Mitigating packaging damage in the supply chain

Gene Bodenheimer

November 11, 2019

8 Min Read
Mitigating packaging damage in the supply chain

Before putting together a plan to reduce package damage during distribution and transportation through the supply chain, you need to examine how damage occurs and ponder these questions.

Even stretching the limits of extreme accountability, it’s virtually impossible for an inanimate object—say, a case of twenty-four 18oz cans of corn—to heed a common warning: “Travel at your own risk.”

Or even the caution “Items may shift during loading.”

Much as it would be convenient to attribute dents, rips, and punctures to the products themselves, the inconvenient truth is the supply chain is an imperfect mover. Touch points can become flash points for product damage. Entire unit loads rejected at distribution centers can cost well over a thousand dollars each and create significant delays.

In the end, supply chains suffer, manufacturer-retailer relationships are jeopardized, and consumers wind up paying.

So, how extensive is the problem? Is there a viable solution? And just where do you start?

Before putting together a plan, let’s examine how product damage occurs and some questions to ponder.

Risk all around

It’s fair to say that billions of products—all types, all sizes, all purposes—make the trip from the manufacturing plant to a distribution center to a retail store.

Despite its repetitive nature, this exercise presupposes a certain level of risk for product damage. Yet other factors outside the transportation and handling of these products contribute to damages.

Each component of the supply chain—package design, manufacturing, transportation, warehousing/distribution, retail support, retail operations—as well as Mother Nature herself can be a source of damage.


The material and strength of packaging, and even the design, can factor into damage. Consider:

  • Flute and wall construction. With four sizes of flute patterns (which can run horizontal or vertical) and varying thicknesses of wall construction, corrugated boxes run the gamut when it comes to durability. Flute and wall construction must be appropriate to the need. Certain types of cardboard are better for shipping heavy items, some types are more resistant to puncture, while other types are better for printing and display.

  • Stackability. What does the unit load sit on in the warehouse—pallets, slip sheets? What are pallets made of and what is their condition? How many levels can the unit load be stacked without affecting compression?

Unit Load Design

Is there overhang or underhang? What about column or interlocking stacking? How the unit load is designed and “interacts” with material handling, packaging and transportation go a long way to determining the extent, if any, of damage.

Palletizer Performance

The “heartbreak of gaposis” frequently threatens case integrity. Ideally, there should be no gaps between cases that are stacked on top of each other. However, over time, cases can shift, creating a gap that can lead to product damage. Gaposis that originates at the palletizer dramatically increases the potential for damage.

Stretch-wrap Effectiveness

How appropriately stretch-wrap is applied can be a big factor in whether a product sustains damage. First, it’s important to ensure compatibility between the film used and the stretch-wrap machinery. Another area to examine is the force-to-load measurement, or the amount (in lbs.) of strength/force applied to hold the product together.

It’s important to monitor whether the recommended pre-stretchage is being adhered to in the process.

Trailer Loading Pattern

It’s not easy loading a 53-ft.-trailer. But there’s a way to maximize its space. Loading decisions must seek to balance productivity, safety, transportation and equipment costs, and product protection. One effective strategy is “pinwheeling,” in which the direction of every other pallet is altered. It combines loading pallets straight and turned. Pinwheeling helps to more fully utilize the space in a trailer or container when there is inadequate width to permit loading two turned pallets side by side.

Another way to stabilize, secure and protect loads in a trailer is by using dunnage, such as air bags, partitions, braces and load locks.

The type of dunnage selected depends on the type of shipment and the other packaging materials being used, as well as convenience and price.


From travel distance to changes in road conditions and elevation, transportation can have wide-ranging effects on the level of product damage. Stiffer trailers combined with rough roads can magnify the compressive stress on boxes by a factor of 10.

Shock and vibration can affect stiff trailers with no cushion load.

One way to avoid this is to use air-ride suspension trailers, which are uniquely adapted with air hoses that span from the truck to the trailer. They are also larger, using more air volume to accommodate the greater weight of truck and load.

A matter of protection: The environment or the product?

Because products must be brought securely to market, some form of packaging will always be needed. Therefore, any discussion about improving the sustainability of production and consumption must always address packaging as an essential part of the supply chain.

The main purpose of packaging is to provide protection for products. Logically, the more packaging there is, the more protection there should be.

And the resulting higher cost is passed on to the consumer.

The logical question one would ask, then, “Is all the packaging that’s being used necessary?” In many cases, the answer is no.

 But is there an optimal balance between overpackaging and underpackaging?

Consider that while shifting to more eco-friendly materials meets consumers’ increasing demand for more-sustainable packaging, the likelihood for damage rises.

In fact, it’s possible that damage waste has a greater adverse impact on the environment than the extra packaging itself.

Given the economic and environmental costs vs. benefits of different materials, designs, applications and logistical operations, what’s the best way to effectively manage these variables to make the most appropriate packaging decisions? How can we arrive at the optimal packaging solutions that strike the right balance between cost, environmental impact, and safety, while allocating costs appropriately?

It’s the heat and the humidity

Climate and geography can be significant contributors to product damage. Heat and humidity are the two biggest enemies of packaging strength.

Forty% of the strength of corrugate is lost within the first 30 days of storage. Higher humidity levels can drastically affect corrugate strength. Corrugate is 71% weaker at 95% humidity vs. 50% humidity.

Excessive moisture or water can soften or even dissolve the corrugating adhesive, causing delamination; a box that literally falls apart won’t offer much protection. Heat can also reduce the moisture content of corrugated boxes, making them brittle.

Less-than-ideal or fluctuating climate conditions reduce corrugate effectiveness and shorten its useful life.

How big is this problem?

As much as 11% of unit loads arriving at a distribution center have some level of case damage. On average, the figure is around 2%.

On the surface this number might seem small, but the ramifications can be quite large.

Most of the damage on an inbound load is compression based, with the lowest tier of a unit load being the most vulnerable, and the second tier the next most vulnerable.

Surprisingly, the top tier is third on the vulnerability scale. This tier is susceptible to impact-related damage caused by unit loads leaning or being out of vertical alignment.

Evidence of damage is heavy creasing to the corrugate, a punctured case or other tell-tale signs, such as tears and rips.

Workers have a couple options. They can pull the pallet and put it in a “re-coup” area and submit a claim to the manufacturer. The pallet is designated as “damaged on delivery from the plant,” and the carrier takes it back.

However, a troubling trend has emerged. Faced with the manufacturing-industry standard of a two-hour unload window or risk hefty detention charges, retailers frequently reject entire unit loads at the dock—even if only one or two cartons are damaged.

Is this practical? Can retailers really afford to do this? After all, they must need the product (they ordered it, right?). But are they cognizant of the tremendous cost and waste that result from this practice?

A very small percentage—typically less than 1%—of the products within the cartons are damaged. This means that the cases are doing their job to protect what’s inside. On the other hand, there is the potential for a significant amount of undamaged product being rejected.

So, although eliminating damages completely from supply chains is unrealistic, companies can approach the issue pragmatically and establish a system to measure and monitor the process so improvements can be made more efficiently.

You’re getting warmer . . . no, colder

With the landscape of product damage defined, the path toward improvement must start with a robust system that helps pinpoint where efforts need to be focused.

In other words, this cannot be a “needle in a haystack” approach. 

First, learn whether the damage occurred in manufacturing, distribution or in transit. Develop a thorough understanding of how each part of the process affects the other: Is loading being done properly at the distribution center? Is the product appropriately stabilized? Are incidence rates being observed, captured and tracked?

The more in-depth information you uncover and the more precisely you can identify the sources of the issues, the better you’ll be able to develop and execute a corrective action plan.

A key element of this strategy is a root cause analysis, which reveals the “where, what, why” aspects of product damage, setting the stage for impactful, money-saving improvements throughout the supply chain.

To put it another way, don’t treat damage research like an Easter egg hunt. Wandering around hoping to find treasures—or in this case, problems—isn’t a strategy when so much money is on the line. You need to be laser focused on specific targets, so you know exactly where to make improvements.

About the author

Gene Bodenheimer, senior vice president, retail logistics damage research at Genco, leads the company’s team responsible for investigating solutions for unsaleable products as well as supply chain solutions within Genco's retail vertical.  Over his 25-year career Bodenheimer has spoken on a wide variety of topics including reverse logistics, health and beauty accessories and damage research.  He can be reached at [email protected].



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