To understand the advantages that reusable packaging can provide for manufacturers in reducing waste and delivering operational efficiencies, you have no better illustration than the example of automotive. It is a success story that is now being replicated in many other industries, even as the long successful, and resilient partnership between automotive and reusables continues to evolve.
It wasn’t unusual for automotive OEM plants to generate mountains of packaging waste that cluttered facilities and required substantial non-value-adding labor in decades past. In high-volume manufacturing lines, massive amounts of trash can be created. When I first started writing about reusables over 20 years ago, I heard about one plant with a 10-acre yard full of broken pallets and packaging waste. Today, thanks to reusables, many automotive plants are landfill-free.
While waste reduction was an important early driver for the early adoption of reusables in automotive, several other crucial benefits exist. For example, reusables aid in protecting delicate Class A finish components. New vehicles must gleam, and there is no tolerance for visual imperfections. Coated materials, dividers, waterjet cut foam, and other custom dunnage solutions ensure that parts are not scuffed in transit.
Reusables also help in other ways. Increasingly, they are designed to optimize part density in transit to reduce transportation costs. They are also designed with superior ergonomics and safety in mind, such as rounded corners to prevent cuts, handholds and convenient access doors in intermediate bulk containers. Reusable packaging can also ensure accurate part presentation for robotic assembly.
What types of reusable packaging are used in automotive?
The automotive industry uses a variety of reusables, including rigid bulk containers, sleeve packs, pallet and lid systems, handheld containers, custom protective dunnage and shipping racks.
Protective dunnage is critical to protecting high gloss parts. The range includes a variety of solutions, including custom die-cut plastic corrugated divider sets, foam inserts, sealed-edge divider sets, pigeon-hole dunnage, custom thermoformed trays, sewn fabric bags, foam rails and molded foam inserts.
Plastic pallets are durable and widely used. The standard automotive industry size is 48×45″. Plastic pallets may be combined with top caps and seatbelt systems to secure unit loads of handheld containers without requiring single-use stretch wrap.
Intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) are widely used used in automotive. Stackable IBCs help optimize transport and storage when full, and knock-down design optimizes return once emptied. The standard automotive pallet footprints in North America are 48×45″ and 32×30″.
Automotive racks are vertical structures that may consist of several layers in the form of shelving for holding multiple items for moving and transport, often designed with wheels for unit mobility. They are used for sub-assemblies and parts such as engines, body panels, bumpers, doors, and windows.
Handheld containers are becoming increasingly popular for handling smaller parts needed for automotive assembly. When positioned lineside in flow racks, they take up much less space than bulk containers and reduce travel time for assemblers. As for inventory management, a switch to handheld containers allows for more precise ordering of parts by the pallet layer or even by the tote so that excess, obsolete parts can be minimized at the end of a run.
An evolving success story
Reusable packaging is crucial to the automotive supply chain even as it continues to change against the backdrop of increasingly global supply chains and the transition to electric vehicles. Longer supply lines require that reusables optimize part density when full and be collapsible or nestable when empty to minimize freight costs. Likewise, the introduction of lithium-ion batteries has dictated the design of new reusable packaging solutions to ensure safe handling.
There are other emerging storylines, as well. Reusable packaging providers now address the need for electrostatic discharge (ESD) packaging as the number of electronic devices aboard vehicles increases. Likewise, the transition from bulk containers to smaller sizes and kitting can help address the need for lineside flexibility. Finally, automotive reusables increasingly leverage various Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to improve operational efficiencies.
Reusable packaging in the automotive sector has been highly successful and continues to meet the changing supply chain’s needs. It is a brilliant story about how to improve manufacturing sustainability.