FedEx: shake, rattle and roll for the perfect package

THERE’S a whole lot of shaking going on at Federal Express, plus a whole lot of heating, chilling and dropping.
But it is all in the name of supply chain science, to design the best packaging for fragile and sensitive goods.
FedEx TechConnect has opened a 30,000 sq ft package laboratory in home base Memphis – the fourth evolution of the centre – to provide free package testing and design services at a unit whose laboratories can simulate arctic and desert conditions. It is even being used to help the US space programme.
Chad Polkinghorne, senior manager, packaging services FedEx TechConnect, says: “Our engineers are like pre-consulting firms for the customers and the lab is the customer service centre. We develop various prototype packages, and in doing that we have produced several retail packages that are now for sale."
The new lab has two additions to previous versions. It is able to test palletized freight and also has a number of environmental chambers to measure the effects of temperature, humidity and pressure changes.
All the FedEx designs have to meet the standards of the International Safe Transit Association, based in Michigan. While known as a parcel carrier, FedEx is now into heavier freight brackets, such as consolidation traffic.
Says Polkinghorne: “One of the challenges we have is that a company will package items just for a palletised load, and their customer will ship it parcel. So we need to work with the initial developer.
‘But it is not just consolidation traffic. The consignment could be one extremely large piece of equipment, and in the past we had limited capability to do the testing. Now we have a crane that can lift 10,000 lbs (4.5 tonnes). It is geared to our less than truck load volumes, but it has some air cargo implications as well.”
FedEx handles about 10m packages per day, and commerce on this scale requires a scientific focus on proper packaging, hence founder Fred Smith’s decision to commission the first lab in 1987.
The equipment has higher and lower temperature limits than are required, but the ability to test to the full extremes comes in useful for some projects underway for the space programme.
At lesser temperature ranges, the lab can develop bespoke packaging for the pharmaceutical sector, such as the integrator’s cold shipping product which maintains a constant 2–8°C environment without the need for gel packs.Before the temperature chambers were available, the testing had to take place in the summer, in order to achieve those temperature extremes.
Says Polkinghorne: “The great thing is that we can support these pharma customers. We can develop a package, and then use our temperature chambers to programme in a certain profile where we know it is on a truck for a certain amount of time, on a plane for a certain number of hours. We can now do all that testing in our laboratory.”
There is also the SenseAware device that will record the time, temperature, pressure, and even the light intensity during a journey. Designed for expensive and sensitive goods, such as human skin, it is described as a “heart monitor” in the supply chain which can be monitored online.Pharma is one focus for the lab, but if you want to ship a product range of high value guitars, that is not a problem.
Says Polkinghorne: “We have a guitar company shipping three model types, all with different packaging for very similarly shaped items. So we are working on a package that can handle all three designs."
FedEx has its own secret “black box” that it will slip into the supply chain to test what is happening to a typical consignment on a particular route where there is an issue over damage.
“It measures everything: temperature and humidity for example, but what we are really interested in are the shock levels and how that can be converted into an equivalent drop height. That has been a really handy tool for us.”
One IT company kept complaining about damage to computers in the FedEx system. So the secret shipper black box was deployed to find out what was happening.
“The packages were being pushed off by their own belt on to the ground. The damage took place before it entered our system.“It was one of those ‘aha’ moments. It is interesting the things you find out when helping a customer solve their problems.”

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