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Packaging Possibilities: How One Company Pulled Off an Olympic Feat in Packaging

Image courtesy of USA Luge USA-Luge-shipping-container-3-ftd.jpg
A Texas company uses intricate reusable containers to keep Team USA’s delicate luge sleds safe on their way to and from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Team USA brought a lot of winter sports equipment with them to Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics — including sleds for the USA Luge team. Hear the fascinating logistics story behind that trek from the company that made it happen.

In this Packaging Possibilities episode, Bob Imbriani, Executive Vice President of International for Team Worldwide:

• Walks us through the development of the protective shipping containers;
• Tells us how they solved some of the packaging and supply chain challenges they faced;
• Addresses sustainability impacts.

Image courtesy of Team WorldwideBob Imbriani - Team Worldwide - quote.jpg

PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES - Season 2: Episode 2

If you have a topic you’d like to propose for a future PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES episode, please email Lisa Pierce at [email protected].

 

TRANSCRIPT IS AUTO GENERATED

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Hello! This is Lisa Pierce, Executive Editor of Packaging Digest, with another episode of Packaging Possibilities, a podcast that reveals what’s new and what’s next for packaging executives and engineers, designers and developers.

In this episode, I’ll be talking with Bob Imbriani, executive vice president of International for logistics firm Team Worldwide. Team Worldwide is the official sponsor and cargo carrier for USA Luge, the American team competing at the Olympics in Beijing, China.

Today’s timely topic is How Did the Luge Sleds Get Shipped to the Olympics?? We are about to find out!

Bob, thank you. Welcome to the Packaging Possibilities podcast. I appreciate you giving us your time today.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Thank you for having us and I’m looking forward to our discussion.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Me, too. This is so exciting. So, before we get into the questions about the shipping, tell us just a little bit about team worldwide and the services you offer … just real quick.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
OK, Team Worldwide is a US-based — East Texas is our headquarters — international and domestic logistics company. We provide all forms of domestic and international transportation logistics, moving anything from small packages to armored vehicles, military government shipments, across the US and around the world.

We have about 45 offices in the USA and Canada with our main headquarters in Winnsboro, TX. We’re a family-owned company. We’re in our third generation and we’re about 44, 43 years old right now.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, wonderful, thank you for that. It was a very succinct and yet you told us a lot. It’s kind of exciting that you’re working with the Olympics Luge team, and I understand that you developed the packaging for the luge equipment that was sent to the Olympics in China. And, according to a local report, or a report that I saw by some of the local news in Texas — KETK.com — you’re also responsible for shipping and coordinating the Luge team’s sleds and equipment during the competitive season here in the United States. So, I guess I’m wondering what, if anything, is different about shipping that equipment here in the United States versus shipping it to China for the Olympics? And did you ship by air? Do you ship by sea? Tell us all the details.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
OK, well even during the general season each year, the events are not just in the United States. They’re really global events every year between the Olympics and then, of course, wherever the Olympics are, we have to move it there. So, we’re moving their equipment, primarily their sleds, to and from locations in the US, Canada, really anywhere in the world throughout the year.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, how often do you do that? Is it just a handful of times or …?

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Well, no. It probably comes out to maybe about 30 times throughout the season, maybe more. And again, their season can run from maybe end of October into February, March each year. Sometimes a little bit later. And there’s various World Cup competitions. There’s local competitions. And there are two levels of teams. We move it for … There’s the senior teams, but luge also has a junior team.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
And the junior team has sleds and so forth. Sometimes they’re competing in the same area of the country or the world. Sometimes they’re in two different parts of the world. When we move domestically, it could be by air or it could be by truck. Virtually all the air … all the international moves are by air.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
And the other thing that makes their movements complicated is their events are not in city centers or always near an international airport. That because it’s a winter sport. They have to be in areas that can support those activities. Here in the US, their primary training center is in Lake Placid, NY. And there’s really no airport in Lake Placid other than a small private field. The other area in the US where there are events is Park City, UT, which is not too far from Salt Lake, but still a distance away.

So many times, it is complicated to get it to and from a venue. And many times we have to have a vehicle waiting at the venue that as soon as it’s over, collect the equipment, and move it to their next site.

And sometimes the teams maybe split. So youth goes to one and the senior team goes to another site.

When we’re moving in international, the big thing that we have to contend with other than the distances and so forth is, internationally we do have to clear customs.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, I would expect so.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
So we have to go through the various customs formalities. We generally clear them on a document that’s called a Carnet, which is sort of a passport for cargo, but still requires inspection and sign off by customs when you enter a country, when you leave the country, when you go to the next country. So a lot of coordination in their moves, regardless if they’re domestic or international.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Sure, excellent. So with all the trips that you …  all the moves that you make during the year, 30 odd …  you’ve got a lot of experience in moving this equipment around. Other than the sleds, what kind of equipment are we talking about here?

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Most of it is the sleds, but at times there is timing equipment, repair equipment, and so forth. There is maintenance on these sleds. There’s the polishing of the blades. There’s fixing sleds when they get damaged. So probably aside from the sleds, a good portion of what we might move is some of this repair and maintenance equipment for the coaches and others on the team.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. I saw an Instagram photo of some of the cargo boxes, which looked like they were holding the sleds just because of the size of them — the size and the dimension of them. And it looked like each sled is in its own container. Can you give us a little bit of detail about that? How they’re shipped?

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
OK, actually it may be worth just spending a minute to go back in the history of how we became involved with them because it does lead up to the packaging and transportation.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Sure.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
We had an office in Albany, NY, which is about 150 miles or so from Lake Placid and our manager in Albany saw the team coming through the Albany airport dragging their sleds, trying to check them as baggage and so forth, and said, you know, we can assist you with that.

And that’s how we became involved with Luge, which is going very close to 25 years now that we’ve been involved.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Wow, fantastic story. That’s … it’s, like, serendipitous.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Yep, we do it very much as an outreach program to support the team. We found that these are wonderful athletes, coaches, and other members of the Luge association. So, we look at it as giving back to the community. Our owners, the Brunson family, is very big on giving back to the community.

But to bring it to the packaging …

As we started moving the sleds, there was no formal creating packaging for the sledge. So working with the Luge association and others of their sponsors who would help with packaging and that, we look to develop packaging where each sled would be individually contained.

But as you probably know regarding packaging, especially with air cargo, we have to address two things. Keeping the contents safe. But also minimizing volume.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
You know in all forms of transportation there’s a calculation of comparing volume to weight, but probably the most critical is in air cargo. You can be paying for much more than the actual weight. If the packaging, the goods or two volumetric. So we had to contend with those two and one other issue reusable packaging. We really couldn’t have packaging that’s once and done.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Right, because you gotta get it back somehow.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
We have to get it back. We’re going to be moving it to different countries and the packaging itself is going to be subject to some harsh conditions. It could be snowing. It could be raining. It could be sitting on the ground. It could be sitting in damp climates. So we had to develop packaging that would meet all three of those criteria. Keeping the good, safe minimizing volume, and standing up to the transportation but also the weather conditions.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent. So, give us the details, Bob. How did how did you design this packaging? What’s it made out of?

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Well, it well it wasn’t all on our side. It was working with other sponsors and supporters of Luge to give them some ideas of what the packaging was going to go through, how it was going to be handled, and allowing them to help design the packaging. We’re not a packaging design company, although we work with many companies who are.

We do a lot of packaging testing. A lot of our facilities are creating and packing companies, but this required a little more expertise than we would have in-house. It was a collaborative effort with several of the other sponsors at the time, and we develop packaging that was of the synthetic material, not a corrugated material, and so forth. More of a simplistic plastic type. Material that could stand up to the weather.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. Plastic. When it gets cold, sometimes it can shatter. How do you deal with the environmental …?

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Well, it’s a composite. I’m going to be honest, I can’t tell you the exact formula and material, but all of those were considerations and why we brought in other parties to help with that. You know, Luge is supported by many organizations, some formal sponsors, some are just companies that will help. I mean, we’ve even brought their sleds to a NASA center so they could be put in a wind tunnel to determine how their aerodynamics work.

There are companies who work on developing abrasives, polishing the blade. So it was a collaborative effort, but since we are the company who is the official logistics company, we had to handle and move and stack and do that. So we had a lot of input as to what would work, what would not work, and how to have it come about. But I would not be giving you the full story if I said we designed it from beginning to end.

We put in a lot of the parameters and what was needed to be able to accomplish what has to be done.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent Bob. Are you able to share information about those other partners that did work on the …

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
At this time, it’s probably, you know … some of them are no longer working with Luge, so it’s probably better not to at this time.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. Totally understand.

So, tell me just a little bit more about the reusable aspect of it. How many turns do you get out of this packaging? And you would call it a crate?

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
I don’t know if I would call it a crate. I would call it a shell, maybe almost, or in a much smaller scale. If you’re familiar with the way aircraft engines are packaged in a large cylinder-type packaging, almost like a container. So I would probably call these a small container-type designed specifically for sleds.

They really have almost unlimited use. They’re usually replaced because of just some physical damage. Something happens, they get hit, they get banged into. But if they’re cared for and don’t run into any specific conditions, they can last — I wouldn’t say forever — but quite a long time. So there is no life span where it’s five runs and that’s it, we have to replace them or something like that.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. I would imagine though you inspect them in between trips just to make sure that they’re still up to snuff.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Yes, we inspect them. The Luge inspects them. The sleds are very, very unique and critical. A lot of people don’t realize, but there isn’t just one sled for everybody. The sleds are molded to the sliders body.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
I did not know that.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
In recent years, they’ve actually used some really high tech to scan the body, scan the sled, design the sled. So we have to take very good care of these sleds. Actually moved. They all have to get there. So they’re not just a sled you buy off the shelf or they design one sled and everybody uses the same type of sled. They are molded — I guess that’s the best way to say it — or designed to the sliders body.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, fascinating. I would imagine then that the inside of this shipping container has to accommodate slight differences in the shape of the sled. How are you able to do that?

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
The shapes are pretty much the same, but there are some slight differences in sizes. A double sledge could be different than a single sled. And so for the doubles … If you’re not familiar with it, in Luge, there can be a single slider sled, but there is what they call doubles, where one slider is on top of the other. Those slides are going to be a little bit different. So the inside of the container is designed to fit the slide in, for the blades to fit in, and prevent damage.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
So there’s an interior design and packaging, as well.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, I’m learning a lot about luge sleds, but are the blades attached to the sled when they’re shipped or are they separated?

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
They’re generally attached. The sled … you try not to disassemble and take apart a sled.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
You wanna have limited times. But blades are taken off to be polished, to be changed, to be repaired and so forth. A lot of that technology has changed over the years. If you go to the early days, it was pretty much like a leaf spring that was redone and you know shop. Now they’re very, very high tech metal. At one point US Steel was a sponsor of Luge and helped develop some of the metals. And other companies help develop the polishing and design. It’s a much higher tech support than people might think.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
I would imagine, yeah.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
So protecting those sleds, getting those sleds to the event … very critical.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, yes I can see that. I would imagine though, to you mentioned just the material being composite where in the past maybe it was metal and all. I don’t know if sustainability on the creating material or the container material is much of an issue at all. Do you think about that? I know you’ve already talked about the volume of it and, from a shipping point of view, I think that’s directly tied into cost. But there is a sustainability component to that as well because you don’t want to use too much resources and the overall footprint of shipping the product.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
No question about it. Our company has a sustainability program. the US Luge is very concerned with sustainability and so forth, so the design and the materials really go hand in hand with our need and sustainability by designing packaging that is not once and done. There’s really limited recycling and so forth because they’re going to be used into the future. When a packaging does have to be discarded based on various factors, it will be separated, the material, and recycled as appropriate and so forth. But most of it is in the initial design. That if we had packaging that had a very short shelf life, we would not be very environmentally friendly in that we’d be replacing and using and so forth. So the real sustainability comes from the longevity of the packaging.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
You know Bob, I just thought … were there any issues because of all the supply chain challenges that we’re seeing today? You know, partly because of the pandemic. Were there any challenges with that?

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Well, you know, we are in a very interesting and difficult time when it comes to supply chain. I think for the first time in history you’re hearing supply chain issues in the media, areas that maybe they’ve never talked about it before. I’ve been in the industry for over 52 years and everything that’s happening today has happened before — but never at the same time. I like to call this the perfect storm for the supply chain. Everything that could be going on, is happening at once.

And, yes, there were challenges, some having to do with the existing conditions with the supply chain, some created by China themselves. But luckily, we planned well in advance that they move by air cargo and to some degree they were moving in the right direction. Some of the equipment came from the US, but also some came from Switzerland because the team was practicing there. And we were able to secure the needed space to get it there on time by pre planning and always a little bit of luck. I have to say that that falls in a little bit as well, but it is a difficult time, especially to ensure things get to where they need to be when they need to be there, which is really the whole concept of logistics — getting goods where they need to be when they need to be there. And, usually, we add “at an acceptable price.” But today pricing is a very fluid item when it comes to logistics.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes. And I’m guessing that’s a euphemism, that word “fluid.”

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Yes, yes. Some of that’s causing the inflation that we see. People don’t realize that.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Virtually everything you do and buy is dependent on some level of the supply chain.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, it is. I had a conversation with a woman in last month’s podcast who was talking about just the aspects of the supply chain and how it’s, again, somewhat of a perfect storm, as you say. But solving it by looking at just a local chain is difficult because there’s so little that moves these days that doesn’t involve some component of international, globalism, so yeah.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Yeah, I mean it is a global market today and you can’t solve it with one piece of the puzzle. It has to start from origins to destinations and they all have to work together. Some of it is under government control, but some of it is not. Some of it has to do with things like the pandemic. Some of it has to do with people in certain areas of even our country, less inclined to work or work certain jobs. There’s an estimate that in the US where short at least 60,000 truck drivers.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes. And you mentioned about the fact that your destinations aren’t always close to an international airport. So you have that additional component of the shipping: Getting it to the final destination.

How did that play in into the design of the containers at all? As far as being able to accommodate them for the different modes of travel.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Well, I think that just goes back to their ability to withstand the rigors of transportation: loading, unloading.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Because it’s not generally a transport move that it goes on one truck at the beginning, stays on that truck all the way to the end. Then it comes off … even a simple air move is going to have truck, air, truck.

So, it was more in the ability to withstand the rigors and the problems of transportation.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent Bob. This has been fascinating. Absolutely fascinating.

Is there anything that I haven’t thought to ask about that you wanna share with us, about this Olympic shipment?

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Well, nothing directly for this shipment, but we always want to, especially during the Olympics, which are going on as we speak, is to end with GO USA.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes. Go USA!

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Very good.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Thank you Bob.

Bob Imbriani (Guest)
Thank you.

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