The supply chain industry is vast, complicated and yet strangely rewarding for those who work in it. It takes a unique brand of intuition and planning to get the world’s manufactured goods — including foods and beverages — to their final destinations.
It’s easy to overlook the importance of packaging, given the size and scope of the world’s supply chains. Compared with other tasks, evaluating packaging doesn’t always rank very high as a priority. Nevertheless, the right or wrong decision about food packaging has an outsized impact on business efficiency and profitability, as well as the quality and safety of the products in transit.
How and Why Does Packaging Impact Food Quality and Shipping Costs?
Choosing the correct packaging for perishable and non-perishable foods takes a careful balancing act. Supply chain managers and product designers may feel tempted to pick the least expensive packaging option for a food product in an attempt to reduce materials and costs. Unfortunately, any savings realized this way will probably disappear in quick order due to compromised performance and customer experience.
To put it another way, phoning it in on packaging means you might end up shipping the same product or carton twice — and there’s nothing efficient about that.
Strategies for Reducing Food Shipping Costs
Thankfully, there are several useful strategies for improving the quality of shipped food and reducing food shipment costs.
Here are some you’ll find worthwhile.
1. Develop Standard Tests for Current and Future Packaging
Workers in the supply chain know better than anybody — including packaging designers — what kinds of hazards present themselves in shipping and how much abuse their products can take before buckling under the pressure.
Food companies should develop sets of standardized testing protocols for appraising new packaging designs as they emerge. These should include drop, compression, vibration and shock testing.
2. Find Ways to Reduce Dimensional Weight
Freight carriers like FedEx and UPS have had to reconsider their pricing strategies over the years as the volume of shipped goods and demand for cargo space has steadily increased. In response, food companies and others have taken steps to eliminate as much material from their packaging as possible to reduce the dimensional weight of their products.
Freight carriers use dimensional weight to estimate the weight of items based on their size and shape. Shrinking the dimensions of packaging to better fit the product within can help control shipping costs. If the carton can’t shrink any further, look into lightweight foams and fillers to save money instead.
3. Think in Multiple Dimensions and Plan for the Whole Product Journey
Food packaging often considers maximum stackable height, but it doesn’t always address sidewall rigidity and horizontal, rather than just vertical, forces. Food companies must address all three dimensions when appraising product packaging.
It also helps to visualize and plan out the entire product journey. What features must your product packaging have to accommodate transitions from distribution centers and bulk freight carriers to small parcel handling and last-mile delivery?
4. Dial in the Right Amount of Product
Food products vary wildly in their refrigeration requirements and their ability to withstand the frequent bumps and drops that happen throughout the shipping process. That means carefully evaluating every new food product to bring it into balance with its packaging.
Consider tortilla chips as an example. These products sell by weight, and the amount of air the chip bag requires to minimize breakage partially determines that weight.
The bag must be large enough to accommodate the desired amount of product and the air needed to protect it. But it also can’t be so large that it negatively impacts how much product a company can ship at a time. Food companies must work closely with packaging vendors to test for and bring these variables into balance. Shipping more air than is necessary is a drain on energy and financial resources, while shipping too little air invites product damage and customer disappointment.
5. Be on the Lookout for New Technology and Materials
We can’t have our eyes and ears everywhere at once. That’s why the Internet of Things is such a crucial development in food distribution. It’s become easier and more affordable over the last few years for food manufacturers and distributors to use smart sensors in shipping cartons. These capture real-time data about temperature, humidity, oxygen content and more.
As UPS notes, the FDA is no stranger to levying fines or even revoking food licenses when a company’s food storage or transportation methods don’t meet compliance requirements. Regulatory action is just one part of the risk, though. Others include customer safety.
Foodborne illnesses cost U.S. businesses as much as $93.2 billion each year in recalls and other setbacks. With this in mind, the food industry sees an almost constant influx of new materials designed to prevent or halt microbiological growth and spoilage.
One newer material, called chitosan, may fully double the shelf life for perishable food products by fighting UV absorbance and keeping oxygen out of food packaging. Chitosan naturally derives from crustacean exoskeletons, which also means it’s nontoxic. These qualities provide an additional advantage over incumbent synthetic plastics and cling wraps.
Better Food Packaging for Better Health and Profitability
Food and beverage manufacturers have an understandable desire to cut costs and create attractive returns for their shareholders. However, their first responsibility must be the quality of the product and the health of the consumer. It’s easy to realize cost savings when choosing packaging. It’s a little harder, but far from impossible, to find or design a package that brings efficiency, profitability and public health into better balance.
Guest Blogger – Megan Ray Nichols
Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance technical writer. She also runs her own blog, Schooled By Science, a blog dedicated to making complicated scientific topics easier to understand. You can follow Megan on Twitter @nicholsrmegan to keep up with the latest news.
Header Photo: krblokhin – Getty Images