FedEx Packaging Lab Offers Creative Solutions
China’s presence is expanding rapidly in the package-shipping business, reflecting the country’s export explosion that approaches US$1 trillion annually, up 200 percent in just four years — and its strong double-digit annual domestic growth in packaging. During visits and conversations there with manufacturers and shippers, I found that the Chinese are striving to provide packaging that rivals solutions in fully-developed countries.
But no two packaging solutions are alike. For the Chinese, quality control persists as an issue because of unique problems with their packing materials. On one hand, unlike in the U.S. and elsewhere, a shortage of virgin tree-fiber material from which to make boxes exists in China. Instead, the Chinese must turn to other less durable sources of fiber – including nonwood fibers such as wheat, bamboo and rice straw – that account for nearly 85 percent of the pulp the country produces.3 On the other hand, due to its low cost and ease to make, most Chinese companies use expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam as the main cushion material to protect fragile products. In addition to the impact to the environment, EPS is not suitable to protect many heavy fragile products. However, alternatives to EPS are either cost prohibitive or hard to find.
Most packages must absorb some degree of shock, vibration, compression and other distribution hazards during transportation. These may not appear significant in the first part of the whole distribution cycle when products are bulk transported to the U.S. in sea containers from China. Many issues arise, however, after these shipments of products arrive at U.S. ports and these shipments are broken down and shipped individually or in small quantities through small parcel express or other distribution environments. Each of the above distribution hazards can lead to damage if a container isn’t strong or there isn’t enough cushioning. One simple solution to an inadequate container and insufficient cushioning is to put it inside another larger and stronger box with additional packaging protection. This, of course, adds to packaging and shipping costs.
Packaging Engineers to the Rescue
Enter the packaging engineer. He or she faces engineering challenges all the time to develop protective packaging or distribution packaging that limits shipping damage. The packaging engineer is vital for both shippers and carriers because the economic impact of damaged goods and losses can be significant.
At FedEx Corporation, which delivers millions of packages daily, we offer shippers a unique service to help them deal with unusual packaging dilemmas. It is FedEx Packaging Design and Development, more commonly known as the FedEx Packaging Lab. It is staffed by seven engineers, of which I am a project engineer, and other staff members with expertise in all aspects of packaging from package loss and damage prevention to distribution packaging for computers and electronics, furniture, exercise machines, automotive parts, flowers and seedlings, foods, medicines, medical devices, and many other commodities.
The FedEx Packaging Lab is equipped with state-of-the-art package testing and design equipment and instruments. The equipment is used to provide a variety of standard- and customized- package testing, package design and other packaging engineering services to FedEx internal and external customers. For companies who ship with FedEx, this expertise is free.
In the testing lab, a package goes through its paces, including drop (or incline impact if it is a freight shipment), compression, and vibration tests. Based on testing results, a customer’s packaging gets either a "thumbs up" or the lab provides complete packaging solutions for the customer including packaging recommendations, which could be a simple solution or a new package design.
FedEx doesn’t want a package or box to sustain damage during shipping anymore than the customer does. The lab’s engineers routinely identify root causes of shipping damages and develop 80-to-120 packaging solutions a year, including many unique package designs for specific commodities. For the flower industry, lab engineers developed a package concept that can be adjusted for varying seedling heights, making this an industry standard. For laptop computers, the engineers developed a protective, cushioned, laptop kit that also has become the standard for shipping laptop computers.