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Textbook seller learns a lot about cushioning

Follett Educational Services cuts both costs and customer complaints by switching from foam-in-place to an air cushion void-fill system.

Packers can easily choose how many bags to place in boxes to protect the books. This system makes it easier for packers to use
Packers can easily choose how many bags to place in boxes to protect the books. This system makes it easier for packers to use

Although text books seem to be pretty strong, they still need protection in shipping. That's why Chicago-based Follett Educational Services goes to such lengths to protect its grade- and high-school textbooks from damage during distribution across the country.

Follett, the nation's largest provider of textbooks and instructional materials, has changed its protective packaging strategy a number of times. The company began by using wadded-up paper. Later it changed to foam-in-place cushioning. While the foam-in-place was much more efficient than the paper packaging, it created a new set of problems for Follett.

"The foam-in-place caused huge housekeeping problems for us," says Dan Newton, Follett's vice president of distribution and facility. The foam leaked onto books, packers and conveyor lines. Storage was no picnic, either.

"We had to store and dispose of 50-pound barrels of chemicals," says Newton. "There was considerable waste because the foam bags didn't always fit the material in the carton. But more important, our customers complained about foam on the books they received."

After two years of using the foam system and receiving numerous complaints, Newton decided it was time for a change. At the beginning of 1998, Packaging Solutions (Elk Grove Village, IL) introduced Newton to FP Intl.'s (Redwood City, CA) Cell-O Flo-Pak void-fill machine. Follett liked the system and decided to make the change. Extruded of high-density polyethylene, the 1.6-mil Cell-O bag material comes to Follett as rollstock in the form of a tube.

The tubular film feeds into the Cello-O machine that first perforates the film. Air is blown into the tube through the perforations. Then a heat-seal tool comes down over the perforations and simultaneously seals the trailing edge of one bag and the leading edge of the next bag. Operators at pack stations tear off as many perforated bags as they need. The air inside the bag can be regulated by the operator of the machine, but generally the finished size of the inflated bag is 7.5"x3.25".

Books are taken to the packaging area, where each edition is verified to make sure it's the right title and copyright year and that the correct quantities are being shipped. a motorized conveyor adjacent to the packaging tables carries an order to a worker who puts the order into a box and applies a shipping label that includes a bar code.

The box is sent down the conveyor line to the dunnage area where the Cell-O machine is located. After the operator inserts the proper amount of void fill, the boxes are sealed by a 3M (St. Paul, MN) tape sealer. Next, they are conveyed up a ramp to an in-motion scanner and scale station. The scanner, supplied by Accu-Sort Systems (Telford, PA), scans the bar code to permit the conveyor system to divert the box to the proper shipping area. As the box travels along the conveyer, it's weighed by a scale provided by Mettler Toledo (Columbus, OH). Based on the bar- code scan and the weight of the box, an electronic manifest is created.

Better on all levels

Newton likes the Cell-O system because it saves the company money, it is easier to use and Follett's customers like it better. Newton estimates annual total savings--including labor, cost of materials and reduced maintenance requirements--is close to 50%. "I think the primary savings have come in the cost of the chemicals that we were using before for the foam-in-place, versus the cost of the Cell-O film," Newton says.

He says this system means he no longer has to worry about storing chemicals nor the maintenance required to keep foam from leaking. Now all the operator has to do is make sure the hopper is full of air cushions.

"The books are arriving [at schools] in good condition," says Newton. "When the books arrive in good condition but some of the bags have popped in transit, then the bag did its job. The bag cushioned a blow that would have otherwise resulted in book damage," like bent corners or broken spines.

While Newton has not heard any specific comments on the new system, he takes this as a good sign. "It may be one of those things where no news is good news," says Newton. "Our customers routinely pick up the phone and notify us if there is a problem. There's been a complete absence of that in the last year."

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