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Filled, sealed, delivered

A mail-order fulfillment company improves productivity and efficiency by switching to an automated void-fill and sealing system from a manual one to fill and tape its shipping boxes.

Jason Drum, Heartland America shipping manager, tears off the appropriate number of cushions and inserts them into the boxes to
Jason Drum, Heartland America shipping manager, tears off the appropriate number of cushions and inserts them into the boxes to

To keep on top of more than 3겨 orders per day, mail-order fulfillment company Heartland America needed a more efficient system to package its merchandise than manually feeding expanded polystyrene peanuts into boxes, then taping cases by hand.

According to Chris Scribner, operations manager at the Chaska, MN-based company, the manual system used until January '98 was both labor-intensive and incapable of addressing sudden increases in orders. Plus, Scribner feared his employees would develop carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of the repetitive motions needed for taping boxes shut.

"Under an individualized system where each packer is taping, inserting and sealing, we found that the only way we could really address an additional 30-percent increase in volume was just to throw labor at it," he says. "We couldn't make the labor work any more efficiently. So we decided to go in a different direction." That direction was an automated system for both void filling and case sealing on the same line.

"Before we invested in the systems, we could only package about 3겨 orders [per day] during peak time," Scribner says. "Now we can take care of 4길 boxes per day in a single eight-hour shift, using only one production line."

Light as air

Heartland America's products range from auto accessories to cigars, home office equipment to jewelry. So Scribner needed to find an automated void-fill system that accommodated box dimensions of 6"x10"x6" to 22"x20"x8". After shopping around, Scribner found the Fill-Air(TM) 1000 System from Sealed Air (Saddle Brook, NJ).

The machine injects air into clear film and seals the film to create a continuous series of cushions. An operator then tears off the desired number of cushions and inserts them into the package. The film, extruded as a tube by Sealed Air, is a 3-mil proprietary blend that includes low-density polyethylene. The material comes to Heartland America in 10"-wide rolls.

From a control panel, the operator selects the desired number of cushions, the cushions' fill capacity and size. Scribner chose five preset cushion bag dimensions the company generally uses to fill its boxes. The bags can be as long as 30" or as short as 5", and they can be filled with air to 80% of capacity, according to Sealed Air. When the machine seals the bags, it also perforates them in the seal area, making it easy for the operator to simply tear off a bag.

"My target for all shipping personnel is to make a tight case," Scribner says. "So regardless of whether they wrap the air bags around the product or they use the air bags at the top and the bottom of the case, it is our goal that the product in the case is locked in position, even though the box is not necessarily filled completely with void fill."

Sealed with a strip

Once one or more cushions are placed into boxes with products, a 700r 3M-Matic from 3M (Minneapolis, MN) tapes the cases shut. An operator at the packing station centers the boxes on the machine's infeed conveyor. Cases proceed through the 3M AccuGlide II taping head that applies the sealing tape to the top and bottom of the case at speeds to 15 boxes/min. The case sealer's motor drive automatically adjusts to the varying height and width of each package.

"The 3M-Matic system evenly places the tape along the center of the box every time," Scribner says. "Our packages look much more professional and clean," than when they were taped manually.

Plus, Scribner says the company's tape expenses have decreased because the system requires only one strip of tape to seal the package. "Before, we used several pieces of tape on each package. And sometimes the flaps of one box would stick to another. Now we only use one strip to seal the flaps," he says.

Efficient system

Althought he doesn't attribute it completely to machinery, Scribner says that since Heartland America bought the equipment last year, the packing/shipping process is 50% more efficient. "Three cases can now go through the line in the time that two did manually," he says.

The line using these dunnage and case-taping systems operates one shift/day, five days/week. One person is responsible for counting products, sorting invoices and making sure the appropriate product quantities are delivered to the line. This person also erects a standard corrugated case and inserts the product. A second person adheres a shipping label to the case exterior and also packs any additional insert material. Another person adds the void-fill cushions and pushes the filled case through the case sealer.

"By teaming up, we are able to limit tasks to one or two per person, which makes them more efficient and less prone to error," Scribner says. "It's the whole Henry Ford adage, we are just that much more efficient working on an assembly line format."

Scribner says it only took four months for a return on investment for the equipment, mainly due to a huge gain in productivity that allowed the company to reduce personnel. That reduction saved the company about $30ꯠ in labor last year, he says.

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