Unsalables can kill a brand. Packages damaged during shipping not only waste product, but can create bad will with customers.
Luckily, progress in distribution testing is helping brands optimize their shipments while still curtailing loss from damage. Mike Kuebler, technical director and chief consultant for packaging and distribution testing at Smithers Pira, leads the company's testing lab in Lansing, MI, and enjoys a good challenge to help consumer packaged goods companies find the root cause of their shipping damage.
Here's what he's been seeing recently...
Q: What is the biggest challenge/issue in distribution testing today and how are companies solving it?
Kuebler: Historically, generalized standard test protocols have been an effective way to validate product packaging for durability when moving through the supply chain. These protocols have been developed to cover a range of products and types of packaging; therefore, they do not address all the shipping hazards that a package can potentially see in the field. In addition, they can provide high levels of hazards that a package may never experience. As product and package development has become more sophisticated over the years, taking a more specific look at simulation and real-world hazards have become critical to dialing in the packaging performance requirements.
In today's environment, many companies have sustainability and cost containment objectives that present various challenges to product packaging. As a result, companies are aggressively looking at reducing the robustness of their packaging by reducing the amount of material or significantly adjusting the design. The correlation between lab results and the field results is breaking down because standard protocols are not accurate enough to gauge the performance of these more complex packaging / supply chain systems. We can't use a tape measure when a micrometer is needed.
To address the problem, some companies are beginning to look at focused, custom protocols. "Just right" packaging requires a "just right" test.
Q: When there is a problem with excessive product damage in the supply chain, how can companies best determine the root cause and fix it?
Kuebler: In short, root cause analysis is basically a mini custom protocol development project focused on reproducing the known field result (damage) after taking into account the full range of variables affecting the package. Once the damage is replicated in the lab, the shipping hazard that was proven to cause the damage can be defined and addressed. The effectiveness of the packaging system changes and can be properly predicted by using the same methods that caused the damage in the lab.
Q: How are companies able to accurately predict actual shipping results based on tests in a lab?
Kuebler: Companies are starting to look at "prediction" as the goal and customizing protocols to meet that goal. The accuracy of the prediction increases as test protocols take more of the specific supply chain variables into account. This improved accuracy allows companies to balance packaging cost avoidance now with risk of cost as a result of unsaleables in the future.
Q: Is physical testing always required? Can computer simulation save time and/or money?
Kuebler: In my opinion, physical testing is always required. A computer simulation is a valuable tool if results are needed prior to have physical product to test. This has been becoming more and more important as packaging becomes more integrated in the product design process.
Computer simulation is a time-consuming process and requires assumptions. These assumptions can produce inaccurate results but the value of getting results earlier often outweighs the risk of such outcomes. It is always a good idea to validate the computer simulation results with physical testing when product becomes available.