Office furniture maker alters distribution packaging for heavy desktops, increasing protection where it's needed, reducing it where it's not. Savings total nearly $180ꯠ/yr in materials and labor, while repetitive stress injuries are eliminated.
By David Newcorn, Senior Editor
By its nature packaging is designed to protect the product it holds. But by accident of design it sometimes doesn't protect the operator. Workers at Steelcase Inc. Grand Rapids MI learned this the hard way. After years of trying to fold the doublewall corrugated tray blanks for large metal desktops workers in the packaging department ended up with plenty of sore wrists. That in turn affected productivity. "At any given time about four out of 16 people were on light-duty type jobs" says John McCrackin senior packaging engineer at the world's largest manufacturer of office furniture. The problem? Cut score lines on the 200#-test doublewall B/C-flute corrugated die-cut tray blanks were troublesome for Steelcase workers to break particularly during the summer months when the humidity negatively affects the corrugated cut-scoring process. And it wasn't just a case of bad corrugated from one supplier. "No matter what supplier ran them they all had problems cut-scoring the materials" attests McCrackin. "So it was just a bad package design." Charged with finding a solution McCrackin gave serious thought to which areas actually needed the most protection. The flat desktops weigh from 100 to 250 lb and measure 30" to 120" long 25" to 30" wide and 3" thick. Two other metal components in the package are packed flat on top of the desktop. "I asked myself what are we really trying to protect?" explains McCrackin. "It's sheet-metal office furniture which can stand up to a lot so all we're really trying to do is protect the corners. If that's the case then why are we putting it in a multi-walled multi-layered corrugated tray?" he asks rhetorically. With corner protection in mind he began to consider different materials and package designs. However he ended up coming back to one of Steelcase's main corrugated suppliers Pactiv Inc. (Evanston IL) formerly Packaging Corporation of America. Working with a corrugated designer at Pactiv's Grandville MI facility McCrackin developed a unique corrugated corner that provides the requisite protection. One thing that makes the corner unique is that it doubles as a corner post for pre-assembled desks. The 200#-test C-flute corners with a nonabrasive coating are shipped flat. At Steelcase the corners are assembled in batches by a worker who folds them and inserts them into a 3M-Matic(TM) S-857 "L" clip applicator from 3M (St. Paul MN) which applies a 4 1/2" piece of filament tape to the corner locking it into shape. With protection beefed up in the corners Steelcase scaled down body protection where it wasn't needed. The company switched to a singlewall five-panel folder a standard wraparound case design made of 200#-test C-flute corrugated. It is also supplied by Pactiv. The result is a package intelligently designed to put protection where it's needed and reduce it where it isn't. The benefits: * Repetitive stress injuries to workers and the need for light duty have been eliminated. * Corrugated consumption has been reduced by 274 lb/yr. * Cycle times required to assemble each case has been reduced by 90%. * Savings from materials and labor total $179 annually. In-house engineering Under the previous process trays were formed by hand packed and a separate lid was folded and applied. Packages were manually lifted onto a separate pedestal for sealing by hand with gummed paper tape. Under the new method packaging starts out on one of eight packing stations which are essentially short conveyor spurs off a central roller conveyor. McCrackin retrofitted the spurs with opposing metal fixture blades that pop up between the rollers to hold the five-panel folder in place during packing. Both the materials change and the station retrofits were completed in July '95. To start the process an operator presses two foot pedals to raise two of the metal fixture blades one at 0" and the other at 25" or 30" depending on which desktop is being packaged. A flat five-panel folder is pressed into the fixtures which forms the basic shape of the case. The two ends are folded and taped and the nonabrasive corrugated corners are placed in the four inside corners. The desktop and two other components are loaded into the case and the top is folded down but not yet glued. The operator presses the foot pedals again and the fixture blades holding the case retract beneath the surface of the conveyor spur. The operator then simply pushes the cases onto the main conveyor where they convey down to the glue station. There a bead of hot melt adhesive is dispensed and metal bars on the conveyor hold the carton into position and wipe down the top flap of the tray onto the glue bead. "We did get some quotes for a case sealer but they were really expensive" recalls McCrackin. "We could have justified the cost but our maintenance people said they could build this themselves." Compared to the previous packaging method the new method eliminates about 90% of the folding work required for the tray according to McCrackin. The corners are also used as corner posts or edge protectors for pre-assembled metal desks. In such an application instead of an L-shaped corner used for cushioning the desktops the corrugated remains straight. The dual-use concept was envisioned from the start: "Whenever I develop a new project I try to think ahead to make sure I can use it in another application" says McCrackin. "Although we are always looking for ways to reduce costs in our processes" he concludes "the driving motivation for me was to make the packaging process more operator-friendly. I was able to accomplish that goal with the new package design."