How to Make Packing More Efficient

The biggest point of inefficiency in e-commerce distribution may be packing

Packing Area Inquiry

Automated packing area for an ecommerce distribution center, pick-to-totes operation.

Above: in this automated e-commerce distribution center, picks are packed into cartons from totes on the conveyor line. Because conveyors deliver the totes directly to workers, and the work is executed at ergonomic heights, the process is fast and efficient.

Order fulfillment is only as fast as its slowest function, and packing–often the last stop before shipping–can be a bottleneck. We’ve analyzed many operations that underestimated the needs of the packing department from the start, while others realized over time that new requirements, new SKUs and order volumes that were fine at go-live eventually bogged the packing function. It’s not unusual for picking processes to react faster and better to these conditions than the packing area.

The impacts of a subpar packing process

Automated packing area for an ecommerce distribution center, pick-to-cartons operation.

Above: in this pick-to-carton application, the picker is the packer. He has easy access to inventory on both sides, available to him without unproductive movements. This is a case where the picking and packing processes are merged, and the need for a system that supports both was achieved. There will be void-fills, sealing and additional layers of quality control down the line.

Picking is the star of many distribution operations. Pick rates are measured, analyzed and improved constantly, but mean little without a dynamic and efficient packing process that turns those fast picks into the right shipment at the right time to the right customer. Subpar packing can trigger a variety of problems, many of which have deep and hidden impacts.

Returns can be reduced by optimized packing

The cost of returns is enormous, even if the processes have improved recently. The packing area is often where quality control occurs and can be the last stop before the wrong size or wrong color is shipped. Some companies with dedicated quality control will use the packing department for last-stop quality, quantity or weight checks to reduce the chances of a return.

Customer service impacts can be significant

The way your customers perceive you is far more dependent on your packing department than it is on your website or advertising campaigns. The packing team can help you create a loyal customer base by shipping the right product at the right time to the right place. The opportunity cost for mis-shipments is enormous. Customers who aren’t satisfied with the product are one thing, but the customer experience is directly affected by shipping and arrival, and the packing team has the most control of that experience. An order that ships late, ships broken or ships wrong can cost a customer for life. Even if you don’t lose the customer, the cost of dealing with them (customer service representatives, future order credits or social media complaints) add up. Customers who aren’t happy with you won’t recommend you or your product.

Products can be damaged by careless packing

Packing can damage products if it isn’t done right, which means you’ll incur replacement costs and customer frustrations. Either way, better packing can help you avoid damage in the first place.

Frequent packing process evaluation pays off

A packing bench system designed to optimize reach, ergonomics and material availability.

Above: an integrated Dehnco packing bench system that consolidates supplies, tools, monitors that help the packer work faster and more comfortably.

The packing process should be analyzed frequently, in particular if SKU changes occur, volume increases or personnel are constantly changing. What are some factors you should consider as you evaluate the operation?

Automated taping machine for a packing area in a warehouse.

  • If you’re picking to totes, how are the packers handling the loads? How do they interact with it, and can you make that process better, faster or easier? Look for repetitive motions and strains.
  • How much are people reaching and stretching? Are the packing stations ergonomically optimized and designed for easy access to supplies?
  • Evaluate your carton sizes. Unless you have advanced technology like automated carton erectors, you’re likely dealing with an array of standard cartons. Packers who do not need to fill voids as often are faster than packers who do. This can also help reduce damage to shipped products. Your packers may even have to cut down too-large cases to make odd sizes work. As the business changes, evaluate your carton sizes to be sure they fit your orders. This also reduces shipping costs and waste materials.
  • If the packing process occurs on the conveyor line, where are any needed supplies located? How do people obtain them? Also, look at the reach distance from packer to package. There are ways you can design the conveyor to move loads directly to the same side as a packer so the reach is minimal or non-existent.
  • If you pick to cartons, what’s the quality control process, who executes it, and when? This type of quality control works, but you need to factor it into system design.
  • Do you have enough packing positions? While more stations aren’t always the solution, sometimes you need more capacity. Did your design leave room to add them, either through extra positions on the line or by adding a buffer loop?
  • Consider automation. On packing lines, automated tapers, dimensioning scales, case erectors, filling machines and strappers can dramatically cut labor costs and create efficiency by removing steps from manual processes. Careful integration of these systems can take your packing operation to the next level.
  • Are packers required to walk too much? Do packers need to leave their stations? For what, and how often? Walking time is wasted time and you should do everything possible to prevent it. See “Don’t Walk the Walk.”
  • Are the packing stations adequate for your current needs? Flat tables where the working surface is adequate and supplies (void filling, tapers, printers and monitors) are easily and ergonomically available can make a huge difference in both throughput and accuracy. It’s all about making the work easier for packers while reducing wasted motions.

Remember: your needs and operation will change over time. Have you reevaluated “job creep”? What operational shifts or changes in requirements have happened over time that may have impacted your packing operation? Remember that manual fixes to these problems can eventually become issues on their own.

Accuracy vs. speed isn’t a contest, but you must balance your needs

You can be more accurate and faster with the right combination of processes, equipment, technology and training.

The key to keeping your packing operation productive is to frequently observe and upgrade the process as business factors change around it. Finding ways to tweak these processes is always worth your time and consideration. Reducing effort, time and energy for packing always pays off in a better customer experience.

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Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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