In today’s ecommerce-driven supply chain, packaging has implications in both form and function.
Functionally, packaging’s role is pretty obvious: boxes and shipping materials serve as protection against damage. If the right pack type is selected, goods will be able to withstand bumps in the warehouse and in transport.
When it comes to form, the right—or wrong—packaging impacts a company’s brand reputation. First impressions are lasting, and the box your goods arrive in acts as an extension of your brand. Trying to establish yourself as a high-end company that values great design? A plain brown box isn’t a great way to meet this goal.
Moreover, with the popularity of unboxing videos—where people post videos of them opening their packages—great pack type selection can serve as additional marketing for your brand.
But, choosing the right pack type goes beyond protecting your goods or delighting your customers. It’s also important at an operational level because it influences operating costs both inside and outside the warehouse.
Clearly, packaging isn’t as straightforward as piling a few corrugated boxes in the corner of your warehouse. It impacts your marketing efforts, operational efficiency, and bottom line, so it’s worth taking a look at the big picture.
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What is Pack Type Selection?
“Pack type selection” refers to how you choose packaging, usually using specifications like a product’s weight, size, and special requirements like temperature control. It could also depend on how far an item travels. If it’s going quite a distance, there’s a higher chance of bumps and falls and more durable packaging may be needed to protect the product.
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How Does Pack Type Selection Impact The Putaway Process?
Putaway is one of the most important processes in a warehouse. An efficient directed putaway process means received goods leave the staging area faster. Items also get to customers faster because pickers can easily find goods rather than sifting through a disorganized stack of boxes at the staging area. Moreover, the risk of theft is minimized because goods are quickly entered into inventory.
That said, there’s a risk of damage during the putaway process, especially if you move items around using forklifts since items can fall off while they’re being put away (and later during the picking process, too).
To avoid this, choose packaging that sits properly on your pallets. Conduct testing to find the ideal number of packages to store on your pallets.
Pile too many on a pallet and you risk your products falling off and sustaining damage. Pack too few on a pallet and you’ll raise your operating costs by taking more trips than necessary to put items away.
Key Takeaway: Choosing durable packaging and finding the right number of boxes for each pallet prevents damage and makes your putaway process efficient.
How Does Pack Type Selection Impact The Picking and Packing Processes?
Pack type selection is very important during the picking and packing process.
Generally, the packing process consists of these steps:
- A warehouse picker hands goods to a packer or to the packing station
- The packer selects a box, places the goods inside, and adds protective materials
- The packer secures the box
- The packer adds an invoice
- The packer adds a shipping label
- The packer sends the package to the designated outbound logistics section of the warehouse
Oftentimes, the packing section is the source of all kinds of confusion and pain points. For example:
- Your packers receive a disorganized mess of labels and orders and must match them to products
- Packers receive incomplete orders and must alert warehouse pickers to find the missing items
- Orders with incomplete information (e.g., incomplete shipping address) require packers to contact customer service to get the missing details
In disorganized packing environments, packers spend more time problem solving than packing! And, while you want employees with problem-solving skills, your packing process calls for efficiency, so there should be a standardized process.
There’s one important element of the packing process that is often overlooked because it’s faster to simply do the incorrect thing: pack type selection.
Choosing the right package is critical, but it takes time.
When you’re constantly calling customer service to find the right address or sending orders back to pickers, protecting the bottom line is the last thing on your workers’ minds. At best, they’ll choose a box big enough for a given item - even if it’s way too big.
But these quick choices add up. You may save time in the short term, but you’re losing a lot of money in the long term. Large boxes are expensive to buy. They’re also expensive to ship, especially due to dimensional pricing. In the past, carriers priced on weight, but they’ve since realized that large boxes, even when light, take up space in their trucks. So they now use what’s called dimensional weight pricing.
So, if you’re using a massive box for a tiny item, you’re paying for the cost of filling up the entire package. It’s easy to see this is not a smart strategy.
And, here’s the thing: Even if you have the most incredibly thoughtful warehouse packers, it would be highly inefficient for them to stand around assessing how many items they can pack into a box.
So, how can companies optimize pack type selection at the packing stage?
Use a WMS with Packing Algorithms and 3D Visualization Software for Effective Pack Type Selection
Bin packing algorithms are a notoriously thorny problem that mathematicians have been trying to solve for ages. The bin packing problem and the knapsack problem - two problems with exciting applications in supply chain management if ever solved - are types of P versus NP problems. This is one of the grand unsolved computer science problems that carries a $1 million prize for the person who solves it. (In reality, the greater prize would be commercializing the solution and creating an awesome pack type selection software, but we digress!)
Why do we mention all of this? Because most bin packing solutions on the market use 3D visualization software to help warehouse workers see exactly how to pack items of varying dimensions into a box properly. So, when you see a solution touting a bin packing algorithm, it’s likely a very sophisticated form of bin packing visualization.
A warehouse management system (WMS) with an integrated bin packing visualization tool can automate your pack type selection process. Here’s how it works: Workers at the packing station view a monitor that tells them exactly which size of box to use, how to pack different items, and with which packaging materials, all the way down to the amount of packing peanuts or bubble wrap to scoop up.
In essence, all of the thinking is done by the algorithm and the worker simply follows the instructions, which come in the form of 3D visuals.
Organize Packing Materials and Store Them in an Accessible Location
Boost efficiency by store your boxes, packaging materials, and any promotional items like brochures on shelves near your packing station.
Frequently used materials should be located on the closest shelf while infrequently used items can be placed on higher or lower shelves. Eventually, you want your packers to locate materials without thinking about it.
Improve the Pick Selection Process with Packing Automation Systems
A packaging automation system brings together a number of automated tasks into one seamless end-to-end process. You can choose either out-of-the-box automated packing tools, based on your needs and budget, or work with a provider to come up with a customized, integrated solution. All automated packing tools are run by a warehouse control system (WCS).
These software-controlled machines ensure that specific requirements are met before a package leaves the door. For example, the automated packing system will confirm that a package’s label matches the original order information.
Once you’ve implemented cartonization techniques, there are a number of different packaging automation tools you can deploy to continue optimizing your processes.
Case or carton erector
A case/carton erector automatically forms corrugated cardboard boxes that arrive folded. It eliminates the need for workers to build boxes and allows them to focus on packing instead.
Carton identification machinery
Once boxes are formed, a carton identification tool labels the boxes. This ensures accuracy as the carton travels downstream by making it easy to verify that the correct items are packed and the correct shipping label is affixed.
Automated packing stations
At these stations, a package’s barcode identification is scanned. The scanners then scan the item placed into the package to ensure there’s a match.
This type of system captures real-time information related to carriers and customers, creates a label, and applies it to fast-moving packages. The types of labels that are affixed can also be customized, depending on specific business needs.
There are different types of sealers depending on how you want to present your packages to customers. Some companies prefer glue while others prefer tape.
Conveyors are one of the first systems warehouse managers implement when introducing automation to their warehouse. It can be a useful component of an automated packing process.
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How To Choose The Best Packaging Materials
Determine Your Budget
Before you start exploring packaging options, you need to understand your budget. There’s no point comparing several options that are outside of your price range. If you pick unaffordable materials, you may save money by preventing product damage, but you’ll lose much more on obscene packaging costs.
When you’re assessing your budget, be sure to specify whether this is your budget for materials only or for your overall packing process. If it’s for the overall packing process, you may want to include line items for the design and production of customized materials, as well as the labor costs of manning the packing station.
Another good approach is to create different categories within your packaging budget. If you’re packaging a wide range of goods, with varying shapes and degrees of fragility, allocate your materials budget accordingly. For instance, if you’re packing goods with sharp edges, you’ll need foam to prevent piercing the box. If you’re shipping delicate items, you’ll need extra stuffing materials.
This differentiation in packaging budget also applies to the production value (i.e., how expensive and fancy something looks) of your packaging products. For instance, if you’re shipping something with a long shelf life, you want the packaging to stay fresh and impressive no matter when it’s placed on store shelves. For products like this, it may be worth paying for pricier finishes.
On the other hand, products that are quickly consumed will have their packaging disposed of almost instantly. It’s still important to customize these, but you won’t need to invest in a superior finish.
Consider the Wide Variety of Packing Materials - But Don’t Go Wild
Finding different sizes of corrugated cardboard boxes isn’t enough. You’ll still need to find protective materials. Once you’ve chosen your material and entered it into your WMS, your pack type selection software can help your workers quickly determine how much paper or how many packing peanuts your packages need.
- Paper: It’s an eco-friendly option that helps you stay in line with your warehouse’s efforts to be an environmentally friendly and sustainable business.
- Air cushion packages: These are incredibly cost effective since you can inflate them with only the amount of air you need for each type of package.
- Packing peanuts (or foam peanuts): The packing industry has been using this protective packaging material for decade. And that makes sense because it’s cheap and relatively effective. That said, these styrofoam products have come under increased scrutiny for their negative impact on the environment and public health.
- Padded dividers: If you routinely ship groups of products, perhaps because your customers buy a number of compatible products, padded dividers are a great way to ship multiple items into the same box, which saves packaging costs and gets goods to the customer sooner. Your WMS’s pack type selection algorithm will help workers organize multi-product boxes efficiently.
- Bubble bags: These are great for easy protection and packaging. Since it takes a lot of energy to pop all the bubbles in a bubble bag, it’s difficult for items to be damaged. Moreover, bubble bags have adhesive flaps that make fast packaging easy.
You don’t need all packaging materials - the type you choose typically depends on the type of products you ship. For instance, packing peanuts are best for easily breakable items like glass and metal while bubble bags are great for books and jewelry.
Effective Pack Type Selection Can Automate and Optimize Your Packing Process
Choosing the right packaging in a timely manner has implications on all areas of your warehouse business, from damage reduction to shipping costs. Automating the pack type selection process for your employees using a sophisticated warehouse management system and warehouse control system introduces accuracy, speed, and cost savings to your business.
Written by Ruthie Bowles
Ruthie is a content marketing consultant for Logiwa. Her specialties include small business development and inventory management.