If you’re busy shipping products this time of year, you know there’s a science to packaging. But did you know there are packaging scientists?
At the FedEx Packaging Lab in Memphis, engineers are paid to drop, crush, shake, and otherwise abuse packages to emulate worst-case shipping conditions. It’s how they arrive at the sort of best-packing practices that ensure any FedEx-shipped box under a Christmas tree contains an intact gift.
We spoke with Mickey Rainey, Manager, Packaging Design and Development at FedEx, about the free services and customized-package-design help that FedEx offers to businesses that rely on it to ship goods to customers.
FedEx packaging services has been testing, designing, and researching packaging for customers since 1987, but Rainey says the company has dramatically expanded its services of late. The 30,000-square-foot facility in Memphis is under two years old, and in April 2014 testers added support for freight customers as well as a materials testing lab. “We expanded our ability to do materials science, such as adhesive studies, poly strength studies, and using thermal chambers and other equipment to simulate different shipping environments and test thermal packaging,” Rainey says.
At the new lab’s opening, FedEx TechConnect CEO Cary Pappas said, “We can simulate any part of the FedEx network anywhere in the world, from the desert to the rainforest to the Arctic.” With equipment including altitude, temperature, and humidity chambers, drop testers, vibration, compression and automated sample tables, a 5-ton crane, a forklift course, and a wood shop, FedEx engineers and technicians can test products including perishables, glass, delicate electronics, and life sciences materials.
Rainey says customers are often surprised there’s no charge for testing. He calls the service a strategic value-add. Even small businesses get access to FedEx expert assistance–from general guidance to 1-on-1 advice.
“The first thing we do for small business customers is find ways of communicating things that are going to help them with their packaging,” Rainey says. FedEx’s Packaging Guidelines translate what company engineers have learned about shipping specific commodities such as automotive parts or baked goods “to help small businesses get off the ground. If those guidelines don’t give the customer the answer they’re looking for, we offer the testing service,” Rainey says.
He says the lab performed more than 5,000 tests in fiscal year 2015 aimed at helping customers design more protective and efficient packaging for products it sells again and again. “We ask the customer to send in their product to us the same way they would send it to their customer, but to put it in an overbox. We put it into our test cube and send a report back to the customer in 5 days.”
If your business ships cookies via ground transportation, for instance, Rainey says his team tests to ensure the boxes are strong enough to handle stacking and simulates vibration conditions in trucks and on belts. “Is the tape going to hold? Is there enough cushioning inside? The vibration profile gives a realistic view,” he says.
FedEx informs customers if the packaging stayed together, if the tape stuck, if something leaked, or if breakage occurred, and it makes recommendations. “One of the advantages of being FedEx is that we see what works and what doesn’t,” Rainey says. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing the way you tape or changing the cushioning.
While Rainey says the lab’s main purpose is to test performance, they’re also mindful of right-sized packaging. "It’s not realistic to drive packaging costs high for no reason. Sometimes we save customers money while we’re testing. If we open up a box and there’s all this void space, we show them that they could save money and eliminate movement of the product inside with a smaller box or a divider to limit movement.”
For a fee, FedEx will also help a customer design perfect packaging. For the boutique bakery PaleoTreats, for instance, FedEx engineered thermal packaging that enables the company to ship fresh desserts that, without preservatives or stabilizers have a low melting point.
“We worked with the owner on how to protect his product from physical issues and thermal challenges,” Rainey says. After putting PaleoTreats’ baseline package–an insulated box with coolant–into a thermal chamber to simulate real-world shipping conditions and rising and dropping temperatures, FedEx was able to make recommendations that included packing the treats with dry ice and two gel packs with different phase change points–one at freezing and one at 2-degrees Celsius to keep the product stable and cool through a several-day shipping experience. “The first gel pack takes all of the energy transfer at the beginning of shipping while charging second gel pack. The second one doesn’t start working until it’s charged up. It’s a good thermal trick we use to extend the cooling time,” Rainey says.
“It surprises people how much science goes into packaging,” he adds. “But when packages arrive safely, everybody wins.”