Reducing Complexity in Reusable Packaging: Flexible Container Allows Various Sized Gear Racks to Be Stored in Same Container

One of the ongoing challenges for reusable packaging which is part-specific is complexity involving several sizes or variations for different production models. For example, a part available in different sizes often requires that it be transported or stored in various packaging sizes. This quite simply means that corresponding to the number of different product sizes just as many different types of packaging must be provided. The result is needless complexity, increased product damage, and an increased error rate.

flexbehaelter_gude_schaefflerAutomotive supplier Schaeffler Technologies acquires a wide range of gear racks with different lengths and diameters from its suppliers, which are used for the electromechanical steering in passenger vehicles. Until now, a maximum of two gear racks with a predefined product length were placed into an injection-molded container with fixed nest contours. In the course of time, however, the variety of parts increased such that a strategic decision could no longer be avoided: to either, as previously, acquire type-related containers and thus have a variety of very different types of packaging, which have to be stocked and managed in different quantities. The only alternative to the risk of “packaging chaos” was the development of a new, flexible container, which was able to hold any gear racks planned for the years to come. Together with the Manufacturing and Automation Departments of Schaefler, the decision of the packaging logistics experts was to explore this possibility.

Due to the long-term successful cooperation between Schaeffler Technologies and the container specialist Utz from northern German town of Schüttorf, Utz Sales Manager Rüdiger Köhler was assigned with the task.

“Together with Utz, a container was to be developed, which not only offers space for the longest gear rack, but also holds the smaller gear racks firmly and securely!” commented Stefan Mattausch, Project Manager at Schaeffler Technologies in Herzogenaurach. In addition, the different diameters of the round metal bars had to be considered as well, and the luxury of packaging two gear racks with different lengths in one and the same container had to be included as well. Almost self-evident in that was the requirement that it must be possible to handle the container as well as the parts placed therein automatically.

The first step in the design process was to create a standard sized injection-molded polypropylene container complying with the stability and outer dimension requirements without considering the “inner workings” in the first step. In order to prevent any deflection of the base in view of the weight of the gear racks during the transport of the container on roller conveyors, a closed double-base was chosen, for which an additional plastic plate is welded onto the base. Due to the requirements of automation, a decision was made in favor of 10 supports for the metal bars in each container with a maximum diameter of the gear racks of 32 mm. Thus, the outline conditions were set and the only thing still missing was a brilliant idea, which makes an injection-molded component holder a flexible transport unit for gear racks of different lengths in the range of 690 – 910 mm.

In the end, a simple and at the same time practical solution consisted in attaching up to two strips with round supports for the “rear end” of the gear racks in an area of the container prepared with a slip-on system. These strips can be flexibly positioned with modular dimensions of 7 mm and thus enable the placement of any gear racks to be packaged independent of their length into one and the same basic container.

“Once positioned, the strips don’t have to be relocated, stated Stefan Mattausch. “Only with the expiry of a product and replacement by a subsequent type, the container has to be adjusted to the new geometrical requirements.”

The employees of Schaeffler Technologies responsible for delivery of the gear racks were more than satisfied with the outcome. Instead of having to use a multitude of different packaging solutions, now all product variants could be packed into one and the same container. In addition, the parts can be placed into the plastic component holder as well as removed using a robot.

Essential for the Schaeffler Group, however, are the substantial savings in packaging costs with the development of a flexible reusable system. “We are more than satisfied with the savings potential which results from the flexible container!” Mattausch summarized.


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