John Wolf, Sealed Air Vice President of Strategic Fulfilment Solutions, talks about the important role air can play to keep products safe during transit. 

The concept of creating goods, bundling them into pallets and shipping them off to their next destination is deeply entrenched. And for the most part, manufacturers, retailers and distribution centres have all become quite efficient at dealing in that model. Hundreds of lean six sigma consultants made their wages by making sure this model worked as well and as quickly and profitably as it could. 

But then things changed. Online orders increased. Retail stores did not want to keep as much inventory on site. Distribution centres started to fill up. All those pallets now needed to be broken apart and prepared for individual shipment. These problems affected other issues, too, such as shrinking warehouse space, labour shortages, and increased delivery costs.

There was also a proliferation of product damage. In a single parcel e-commerce fulfilment environment, items in transit receive an average of 20 touches or more. Each individual product is separate and therefore all its edges and sides are exposed and unprotected.

To tackle all of these issues, businesses have done number of things. Some have added new processes for packaging products with greater speed or changing materials to try and stem the bleed of damage losses. Others have made a move to fewer packaging SKUs, using more one-size-fits-all materials (however much as needed) so that packaging decisions can be made faster and easier by untrained labour forces. And other businesses have just bitten the bullet and added more temp labour to account for expected turnover because they cannot sacrifice fulfilment speed and fall behind. 

All of these efforts are important but in many cases are resulting in diminishing financial returns.  Every solution in which a business invests has an impact on the other cost areas. 

More labour equals more speed, but untrained labour opens up risk of damage; training labour to use more protective material will increase shipping costs; and reducing package size usually requires stocking a greater variety of packaging materials and those materials require additional space and slow down packaging speed.

What can businesses do?

Many businesses take for granted that packaging materials have to consume a certain amount of space. They pay to truck them in, they dedicate space to store them and they never question it.

Instead of looking at cost constriction or cutting across the board, if businesses look at spending on packaging materials differently by replacing traditional materials with on-demand inflatables, businesses can increase packing speeds more than 20%, reduce storage space for bulky packaging materials up to 90%, minimise material use up to 50% while providing equal or better protection, shorten material handling time up to 75%, minimise outgoing dimensional weight up to 40% and get damage rates down as low as 1% even for fragile items such as glassware

Air offers a range of advantages. It’s affordable, it’s abundant with little cost of source material. It’s fast and easy to deploy for any labour force. It can be summoned on demand when you need it, and it remains invisible and infinitesimally small when you don’t. Air can be shaped and formed to fill unused space, to wrap and to protect. Air cushioning and air inflatable packaging is already a vital part of the e-commerce formula, and it’s flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of tomorrow.

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