That don’t impress me much… (3 Ways Reusables Are Evolving)

Reflecting on 15 years and counting of Returnable Transit Packaging design

Pack on glitter2Britney Spears, Ricky Martin and Shania Twain were all big in 1999. They had made it and were household names. I, however, was just starting out, but in a completely different field of endeavour; returnable transportp ackaging design. Admittedly I had chosen the far less rock and roll industry but I was happy. A sagely old colleague told me that I had purely by accident stumbled into the perfect industry. He asked me what is it that every company that makes something needs? After a few answers the penny dropped and I said, Packaging!

As you can see from the subtitle of this article that was 15 years ago and I’ve been designing ever since – both in the UK and now in Europe. I have in the past designed products utilising high and low pressure injection but I have predominantly concentrated on twin and single sheet thermoformed products. I was discussing the advancement in pack and pallet design over the years with Rick and he thought it would make an interesting piece. As I wasn’t sure myself I decided to add Britney, Ricky and Shania with the hope he would add a few photos, at least then there would be something of interest for everyone to look at. Plus I could use the title of Shania’s 1999 hit as the title of this article and as a reminder of what my first design office manager knowingly told me; “Son the world is not waiting for your next design, don’t ever think it is.”InBox2

What I would like to discuss in this article is just three areas where over time my design criteria have followed the changes in economic and environmental demands from clients.

The first, an obvious example is that when I began designing packs the single most important criteria was return ratio. It was preached mantra like on every project in every industry. It was about optimising return transport. Now it’s all about speed and ease of use. Companies use to return their packaging, pallet on pallet, lid on lid with sleeves folded and stacked in a few erected boxes. Certainly in the automotive industry this is no longer viewed as cost effective to erect the delivered empty packs from a pile of pallets, lids and sleeves. Now packs are shipped empty, pack on pack as a “sandwich” of lid and pallet with the folded sleeve between the two. As the packs do not nest this is at the cost of the return ratio. The critical consideration now is speed of use. As with Ricky Martin, no one talks about return ratio much anymore!

Secondly in pursuit of efficiencies the simple act of erecting and collapsing a pack has impacted on the design of the lid, pallet and sleeve. For certain industries here in Europe the necessity to walk around the pack to lock the lid or pallet to the sleeve and to reach under the pallet to lock the pallet is deemed undesirable. Now an important consideration when designing is to minimise both the time and the movements of the operator during any interactions with the pack. Ergonomics and health and safety are important factors.

My final area is one I had personally overlooked for years. Yet for some clients it has serious cost and environmental implications. It is the washing or cleaning of packs, especially pallets. The products I have designed have over the years become smoother with water and dirt traps designed out, yet specific design consideration for how a product is cleaned efficiently had never been an issue. In researching I was surprised to learn that pallets with a large surface area are often easier to clean and dry than pallets with an open structure which can hold moisture and dirt.

In conclusion what has changed in the last 15 years, other than my hair and waistline? Now the design focus is not solely on the components that make up a pack but upon the whole logistic cycle of that pack and every interaction with it and the products within it, be that an operator, fork truck, outdoor warehouse or washing plant and finally we have to consider the ability to recycle it.


Dave Jones is British born, Belgian based freelance packaging designer and UK and Benelux sales agent and packaging solutions partner for Wi Sales in Germany. He has designed for a number of European twin sheet manufactures including 12 years in the UK and France for David S Smith Ducaplast. He recently completed the ThorPak® range of innovative container systems for Wi Sales. Prior to returnable packaging his previous design experience ranges from car crushers to children’s outdoor toys.

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Updated November 2016, originally posted May 2014.


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