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Rethinking totes

Totes are a staple in modern warehouses but their design requires careful thought, as Dave Berridge, AMHSA Secretary, explains.

Dave Berridge.jpgThe humble tote box is a form of returnable transit packaging (RTP) and is generally manufactured from moulded polypropylene. RTP brings environmental gains through lower energy use compared to the manufacturing and recycling processes necessary for single-trip packaging, which is generally made from cardboard. As well as these green credentials, plastic totes offer a lower lifetime cost as they can be used for up to a decade in industrial applications. When it comes to warehouse automation, their consistent dimensions and resistance to being deformed by moisture or impact make plastic totes ideal for handling by automated systems.

Design features

Although a tote resembles a standard box, it generally has a number of design features to suit particular applications. When required to work with automated material handling systems, it is wise to consult a specialist in automation in order to ensure that your totes will interface effectively. AMHSA members – whether tote suppliers or automation providers – understand the requirements for a smooth interface and can provide valuable advice.

For example, the design of the base needs to ensure that it is strong enough to avoid the tote from deflecting when goods or products are loaded. However, ribbing to enhance strength may cause a tendency to jam on conveyors. As well as conveyability, the design should not result in too much noise when transiting areas of the warehouse where people are working, as this can make for an unpleasant environment.

Integration with particular logistics technologies may bring additional demands. For example, smooth corners enable shuttle storage systems to handle the tote more effectively. Equally, if the totes need to be used with tray-washing systems, it may be desirable to incorporate any labelling into the tote walls for durability.

Packaging tax

When it comes to the material that the tote is constructed from, the choice is now affected by the plastic packaging tax, which came into force in the UK from 1 April 2022. Aimed to incentivise the use of recycled material in the production of plastic packaging, the tax applies at a rate of £200/tonne on packaging with less than 30% recycled content. With the tax adding about 70 pence to the cost of a standard 600 x 400 Euro tote, using recycled plastic makes sense. However, you should bear in mind that use of recycled material may, in some circumstances, present strength issues and recycled materials cannot be used in some applications, such as food manufacturing.

Sprinkler systems

Another important factor to consider is sprinkler systems. Drainage holes are required in the tote to prevent weight capacities being exceeded if the sprinklers are activated and discharge, filling the tote with water and potentially causing stresses to the racking or storage structures. However, to ensure effective use with conveyor control systems, any drainage holes should be offset on alternate sides of the tote to enable sensors to detect the tote as it passes by.

The importance of using the right totes for a successful automation project is clear. For advice on the best design of tote for your application, speak to one of AMHSA's tote suppliers – Complete Warehouse Services, Engelmann & Buckham,, IPL, Loadhog, SEC Storage, SSI Schaefer or S&S Plastics.

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, call 07517 610514 or email [email protected]

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