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Foam-in-bag systems stay the course

The foam-in-bag expands up to 280 times to conform to the shape of case contents, creating a protective cushion.

Thomson Learning, Independence, KY, a part of Thomson Corp., a worldwide leader in computing education, specializes in educational texts, online courseware, computer-based course materials and other key elements used in successful learning. Recently, Thomson Learning hit the books on packaging proficiency when it moved to foam-in-bag packaging from Sealed Air Corp. for its shipments. Installing a SpeedyPacker® automatic foam-in-bag dispensing system on eight main packing lines at its huge, new facility in Independence, plus two more in separate packing areas, Thomson has cut its packaging material storage space needs by 4,800 sq ft, lowered labor costs and decreased the time it takes to pack the products by about 25 percent.

The switch to protective foam-in-bag packaging has also increased productivity and throughput in the packaging area, and, especially important, it has decreased product returns due to damage.

Obviously, a big concern for Thomson in its search for quality packaging was protection. The company packages and ships an extensive quantity of items each day, including textbooks, CD-ROMs, assessment and testing materials and many other items that have to be secure and stable during shipping. But though it was protective, the previous loose-fill cushioning wasn't making the grade, says Mike Ballachino, Thomson's director of distribution. The loose-fill typically had to be replenished into overhead hoppers three times a day. The job required an operator to stop the line, lower the hopper, add the loose-fill and raise the hopper back into position–a time-consuming process that forced each line to be halted for several minutes throughout the day.

Starting out with three SpeedyPacker systems, the company now has eight systems that operate on its main packing lines at the new 880,000-sq-ft plant in Independence that opened about a year ago.

Their former case-packing process became labor-intensive. Stopping one line even for five minutes could create a 45-minute backlog in packaging and shipping orders, Ballachino says. The small size of the loose-fill and its tendencies to create static made it difficult to control, resulting in slowdowns on the packing room floor. Several times a day, the line operators had to devote time to cleaning up the work areas.

When volumes began surging, and Thomson relocated to the new facility, it soon realized an increase in volume of about 500 percent.

The foam-in-bag systems immediately cut the packing time, or rather, packaging downtime, once required to refill the former overhead hoppers with loose-fill.

Passing the tests
While evaluating several other packaging options, Thomson tested the SpeedyPacker foam-in-bag system by having a unit installed at the plant, so that staff could experience the foam-in-bag cushioning process first-hand and interact with the equipment. Thomson also conducted package testing and solicited customer feedback before committing to the foam-in-bag system.

Bulk tank sets of the expandable foam can be stored just outside of the packing area.

At the touch of a button, the floor-mounted, 19-in. adjustable-height foam-in-bag unit dispenses a controlled amount of Instapakw expandable polyurethane foam into a sealed film bag made from Sealed Air's Instamate® polyethylene film. The high-strength bag expands inside the shipping container to conform to the shape of product contents, stabilizing them and preventing shifting and jostling in-transit.

SpeedyPacker is just one of the systems from Sealed Air that uses Instapak foam that can expand up to 280 times its liquid volume. Within seconds, right at the packaging line, the foam-in-bag cushion locks Thomson's learning materials in place inside the shipping cases, helping to reduce the risk of damage. Delivering up to 21 bags/min, the SpeedyPacker operates with bag rollstock that can be customized for a choice of six bag lengths and different foam quantities, depending on products being packed.

Thomson's maintenance manager, Dick Adams, says that the Thomson plant conducted 240 hours (roughly six months) of shipping tests, transporting corrugated shipping cases of product to customers in California and Boston using the Instapak foam-filled bags as cushioning. Customer reply cards requesting feedback about the new packaging were included in every shipping case.

The results? Customers gave high marks to the new foam-in-bag packaging method. Orders arrive in better condition due to the product protection the foam-in-bag cushions provide, thus Thomson enjoys a drop in product returns. In addition, Thomson packing line employees gave the system an A+.

"The improved packaging of our educational products leads to higher customer satisfaction," says Ballachino. "Instapak foam-in-bag packaging increases product protection, and the SpeedyPacker is easy to operate. With only a few hours of training, operators learned when to use each size bag with various products and carton sizes."

Thomson uses six different foam-in-bag sizes, depending on the size of the shipping case and the number of products being packed. The battery of eight SpeedyPacker systems, all lined up in a row, can operate as many as three shifts a day, especially during the peak back-to-school season, to handle the large volumes of shipments.

Customers, including students, retail bookstores and educational institutions, place orders for Thomson's products through a toll-free phone number. After the order is released to the distribution floor, the educational items are picked from stock and placed in corrugated shipping cases that convey down the packaging line. Line operators using the SpeedyPacker system pack the cases, dispensing the Instapak foam into the polyethylene film bags from rollstock. The foam-filled bags are then placed into the case as the products are loaded.

Dispensed from a set of four bulk (275-gal) tanks that occupy about 30 sq ft of floorspace on the packaging room floor versus five tractor-trailer loads of packing material in the overhead hoppers, additional tanks of the two-part foam chemicals can also be conveniently stored away from the packaging area, where they're overseen by a maintenance crew. Storage of the bulk tanks requires less than 200 sq ft compared with the 5,000 sq ft of storage space needed for huge bags of the loose-fill. The company now uses the "extra" 4,800 sq ft of warehouse space to store inventory of its products.

Cost per case drops
Another benefit of the move to foam-in-bag packaging is the unique way the Instapak foam expands inside a shipping case, filling voids between products and the case. This has allowed Thomson to unify and pare the number of corrugated case sizes it uses down to only five from 24. And best of all for Thomson, the company has reached its goal.

Before the switch to the foam-in-bag packing process and the SpeedyPacker systems, Thomson operators each could pack about 120 cases total each day, PD is told. Now, at the new plant, each of the eight lines is able to keep up with the great surge in demand by packaging 1,000 to 1,500 cases in a shift, or as many as 40,000 cases a day during the peak back-to-school season.

As Ballachino concludes, the foam-in-bag project graduated with honors. "The drop in packing time [per case] makes our line operators happy," he sums up. "When we factor in the labor savings, we've reduced our cost per package by about three cents. The Instapak system also enabled us to increase packaging volume to keep up with the demand for our products. We met our goals of reducing labor and mess and realized some unexpected savings. We have had a great experience working with Sealed Air."

More information is available:

Foam-in-bag dispensing: Sealed Air Corp., 203/791-3500. Circle No. 236.

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