03/10/05 SPECIAL PROJECTS EDITOR CONTAINERS (BY DAVID MALONEY)
just one word: plastic
The cardboard box may be the traditional way to store and transport items. But that doesn't mean it's the best way.
equipment&applications WHEN SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE MOVED or stored in or around the DC, most people grab a box—a corrugated carton. A mainstay of shipping operations everywhere, the familiar six-sided carton can be used for an endless variety of applications. But it's not necessarily the best choice. For all its virtues, the corrugated cardboard box has drawbacks too: it's an easy target for thieves, it's easily pierced or crushed, it's prone to snagging when used in automated handling operations, it requires disposal after use. That's why more and more operations are bypassing cardboard for an alternative that has none of these shortcomings: the returnable plastic container.
It's not hard to understand why returnables are making headway in the container market. Most commonly made of plastic (though they can be made of wood or metal), returnable containers trump cardboard in a number of ways, their advocates say: They reduce purchasing and disposal costs. They offer a higher level of security. They offer better ergonomics. And they do a better job of cubing out space.
Better still, they're versatile. Returnables come in designs and sizes to fit just about any application. Large bulk containers, for example, can be used for transporting large items (or a multitude of small items) or for storing products in racks. They're typically designed with fork entries to allow easy transport via lift trucks or pallet jacks. And many times these containers offer hinged side doors that, when lowered, allow easy access to the items inside. Many bulk containers also come with collapsible sidewalls so that they can be easily stored or transported when empty.
Smaller containers are typically designed so that when placed side by side, they match the footprint of a standard 40- by 48-inch pallet. They offer a wide range of stacking configurations, and most are designed with top and bottom grooves to facilitate stacking into solid cubes that can max out available space in storage racks or on trucks. Top covers—and sometimes straps—hold the load together during transit for a secure ride.
Safe and secure
Returnables easily outperform their corrugated counterparts when it comes to product protection, according to plastic container manufacturers. Most returnable containers used for shipping offer hinged lids to help protect the products placed inside. Typically, they're also designed to accommodate security cable ties that loop through the lid and a hole in the container's sidewall. This locks the lid in place and discourages theft of the contents. A broken tie provides an easy method of identifying containers that may have been breached. And because they are made of sturdy plastic, which resists piercing or crumpling, these containers also tend to protect products better than corrugated cartons can.
Most returnable containers are also designed to stack one on top of another to save floor space. Turn one container 180 degrees in the opposite direction and it can be inserted into the empty tote below it for dense stacking. This "nesting" feature allows a large number of empty totes to occupy a small space in storage racks or for transit back to the facility.
Because plastic containers come in uniform sizes, they're ideal for use with automated material handling systems. They're also the container of choice for automated mini-load systems and carousels because, unlike corrugated cartons, they have no rough edges that can snag when used in automated systems. Further, they can be easily transported on conveyors and sorting systems.
Plastic containers are also designed to work well with the latest in inventory control technology. Most are designed with special areas on their outside panels to accommodate bar-code labels and RFID tags. These areas are recessed so that conveyors or other material handling equipment will not tear the tags as they move through the distribution operations.
Easy on the back
Plastic returnable containers also offer ergonomic advantages over cardboard cartons, according to plastic crate manufacturers. Easy-to-grip handles on the plastic containers' ends make them much easier to lift and move than corrugated cartons. And their uniform size helps ensure that loads don't exceed weight limits. Many companies will designate specific sizes of containers for certain classes of products, knowing exactly how many items can be picked into the containers before they reach a maximum threshold for safe lifting.
Since plastic containers can be made in virtually any color, some facilities designate certain colors to represent the various functions within the distribution facility. Red may be reserved for picking tasks, while a green container may signify that the items inside are destined for a value-added service station.
Taking advantage of this, some of the more sophisticated conveyor systems have sensors built in that are able to distinguish colors. Pickers completing a wave of orders may pick the last products into, say, a yellow container to signal that this completes the wave. Once the container is sent off to the sorting equipment, the sensor identifies the yellow tote as the last tote to be diverted to a particular spur line.
Closing the loop
By their very nature, plastic containers must be reused again to be cost effective. Because of this, most reusable containers in use at distribution centers are used exclusively within the facilities. But that's not always the case. Some companies have developed distribution systems that call for their containers to be shipped out to stores and select customers. These, however, must have some mechanism for returning the containers to the distribution center for reuse. Companies operating such closed-loop systems often ship the containers on their own dedicated fleet (see sidebar). Filled totes are dropped off at delivery and empties are gathered for the return trip back to the DC.
Pooled container programs offer an alternative for those companies wishing to use reusable containers but that don't operate under a closed-loop distribution model. With pooled programs, the containers are owned by the pooling company. The pooler takes responsibility for retrieving the empty containers, washing them and delivering fresh empties to the distribution centers.
The best thing about returnable containers is that they can be used over and over again, making them extremely cost effective.When they do reach the end of their lives following hundreds of trips, they can be recycled easily, which also makes them a sound environmental choice.
For Sneaker Villa, a chain of a dozen stores featuring the latest hip-hop clothing and shoes designed for the urban lifestyle, corrugated boxes are so yesterday. Last year, the Philadelphia-area chain bought 500 reusable plastic containers from Buckhorn to replace the corrugated boxes it was using to ship split-case orders of clothing and accessories to its stores. The company was so pleased with the totes' performance that it bought another 500 this summer.
Today, jeans, sweatsuits, jerseys, belts and other accessories (everything but the shoes) are picked into plastic containers at the company's Wyomissing, Pa., distribution center, before being loaded onto Sneaker Villa's own fleet of trucks for transport to stores. About 500 totes ship weekly, with most stores receiving deliveries two to four times during the week. Each store delivery includes anywhere from 15 to 50 containers, depending on store volumes and the selling season.
Once emptied, the containers can be nested inside each other to save space when stacked in the stores' backrooms. The empties are picked up for the return trip back to the DC upon the next delivery.
The durable totes, each measuring 27 by 17 by 12 inches, are uniform in size, which makes them easy to handle. That uniform size also provides much more stable stacking for transit than cardboard cartons can and makes it easier for managers to calculate payloads. "They cube out the pallet and allow us to easily know how many containers can fill a truck," explains Brandon Naples, warehouse manager for Sneaker Villa.
The plastic totes easily outperform cardboard boxes when it comes to product protection. And the attached-lid totes offer greater security than the corrugated boxes they replaced. Sneaker Villa uses cable ties to seal the lid of each container before it leaves the DC, so it can tell at a glance if a container has been opened.
The plastic containers offer other advantages as well. For example, the containers feature textured side panels that make it easy for workers to remove old shipping labels before new ones are applied. They also feature ergonomic handles that make the totes easy to lift and carry, reducing the potential for injuries. "We have not had anyone hurt lifting them," says Naples. "The handles make them so much easier to move."
the case for cardboard
For every company like Sneaker Villa that's embracing the plastic returnable container, there are several others that are sticking with the plain old cardboard box. For all the recent interest in returnables, corrugated boxes, with their ready availability and low cost, still far outsell their plastic counterparts.
That's not to imply that users only choose cardboard as a matter of convenience. Corrugated boxes offer a number of benefits, according to the Corrugated Packaging Council, a Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based advocacy group. On its Web site (cpc.corrugated.org), the council provides an extensive list of the advantages of using corrugated cartons, including the following:
* Low shipping costs. With their light weight, high stacking strength and
space-efficient packing geometry, corrugated cartons are cheaper to ship
than plastic crates, the council claims. And unlike companies using plastic
containers, those who choose cardboard avoid the expense of returning the
containers, cleaning the crates, tracking their whereabouts in the distribution
system, and modifying existing packing methods and equipment to accommodate
the new shipping container.
* High level of product protection. The fluted construction of a corrugated box offers superior product protection through built-in air cushioning, according to the council. If needed, cartons can be customized to provide extra protection for heavy, fragile or hazardous materials.
* Supports marketing efforts. Corrugated packaging can be printed with colorful, high-quality graphics, the council notes, enabling the containers to serve as traveling billboards. In many cases, the corrugated carton serves as the primary package all the way to the sales floor, reducing packaging costs for the manufacturer and handling costs for the retailer.
* Easy availability. More than 1,600 box plants in the United States and Canada produce corrugated, making it readily available anywhere in North America.
* Environmental friendliness. Though plastic crates are reusable, they're made from a non-renewable resource: fossil fuels. A significant percentage of plastic crates eventually end up in landfills where they do not degrade, the council reports. By contrast, currently about 74 percent of all corrugated is recovered for recycling and then used to make new corrugated boxes.