Defying traditional notions of protective packaging, IBM ships an all-in-one pack for preconfigured point-of-sale computer terminals. Customers no longer receive separately boxed components, escaping baffling product setup.
By David Newcorn, Senior Editor
As anyone who's ever unpacked and set up a home computer knows navigating through unfamiliar hardware software and manuals to get everything working is no picnic. So imagine what large retail chains face when they must install thousands of computer-like point-of-sale (POS) terminals in dozens if not hundreds of locations. POS terminals-essentially computers that have supplanted cash registers for department stores drug stores and other large chains-include many of the same components as a personal computer: keyboard CPU or logic unit printer monitor even a bar code scanner. IBM a major manufacturer of POS terminals had shipped its products much the way its competitors did-each component in its own box. While such packaging provides ample product protection retailer customers need a lot of manpower to unpack set up and configure the terminals. All this led IBM's packaging people to wonder if the POS terminals could be shipped fully set up so that customers could simply remove them from the box and plug them in. Simple in concept it was a radical idea that proved a challenge to carry out. POS terminals are big bulky and awkward machines whose assembled profiles thwart elegant packaging design. Foam-in-place was ruled out after IBM tested such a pack from a competitor. The customer who had shown IBM the all-in-one FIP pack liked the idea of integration but didn't care for the damages experienced with that particular foam-in-place pack. "We tested it here and it failed miserably" confirms Nicolle Dutts packaging engineer at IBM's Custom Solutions Manufacturing Div. in Charlotte NC. To make matters more challenging IBM's POS terminals are available in several hundred configurations due to different sized monitors cash drawers and logic units. After six months of endless design/test/back-to-the-drawing-board cycles and subsequent fine-tuning the package was released to the field a year and a half ago. The response? PW spoke with Dave Falkenhagen a project manager with Control Data System's Technology Deployment group. Falkenhagen headed a team that recently finished installing 7 IBM terminals for Mervyn's a national clothing retailer. How long did it really take to unpack and set up each terminal? "A couple of minutes" says Falkenhagen. "They were truly plug and play. You lift it out of the box and plug it into the wall." He says it takes closer to 30 minutes to set up traditionally packaged terminals. "Plus we could get by with using lesser skilled people so that brought the price down for Mervyn's" he adds. "Overall it was a cost benefit and a time benefit." The response from other customers has been similarly positive. IBM now offers this pre-assembly service as an option for which it charges extra to cover its costs though the charge is said to be nominal. Foam on the outside At first glance the package seems an impossible hodgepodge of boxes inserts pads and spacers. But the concept is relatively simple. Within an outer shipping box is an inner shipping container that Dutts refers to as a corrugated wrap. It resembles a box without top flaps. It's made of sturdy double-wall 350#-test B/C-flute same as the outer box. When Dutts and her colleagues first started designing "we had the idea that every component had to be attached or fixed to something" she says. "So we had a lot of polyethylene foam pieces that surrounded the monitor and printer since we didn't want anything to hit the side of the box. Yet nine times out of ten something would still break when we tested it." The culprit was the foam. No matter how foam blocks were placed one or two would always move or fall off. Implicit in the problem was the seed of the solution. If foam pads were relocated to the outside of the inner box and glued in place they would be pinned between two uniform surfaces-the inner and outer boxes-so that they couldn't fall off. Simple though it may seem that was the breakthrough concept. True there would be nothing but air between certain parts of the POS terminal and the inside walls of the inner box. But the product would still be immobilized at the base-which consists of the product's outermost dimensions-by fitting snugly into the inner box at the bottom. From there everything more or less fell into place. The finished design includes six to eight packaging components depending on the configuration ordered by the customer. Only two sizes of outer boxes are used one for POS terminals with monitors (measuring 293/8" x 233/8" x 263/8") and one for no monitors (233/8" x 223/8" x 263/8"). A separate corrugated accessories container was designed with two slots on the bottom so it snaps into place onto corresponding tabs that extend from the sidewalls of the inner box. The monitor attached to the main POS terminal via an arm was immobilized between the accessories box on the front and a PE foam wedge on the back. Another corrugated/PE piece fits over the printer and two or three other corrugated wedges and fillers are used as needed. For example if a POS terminal is ordered without a printer a similarly shaped corrugated filler is used to occupy that space. Design was done in-house with the aid of CAD software. Total immobilization The inner box or wrap is shipped to IBM as a flat blank with the foam blocks pre-glued by IBM's corrugated supplier Packaging Services of Carolina (Rockwell NC). Two pieces of 2" thick PE foam with a 1.7-lb per cu ft density are glued to what becomes the outer wall of each of the four sides as well as the bottom. PSC also supplies the rest of the corrugated components. At IBM's plant the fully assembled POS terminal is placed on the blank and all four sides are lifted up and locked together with the inner box's locking tabs. The box with foam pads on the outside and bottom is then lowered into the outer shipping container with the foam pads fitting snug against the inner wall of the outer box. At the customer's site the accessories container is first removed. The inner box can then be lifted out by four people who grasp die-cut handles. The materials selected were pretty standard. "We tried to keep as much corrugated as we could to be environmentally conscious" says Dutts. All of the corrugated is made with 40% recycled content. "Of course the downside is we have commingled materials as well as a big corrugated wrap taking up more space in inventory instead of neatly stacked foam pieces" admits Dutts. "But we felt simplicity and efficiency on the packaging line would far outweigh such disadvantages." The main criteria is that the package should survive IBM's rigorous shipping standards which Dutts says are tougher than ASTM and TAPPI standards. The tests involve a series of eight drops-six faces one corner and one edge-from 18". Packages underwent a vibration test where the frequency swept from 2 to 200 Hz. At the resonant points or frequencies at which the package really begins to shudder the package was vibrated for 15 extra minutes. Finally the packaged product was subjected to one of the most rigorous random vibration tests that IBM uses (1.04 Grms) for each of the package's three axes. Easy assembly...really! As daunting as the package looks Dutts maintains that it's easy enough for line personnel to assemble. Clear instructions with detailed CAD drawings clarify the packaging process. A vacuum hoist is used to lower the heavy terminals which weigh from 70 to 100 lb into the boxes. Four of the larger boxes or eight of the smaller are shipped on a standard 40x48 wood pallet. The economics are a wash since the extra time required to configure and assemble the terminals is covered by the additional fee IBM charges its customers for the assembly service. There is a slight savings on materials since IBM stocks fewer packaging parts. Suppliers also ship in bulk further reducing costs. Meanwhile the package continues to evolve. "With each new customer we get we've been making modifications" says Dutts. Next up according to Dutts: eliminating the commingled materials and switching to a corrugated pallet for a single-material packaging solution.