Over the years, I have had customers that feel strongly that “Test Shipments” are a good way to test whether a package is robust or not. Test shipments are often viewed as a convenient, inexpensive way of determining the viability of a new packaging design. Usually the shipment is sent to a site quite far away and attempts to be representative of a “normal” shipment. Often the test shipment is sent back immediately and examined for damage. If the test succeeds there is still ambivalence because only a limited amount of critical evaluation actually occured – even if several packs were tested. So there is a certain level of doubt about future shipments. When these shipments fail the reaction is predictable; the solution is not clear because no one has an understanding of what occurred during the shipment. At that point, there is a “knee jerk reaction” to add pieces to the package to solve the riddle. The other reaction to a Test Shipment failure is to do nothing. The test is so ambivalent that the shipper can’t say for certain that the test failed so the packaging design is used regardless of the negative results. As you can see, “Test Shipments” create ambivalence and do not really give you a definitive, predictable result.
Here are some simple first steps to get good information from your testing procedure:
- First, you need to document how you pack your product. You will do this so that you have a record of the changes that you make -- and so you can be ready to have the pack produced when you have a successful test.
- Second, the criteria for failure or success should be documented. If any level of mechanical damage is unacceptable, if you can allow a scratch that is only visible at less than three feet away, pitting from humidity, loose screws from vibration, etc. – be thorough and get a lot of input for this step.
- Third, you need to have a level of control over what happens in the test so that you can repeat it if you make changes to improve the packaging later. The means that the test needs to be empirical.
Empirical means that you can repeat the test and get the same results.
Proper testing is a repeatable action. You reduce your variables by having a high level of control and visibility of your test. When you send your product off in a “Test Shipment” you will lose the repeatability of the test because you are at the mercy of variables. You will never be able to predict all of the variables that might occur during a “Test Shipment”. This is why we use very specific testing procedures in a laboratory setting to predict how a packaging design will work in the shipping and storage environments.
Is there an instance when a test shipment is valuable? Not really. Even if you have tested the packaging in a lab prior to the test shipment, you will not gain useful knowledge from the shipment unless you have some sort of data recorders attached. You will be far ahead keeping records of incidents of packaging failure from a large sampling of shipments– if you can get this data from your customers and end users.
I am going to make a reach here about what a shipper’s motive would be to perform “Test Shipments”. I believe that a lot of shippers believe that the testing performed in labs may be procedurally inferior to a “Test Shipment”. Or that the formal testing may benefit the packaging manufacturer with less rigorous demands than a “Test Shipment”. So how well does laboratory testing predict variables in the shipping and storage environments? In other words, how confident can you be in laboratory testing?
At Box+Foam we primarily use ISTA (International Safe Transit Association) testing procedures in our lab. These tests are derived from industry input using the best known methods that will result in positive shipping results. The tests were developed in several levels, depending on the expected shipping criteria. There are tests for offshore shipments, parcel shipments, domestic shipments, heavy products, and light products. These tests are more rigorous that any “Test Shipment” by a wide margin. They may include vibration tests in at least two axis, corner drops, edge drops, flat drops, compression tests, humidity tests, inline impact tests, and even tipping tests. These are very taxing tests, successively performed on the same package. In many ways, these test go way beyond duplicating the variables that may happen in the shipping and storage environments.
A simpler evaluation of laboratory testing is with results. When I move customers from “Test Shipments” to formal testing, I see dramatic results for these shippers. We have a very low instance of damage related to packaging once testing has been done and the packaging design is proven in the lab. In addition, costs go down. The reason that packaging cost are reduce is that the expensive “knee jerk reaction” from failed test shipments is eliminated. The other reason is that we have performed so many tests that we know what works economically. We apply that knowledge base to the packaging design from the start. That results in lower costs and eliminates instances of packaging failures.
So you can see that there is a lot of evidence against “Test Shipments”. I know that I will never convince all of the “die-hard’s” that laboratory testing is the best possible method and that it should be their only method. But I do know that my own track record has been very positive when we use formal testing procedures to prove the validity of a packaging design. Saving money and eliminating product damage are always pretty good barometers of success!