Reusable Packaging Fills Tall Order for Shipping IBM Mainframes

When big airlines, banks, and other customers pay out millions of dollars for one of IBM’s powerhouse servers, they expect a smooth delivery of their highly-engineered product. For the packaging engineering team at IBM, this is a tall order: literally. The highly sensitive and expensive mainframe computers are the size of refrigerators, weighing in at 1,800 to 3,600 pounds.

IBM reusable packaging

“My challenge is getting our product to our customers in high quality condition, and doing itin a way that is economical, and good for the environment,” said Sharon Spaulding, ISC Packaging Engineering, IBM. “Because our packaging is reusable, we were able to create highly-engineered and durable crates. The return on investment and protection of the mainframe more than justify the cost of the boxes.”

Reusable transit packaging addresses all the challenges. Because reusable packaging is used repeatedly, it is cost effective to customize it to meet IBM’s challenging requirements for product protection. First, the individual component units are bolted permanently within a frame built on four full-swivel casters. When ready for shipment, the mainframe is wheeled into a highly engineered, wooden reusable crate. IBM uses only one crate size – 24” wide x 80” tall x 50” deep – to ship mainframes of varying weights and depths. Custom designed reusable cushions made of polyethylene are placed strategically around the mainframe to buffer it from shock and vibration. The mainframe on its casters remains free floating in the box; it is not bolted down to the exterior package. This way, the box – rather than the product – absorbs vibration.

“Every day, we are moving a very heavy product. Yet it is also very sensitive. Shock and vibration could damage the sensitive electronic components of the server,” explained Spaulding.

A second multi-use box accompanies the shipment. The corrugated container houses the mainframe covers that will be installed at the customer site. Although these covers are far less expensive and sensitive than the mainframe itself, they also need to be delivered in pristine shape.

While in transit, the mainframes need to remain free from low temperature and high humidity. IBM addresses this problem by working with a dedicated carrier that provides climate-controlled, padded trucks for shipments throughout the US. Overseas shipments require an additional VpCI Bag or Barrier Bag and desiccant for protection from these uncontrolled elements.

Getting the product to the customer site is only half the challenge. Once it arrives on site, the mainframe needs to be unloaded without any damage. IBM’s custom-designed box has a ramp that is incorporated into the front door. Metal plates fastened on the exterior of the door provide added support and keep the wood from being damaged. The mainframes are rolled out of the crate smoothly in the same fashion they were loaded initially.

Employees from IBM’s dedicated carrier are specially trained to load and unload the mainframe, remove the supplemental packaging, and move the mainframe to its permanent location at the customer site. IBM Customer Engineers then take over and complete final install and bring up of the system.

IBM Reusable Packaging 2“The entire process was carefully designed so that our customers never touch the product until it is installed. We make sure that only certified employees handle the product from the time it leaves our plant in Upstate NY through installation,” said Spaulding.

The carrier is responsible for placing the cushions and other packaging components back into the crate and then getting it back on the truck. The same truck takes the container to the nearest distribution center. Eventually, it is returned to IBM’s operations in Poughkeepsie, NY where it is inspected and cleaned before reuse.

IBM’s packaging engineers considered designing a collapsible box to reduce return freight costs and storage space. However, the customized packaging components used in the interior are also reusable. IBM believes it gets maximum return of the interior pieces because the box is not collapsible and can house all the pieces on the return trip. Individual crates are tracked through a software program written by IBM. Each crate is assigned a barcode associated with the server it will transport before it leaves the IBM facility.

“This is a highly-engineered, high-performing crate. Our customers love it, our carriers love it, manufacturing loves it, and company management loves it,” emphasized Spaulding. “In order to make them cost-effective, we need to get 4 to 5 turns on each box. Tracking takes additional work, but it is essential to getting them back.”

Tracking also helps get the containers back in a reasonable time period, added Spaulding. “Some companies overlook this point in their calculations. If you don’t get your reusable packaging back quick enough, you will need more containers available for shipments.”

Spaulding gave a presentation on IBM’s reusable application at the Reusable Packaging Association’s Reusables Learning Center at PACK EXPO 2013.

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