Sustainable. When I look in the thesaurus it shows synonyms like, "maintainable, supportable, workable, ecological, green, natural, and balanced". I like the term, “Balanced”. It makes sense. We are balancing materials so that a great deal of the package can be sustainable. When we balance these materials we often reduce the amount of one material and increase the amount of a more sustainable material. What makes a packaging material sustainable? Well, there are a lot of tradeoffs.
Larry Pexton, the CEO at Triad Speakers, was looking to reduce his packaging cost. We did a presentation for Larry’s team on sustainability and showed them we could get cost reductions through our sustainable engineering effort. Larry and his team agreed that it was a good fit for their company. We took one of their speakers and started the project in February of this year. Triad’s speakers are not necessarily fragile bit the finish on the speaker is a critical item. These are very high end audio speakers that deliver a tremendous amount of sound. I have them at home and they really are amazing. (A little shameless - but deserved - plug for Larry’s company!)
The first thing we did was carefully weigh and document each part of the original packaging. We used our Life Cycle Tool for accurately defining the environmental impact associated with each item. The original packaging used a combination of corrugated pads with polyethylene foam glued to the pads to support the 22 lb. speaker and provide protection from damage. This packaging met ISTA’s (International Safe Transit Association) drop and vibration criteria. The speaker needs to survive the ISTA test without a scratch. Polyethylene foam is a very good material if you are trying to protect a finish. It is the same material that most plastic bags are made of. It is soft, flexible, and does not mar the finish of almost any product. Corrugated, on the other hand, is extremely abrasive. So now we had to figure out a new “Balance” for this pack. How can we use corrugated to provide cushioning and keep it from abrading the finish on the speaker? The drop criteria has ten drops in succession and we also need to have the corrugated be resilient like foam. If the corrugated gets crushed in the pack, then we need to find a way to make the corrugated a bit more resilient.
We looked at several concepts. We created a “cradle” that suspended the speaker. It showed promise but the amount of corrugated that we needed to use was troubling. When you produce corrugated, large amounts of water are used to produce the paper. Technically, corrugated is made with sustainable materials but the amount of water used in the manufacturing process leads us to conserve the material whenever we can. Of course, this is all goes back to cost reduction. Another design was a corrugated corner block. A three sided affair that would require eight blocks, one for each corner. The amount of corrugated material was much better than that of the cradle -- but was still beyond the threshold that we desired. In our final iteration we settled on two “W” shaped corrugated pads that suspended a common corner board that you use to protect the edge of a palletized load. We use a total of four of the rails to completely suspend the speaker. These are inexpensive and allowed us to reduce the overall material in the package. The “W” shape of the corrugated creates a thick and durable support for the speaker. When the package is dropped on an edge or a corner the corrugated flexes but does not deform entirely. The corner board that is suspended between the two W’s proved to be very durable. The ISTA drop was a success but we had small amounts of finish damage at the corners of the speaker.
More “balance” was needed. We went back to polyethylene foam for our material choice to prevent the finish damage. The balance is to use much less foam now that we have corrugated to provide the suspension of the speaker. After a couple of iterations, we came upon a simple solution of die cutting the foam to match the shape of the corner board, an “L” with an L-shaped slit in it. The foam is pushed on to the corner board prior to the corrugated W’s. This was the small amount of cushion that we needed to prevent damage in the corners. Our ISTA testing showed that this was a complete success.
Cost reduction? The per package pricing was reduced over 20%.
There were several added benefits to this design. Triad has several speakers that are produced in small quantities because they are specialized custom equipment. With the new packaging, Triad can cut their own corner board to length and use the W’s as a common component – even doubling them up for heavier speakers. Then all that’s needed is a custom outer carton so cost is reduced even further. By having this level of commonality in the design, the economy of scale – that is the cost advantage of purchasing higher numbers of common parts -- is substantial.
We have substantially reduced the carbon footprint of the packaging. Carbon was reduced 21%, Fossil Fuel Consumption was reduced by 33%, and Water and Biotic Consumption were up slightly. The cube of the packaging was also reduced by 36%. This will result in reduced emmissions, even lower Fossil Fuel Consumption and a very good cost savings to Triad for outbound freight.
The shift in materials creates a definite change in the sustainability of the packaging. This tradeoff resulted in the use of less non-renewable resources and more renewable resources. Using this process as a part of the engineering strategy allows us to have a measurable impact on a design element. Prior to having measurable data, we did not have a clear view of what was affected when we attempted to affect the sustainability of packaging. With this benchmark we can also target components for future scrutiny. For example, if we locate a material that works as well as the PE foam but it is made from a renewable resource, then we can show exactly what the improvement will mean to the benchmark. This is a great tool for Continuous Improvement that brings in cost savings and sustainability.
We did all of this by paying attention to “Balance”. We feel that this is an important step in the evolution of our company. This ‘Balance’ reflects how we feel about our business and our community.
Can Box+Foam do the same for your products? We would like to try! Contact us soon-- or forward this blog to someone who could use our skills.