As e-com volumes continue to rise, the supply chain is being challenged to reduce package size, remove void fill and eliminate single-use plastics. The demand for this comes from the growing numbers of consumers who are tuned in to the impact of logistics on the environment. Even those people who are not focused on green issues have found the amount of waste they need to dispose of has become a real hassle as their online spending has risen during the pandemic – particularly for those with space constraints in smaller properties.
Today’s consumers, particularly younger ones, are looking not only for low price, high quality and fast dispatch – they also want their order delivered in a sustainable way. Retailers are increasingly realising that their packaging plays a key role in the overall customer experience, with the potential for inappropriate packaging to damage their brand.
Automation eases peaks
Fortunately, the increasing proportion of retail spending done online is making the return on investment for sustainable packaging systems ever greater. Of course, packaging automation means that the packaging operation is no longer a bottleneck in the warehouse. Packaging automation – and its integration with automated logistics systems – increases the speed of the packing process and helps retailers to meet their delivery promises during peak periods. Automated packaging systems also mean that fewer packing staff are required, helping to mitigate the labour shortages typically faced by warehouses today.
E-commerce orders are characterized by a low number of products – typically, just one or two order lines. As many customers are frustrated when they receive these in a large carton with lots of void fill, retailers are increasingly turning to systems that produce packaging that is customized to the products. 'Wraparound' systems, for example, fold packaging material from a reel around the products (whether single or multiple items), apply glue and cut both ends, creating an envelope around the order as it flows through the packaging machine. The product does not have to be uniform, with systems on the market being able to handle a wide range of items – including clothing, electronics, books, video games, shoes, jewellery and cosmetics. These systems can manage the whole process, from order consolidation and packaging to sorting and tracking. An eject gate for oversized items ensures there are no stoppages.
Cost and carbon savings
The benefits of such technology are clear. Firstly, consumers are happier with their packaging and with not having so much of it to recycle or dispose of. Secondly, retailers save on packaging material, in terms of both cartons and dunnage, which is no longer required. They also have lower storage costs because the paper (or biofilm) on a reel takes less space than pre-cut boxes. Thirdly, retailers – and the planet – benefit from the move away from shipping air. With carriers basing their charges on volumetric weight, smaller package dimensions mean lower shipping costs. Of course, smaller packages also mean that more orders can be shipped per lorry, thereby reducing carbon footprint.
Another consideration for packaging automation is the material used to enclose the product. We are currently speaking to a number of larger retailers who are looking to change from plastic packaging to paper for outbound B2C operations. Single-use plastic packaging systems are faster than paper ones, handling some 10,000 items per hour, per line. However, the speed of paper-based systems – at around 3,600 items an hour – is ideal for most picking and packing operations. Although non-biodegradable plastic is cheaper in terms of material costs, recent ROI calculations for customers show similar results for non-bio plastic and paper when the upstream costs for parcel distribution are factored in.
The next step
A big focus for R&D in packaging automation right now concerns returns. Higher levels of e-commerce inevitably bring higher volumes of returned items. There is clearly a benefit in packaging being suitable for reuse in the returns process.
The aim is for e-com packaging to be not only sufficiently robust to protect goods in transit and easy to open, but also resealable. Significant development work is currently underway to achieve this, although the technology is not on the market yet. However, the sustainability milestone of reusable, right-sized packaging – which will deliver total circularity – is not far off, so watch this space!
As the UK’s leading authority on automated material handling with over 60 members, AMHSA seeks to accelerate the adoption of world-class intralogistics automation across the UK supply chain. Visit www.amhsa.co.uk, call 07517 610514 or email [email protected]