Innovative Furniture Manufacturer Develops Unique Reusable Packaging Systems for Delivery of Office Furnishings, Meets LEED Requirements
Zeeland, Michigan-based Herman Miller is a well-known innovator of contemporary interior furnishings. With sales of $2.15 billion and 5,800 employees, it does business in over 100 countries worldwide, Not quite so well known, beyond readers in this space, is its reputation as an award-winning adopter of reusable packaging solutions. The company had previously won the 2012 Excellence in Reusable Packaging Award.
“We are very experienced in designing incoming material to our production plant, but we had never used it for outgoing materials” explained David Martin, packaging engineering manager of Herman Miller. He was speaking at the 2015 Reusable Packaging Pavilion at PACK EXPO, discussing a major contract involving wood office furniture and metal wall panels. The company believes it is the largest deployment of outbound reusable packaging its industry.
“This customer had safety and sustainability goals beyond others we had ever encountered, as well as requirements for successful delivery and on-time completion, Martin explained. “We used these goals throughout our problem solving process to design a unique application of reusable packaging and its return system.”
The client was a major oil company. The project involved a large volume of a “fairly small number of designs and sizes,” requiring ongoing delivery to a single site.
One of the problems typically faced with delivery using reusables to final customers is that those reusables are typically scattered so widely in such small numbers that they cannot be cost-effectively retrieved. In this case, however, the customer deliveries were going to a single location. “It came to us that reusable would be feasible,” Martin continued. Another benefit, the reusables would meet LEED requirement of salvaging or recycling 75 percent of packaging debris.
The application proved to be extremely successful. It delivered savings of over $500,000 over the course of the project in freight and packaging versus expendable packaging while avoiding the generation of 100 tons of trash. Other benefits included safer material handling at the job site, a smaller shipping and handling envelope, as well as a faster installation.
Nearly 250 trailer loads of furniture were shipped during the life of the project, which ran from December of 2013 until April of 2015. Product and packaging damage was negligible. Freight cost was cut nearly in half versus the use of expendable packaging, as covers fit more compactly around the units versus corrugated packaging with EPS corner protectors. Additionally, the inclusion of handling straps in the design enabled units to be stacked higher in the trailer without affecting quality or safety.
Packaging suppliers IFR and Veritiv were critical to the success of the program, Martin explained. They provided the necessary materials and skills for the application. Prototypes were thoroughly tested to ensure safe transit.“A typical (expendable) package for one of the furniture units consists of 8 pieces of EPS foam, 2 corrugated sleeves, and 4 corrugated trays,” he said. “Thus, 150,000 EPS corner fillers and 120,000 pieces of corrugated were reduced on this program.”
Given only a limited time allotment at the delivery dock, the reusable packaging proved to be very effective. With expendable packaging, material handlers would have been faced with removing packaging at the dock and risking damage while moving the pieces of furniture a quarter mile through the tunnel and up the elevator to the final office location, or else moving the furniture in the packaging and then having to haul the emptied packaging back after unloading. Using the reusable packaging system, however, the reusable covers could be easily folded and taken back to the dock for return.
Crucial to the project’s success was maintaining a steady flow of product and meeting the daily delivery schedule. This was aided by the ease of deliveries using reusables, as mentioned above, as well as the crucial participation of partners such as Luthor Logistics, which provided trailer space on a weekly basis to reposition the empty reusable packaging from Texas back to Michigan, where they were in turn inspected and cleaned of any debris by Eagle Packaging. Covers were then folded and placed on transfer carts for return back to the Herman Miller production facility.
Martin said that all partners “did exactly what was needed when schedule changes caused unanticipated demand swings and our reusable “float” could not meet demand. This involved the manufacture of added covers, as well as Luthor Logistics flexing its returns as needed.
The project involved the purchase of around 1,200 covers, which were used on average, 15 times each. Around 50 to 60 of them were damaged in the project and the rest are intact. The company intends to repurpose them for other applications.