efficient, damage-free handling. With sub-assemblies, packaging needs are going to change, and dunnage will become much more complex, according to Joe Banfield of Creative Techniques.

Don Larson of MATCON warns that when it comes to the management of reusable dunnage, material handlers must be trained to put the dunnage back into the right box. Identification of dunnage can be an issue for container management as can dunnage washing.

In the expendable dunnage area, paper-based dunnage suppliers, such as Ranpak and Geami, are growing in popularity for a number of reasons, according to Armando De Andrade, Geami president. E-commerce has had an impact. "They have to get things to consumers in a parcel distribution environment in ‘eaches.’ So it is important to look for products that provide cube reduction of the package as this affects the rate that consumers pay."

Some shippers tend toward standardized box sizes and loose fill packing, especially if shipping a range of products. This may result in wasted excess materials. A greater range of container sizes and better cushioning products provide the opportunity for cube reduction but must be balanced against the complexity of managing too many sizes. It is often a good idea to stock the sizes needed most often.

Another consideration is the importance of appearance. Loose fill material, such as foam peanuts, can create a mess when the package is opened. On the other hand, products such as expanded paper, bubble wrap and air bags typically can be disposed of or recycled much more conveniently. Biodegradable or easily recyclable packaging are being increasingly sought by some customers. Another biodegradable product on the market that has enjoyed popularity for this reason is biostarch peanuts. Popular sealed air bags and bubble wrap offer light-weight, recyclable packaging that can reduce cube and weight relative to loose fill.

In-line dunnage systems can help to save space and labor and eliminate packing station bottlenecks in busy fulfillment centers. Sealed Air Corporation, Pactiv, and other companies manufacture variations of air bags from polyethylene roll stock right at the packing station. An important advantage of inflated dunnage is the postponement of its expansion until the point of use, which translates into savings for inbound logistics and storage as well as space used in the packing area.

Of course, it is worth reminding readers about research by Virginia Tech that showed a small extra investment in pallet quality can reduce vibration and be more cost-effective than compensating dunnage where there is no subsequent trauma to the package.

Take a second look at the customer’s box. There may be opportunities there to better understand and better serve the customer’s needs — and your own, in the process.








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