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Distribution packaging and containerization

Strong packaging and a solid intermodal container are necessary for getting cargo to global markets, but more is required.

Sterling Anthony, CPP
Sterling Anthony, CPP
If there is a symbol of global commerce, it's the intermodal container (hereafter, container), a metal enclosure that ranges upwards to the size of a truck trailer, transported across the world's waterways on specially-constructed ships. The majority of container cargo is packaged; therefore, distribution packaging, via its function of product protection, is central to any program aimed at minimizing cargo damage. Depending on the organization of a company, managerial authority over such a program might fall under risk management, logistics, or some other department; regardless, packaging professionals have an important role to play. To fulfill that role, packaging professionals must have a fundamental understanding of the involved factors.
Communications technology can provide fast notification of damage but corrective actions are hampered by time and distance. When container cargo arrives damaged (or totaled) after weeks in transit, options for quick replacement are few and expensive. The best course is to focus on damage prevention.
Companies typically don't start out as international, let alone global; rather, that status is achieved over time. Some internet start-ups might seem exceptions to the model, but the differentiating factor is scale: they are not known for servicing customers who order in container-loads. The point is that before a company becomes global, it likely already is knowledgeable about shipping truckload and carload quantities; and although that knowledge is applicable to containers, that type of equipment imposes unique challenges.

A sea change

The motion of the ocean is a prime cause of damage, imposing hazards not encountered with land transportation. A container ship can roll, pitch, yaw, heave, sway, and surge−nautical terms that describe a variety of motions, including up and down, forward and back, side to side, rocking and rolling. Adding to the complexity is that those motions can occur in any combination.

As the ship goes so goes the container. It's not that the container is sliding all over the deck (or below deck, if that's where it's stored); however, even as the container maintains its position within a stacking arrangement, the various motions can compress the cargo against the sides of the container. Under that scenario, the packaging would need to have the requisite compression strength in its side walls. Contrast that with packaging for land transportation, wherein the more common concern is with vertical compression.
Hazards unique to container cargo are not limited to the tossing of the waves, either. Loading a container onto a ship's deck and unloading it at destination is another source, in that ports around the world differ in the modernity of their container-handling equipment and the care and skill with which they are operated. In reflection, a container might undergo sudden acceleration, sudden deceleration, steep tilting downward, and steep tilting upward, impacting the cargo in ways against which the packaging must counteract.

And whereas the hazards that water poses to cargo would seem obvious, they nonetheless can go underappreciated by assuming that containers are watertight. It can be a costly assumption because containers get damaged and become leakers (more about that subsequently).
In all, containers and seafaring conditions constitute formidable challenges to cargo protection.  Packaging can't meet those challenges alone, but can be an instrumental component of a damage control program. Such a program, at minimum, should establish standardized procedures for container inspection, planning the stow, and blocking and bracing

Even when doing business with a supplier that has a reputation for supplying quality containers, a shipper should inspect each one. A simple and effective method is a checklist, employing relevant headings.  One such heading should be Cleanliness, but not only in the sense of free from debris; there should be no indications of previous cargo in terms of fluids, stains, nor odors. Another heading should be Construction, making sure that there are no punctures in the sides, roof, and floor that would result in the aforementioned leakers. To the same purpose, the doors should be checked for worn or interrupted gaskets that can result in a seal that is not watertight. As for the exterior, the corners should be free from dents or other structural damage that could compromise interlocking stacking or interfere with equipment handling.


Of first order of importance is to assure that the container's weight limitations are not exceeded by referencing the shipping documents. The entire load should be staged prior to commencing loading, to evaluate whether pallets are fit and pallet-loads are erect and secure. Containers should be loaded for even weight distribution, in both the front-to-back and side-to-side directions. In the event that pallet-loads are of varying weights and sizes, staging the load facilitates the sequence required for even weight distribution. An experienced forklift driver working a shipping dock might be able to accomplish even weight distribution without a load diagram, but one never hurts. Incidentally, one of the ever-expanding features of warehouse management systems software is the ability to generate a diagram from order-filling data.

Blocking and bracing

As has been established, a container is subject to a variety of directional forces; therefore, it's of paramount importance that the cargo remain immobile within the container to prevent movement that can cause damage. Blocking and bracing serves that purpose.
Cargo should be loaded across the width of the container, snugly against the sidewalls, such that any void is down the center. Center voids can be filled with inflatable bags, among other options, depending on the width of the void and the characteristics of the cargo.
Cargo should be loaded along the length of the container, though not necessarily against the front end nor all the way to the back. Bulkheads might have to be used for weight distribution and/or for protection of the container, itself. Also a bulkhead at the rear of the container can be a safety feature that protects personnel from falling cargo when the doors are opened.
A bulkhead should not be jerry-built; instead, it should be constructed according to specifications, calling out materials and fasteners. Wood is the most chosen material for the blocking and bracing of trailers and railcars, but its use in containers can introduce phytosanitation issues, depending on the country of destination. Non-compliant wood that hasn't undergone chemical or heat treatment against insect infestation can be cause for a port authority to reject, quarantine, or destroy the containerized cargo. (For related reading, see the Packaging Insights 04/01/10 article, A Primer: Packaging and phytosanitation)
Worth it all

A company that aspires to be a high-volume shipper to markets around the world has to factor containers into its distribution strategy.  Furthermore, in that the ocean portion is sandwiched between the land portions of the journey, packaging for containerization is never an easy undertaking. But containerized cargo that arrives at final destination undamaged results in satisfied customers, repeat orders, and greater profits.   From a company's standpoint, that's a trifecta that makes for a beautiful world.

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax;
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