I recently spoke with Ralph Rupert, Director for Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech. If you are not familiar with what a unit load is—I must confess, the term was new to me too—a unit load is “a single item, a number of items, or bulk material which is arranged and restrained so that the load can be stored, picked up, and moved between two locations as a single mass.”
What prompted me to call Ralph was an article I read in Food Logistics where Ralph discussed The Center for Unit Load Design and the research they have conducted on product damage as a result of current distribution practices. The following sentence in particular caught my eye: “… the efficacy of unit load material handling is based on the interactive performance of packaging, pallets, and material handling equipment.”
The concept makes perfect sense, but I was having a hard time visualizing the idea.
Ralph provided me with a few examples. In one case, he conducted some work for a company that manufactures marble sinks. The company would put a sink in a crate and then put strapping around the crate to secure it. But this was not good enough. Many sinks were getting damaged in transit because it would bounce around inside the crate too much. Ralph and his team showed this company how it could put the strapping inside the crate and strap the sink securely to the box so that it would not bounce around.
A different manufacturer packaged its liquid products in pails. The company would place 40 pails on a $10 pallet (this translated into $800 of product on a $10 pallet). According to Ralph, the pails, especially those along the edges of the pallet, were susceptible to point loading (tilting) and vibration, resulting in product damage. If the company had used a $12 pallet instead, with denser slats of uniform thickness, there would have been less vibration, point loading, and damage.
This is a perfect example of where someone in procurement saved a couple of dollars per pallet on their purchase, but cost the company much more than that in damage. And yet, at review time, they probably ended up looking good based on what they had “saved” the company.
In another case, a company had installed a very expensive automatic storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) in a new facility. However, the AS/RS kept jamming. Not surprisingly, the downtime and maintenance was very expensive. The company was using pooled pallets to save money. Unfortunately, the pooled pallets were susceptible to bowing in the middle when loaded with too much weight. This caused the edges to rise slightly. Because the tolerances for the top of the AS/RS slots were too tight, the system kept jamming. The company had to pay for much more expensive pallets, and presumably it had to work hard to ensure the pallets were returned after deliveries were made. In this case, if the facility design team had collaborated better and had thought in terms of Design for Logistics (DfL), this problem would not have occurred.
I asked Ralph if he had ever researched the mixed-SKU pallet problem. I’ve seen some truly ugly mixed-SKU pallets where floor workers seem to think that if enough stretch wrap is used the pallet will somehow hold together. Ralph has seen this too, but the Center has not researched this problem. The one upside of mixed-SKU pallet shipments is that they are usually short-haul movements between a retail DC and a store, for example.
These concepts can also reach further upstream. So, imagine a food company that produces small boxes of dry food. In this case, the interaction of corrugated box with the stretch wrap and palletization processes all needs to be studied. Making the corrugated slightly thicker or thinner, for example, might have unanticipated consequences.
For some suppliers, design for logistics is at the core of their competitive differentiation. A while back, I talked to Larry Gordon, the President of Cold Chain Technologies (CCT), a global provider of thermal packaging solutions and services, particularly for the pharmaceutical industry. Cold Chain Technologies uses a product lifecycle management (PLM) solution from Siemens. CCT was recently hired to design cold chain packaging for 3-day, 5-day, and 8-day deliveries. Larry told me that CCT could not have won this important contract without the Siemens PLM solution, which allowed the company to respond quickly to the Request for Quote.