At one time life was simpler with industrial and retail packaging. It was always the case that the protective qualities of the packaging had to be fit for purpose but today due consideration must also be given to its environmental impact owing to EU directives and targets. Matters have been further complicated by the need often to automate the packaging lines partly to meet the challenges of ecommerce that demand next-day over even same-day delivery directly to customers’ homes.

What this means is that packaging at the retail level should be based on eliminating as much shipped air as possible and so sizing the shipping cartons accordingly, while at the industrial end of packaging the need is for more recyclability and a great deal more thought if the many snares of packaging methods in an automated scenario are to be avoided.

No industrial packaging issues should leave out the importance of the pallet, partly because of its environmental impact, the need to cut transport costs, and the importance of its quality in an automated handling setting.

Interestingly, the Alternative Pallet Company has worked with Cranfield University to create a decision-making tool to evaluate the environmental and economic impact of pallet type choice in the freight handling and transport arena. This allows companies to compare the cost and CO2 savings of switching from a traditional wood pallet to their Pallite, made from 80% recycled paper and PVA glue, and typically 20 kg lighter than wood.

It may be possible to eliminate the transport pallet entirely by using much cheaper and more space-saving slip sheets or by using the Moellers’ stretch wrap system for sacked loads, in particular, which creates two voids at the load base for fork entry. In most cases, however, the pallet remains a key component allied to industrial packaging and in any automated handing environment that means a great deal more thought, not just for the pallets but also all forms of end-of-line packaging, conveyors, labelling and palletising.

If there are two lessons that can be learned about the hazards of packaging for automation they are: consult your handling designer as early as possible, and that the automated solution should come before cost. Sadly, however, one still sees designers being presented with a “that’s what it is” situation and expected to make do. This could mean that the customer has not given adequate thought on how packaging can heavily influence the design process for automated warehousing. Any planning exercise should begin with an appraisal of stored materials regarding their size, weight, fragility, method of load restraint, pallet, tote and tray variations.

Understanding the full range of secondary pack shapes is vital.

Compared with manual handling, warehouse automation requires better quality packaging and pallets, more consistency and more care over palletising and labelling. Poor quality timber pallets are probably the greatest problem for warehouse automation. They are a minefield, with pallet damage a big factor. Broken boards and protruding nails will jam conveyors, especially the roller type, and attempts so far to solve the impact of damaged wooden pallets have met with only limited success. Owing to timber quality inconsistency, even from the same supplier, some warehouse operators use plastic pallets instead.

On conveyor issues, there has been a move away from roller to belt-type conveyors because they pose fewer problems for sub pallet loads, like shrink or stretchwrapped cartons and trays, by way of cutting down on snagging problems with loose stretchwrap or banding. Such loose, trailing stretchwrap can also give incorrect signals to sensors and cause inefficient accumulation or machinery stoppage.

Assembling loads onto pallets can be another problem area. Loads must be squarely and uniformly assembled, and for this purpose a layer palletiser is often preferable to pick and place palletisers because loads are built up and then squared my machine.

Once loads are assembled, stretchwrapping is the most favoured means of load-securing but it is important for automatic stretchwrappers to have positive, tail-end sealing to prevent loose film tails being left to cause false signals and jamming. Who ever thought packaging was simple?

Features Editor