Strategies & Insights

Knowing the Terrain: Designing Packages to Survive Uncertain Global Supply Chains

Posted: September 13, 2009 by
Jay Singh

In recent decades, there has been a steady increase in the development of free trade agreements in all regions of the world. Products once produced for domestic markets must now be able to compete in international markets without trade barriers. This has forced many packaging and logistics engineers to broaden their true understanding of the global distribution environment through research and new technologies.

Designers today need to understand the physical distribution environment packages endure in the supply chain. What defines over-the-road transport in California likely won't work for roads around Shenzhen, China, or Bangalore, India. Current global manufacturing trends require goods and materials to flow throughout the world in poorly understood distribution environments and channels. This has triggered comprehensive and complementary global shock, vibration, and temperature data acquisition studies.

Logging it all in

These data-logging studies are intended to establish comprehensive awareness of unfamiliar distribution channels while also providing the basis for proper testing that can better simulate those channels. The variation in distribution hazards is attributed to a complex interaction between packages, humans, material handling equipment, logistical vehicles, and transfer systems.

Packaged goods around the world are shipped using transportation means and conditions that vary widely. Some of the tested methods and traditional package designs, therefore, may not be applicable for environments such as China. More and more over the years, companies and institutions have been measuring the dynamic and potentially damaging events that occur to packages in different transportation methods. This data offers very useful information for designers to create and test packages that can withstand potential hazards like impacts, vibration, and temperature extremes.

A variety of data loggers exist today with measurement capabilities such as temperature, pressure, relative humidity, light, speed, pressure, impacts, and vibration. A data logger is an electronic instrument that records data over time or in relation to location. These devices commonly involve such applications as field studies, transportation monitoring, troubleshooting, quality studies, and general research.

The past decade has seen studies that map the transportation conditions in far corners of the globe. The data collected is made available through organizations such as International Safe Transit Association (specifically, ISTA-Project 4AB) to help package engineers and designers simulate global environments in their lab settings.

Conditions in mind

As the global shipping environment grows, companies will produce, market, and distribute products at more and more worldwide locations. The impact of the distribution hazards around the world needs to be better quantified. Package design professionals can define package and test specifications for products manufactured and distributed globally by tapping into this information and being aware of several factors:

Packaging engineers should be aware of how the type of transportation has a major impact on the packaging materials an engineer might use. This will help them decide on materials or durable structures for a specific product that will be distributed in transportation channels that are inferior to those in the U.S.

It is important to understand how the road conditions in various parts of the world are also noticeably different from those in the U.S. For example, 80% of China's roads and 55% of India's roads are unpaved.

Designers should also understand that package handling equipment at distribution centers or warehouses is another source of package abuse in other countries. The U.S. has automated systems that vastly eliminate manual handling and greatly reduce accidental failures of packages. In many countries, the surplus of manual labor in and the lack of forklift trucks and pallets allow the unitized loads to become unstable by not having a solid base to stack packages.

Once a package gets damaged during the unloading process, it no longer has its intended structural integrity. If this package is placed towards the bottom of a unitized load, the whole stack tends to weaken. Multiple handling of each individual package plays a large role in the large damage rates inside of the warehouse.

Understanding the ambient environment in the supply chain entails a thorough understanding of the temperature and relative humidity conditions at the time of package distribution. A corrugated box, for example, loses almost 20% of its compression strength with a shift of relative humidity from 50% to 70%.

Any packaging engineer involved with designing or certifying packages for global distribution should take into account all of the distribution environment factors involved in their packages' global supply chain. This can be done by either mapping the environment for such factors as temperature, humidity, impacts, and vibration with the use of data loggers or seeking guidance from such organizations as ISTA, which maintains a collection of data from such studies.

Jay Singh, Ph.D. is Packaging Program Director and Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University, where he teaches courses and workshops on packaging fundamentals, package performance testing, protective packaging, and package development. Jay has written extensively on packaging materials, testing, and design for academic and industry journals. Jay can be reached at