This article is all about how to pack boxes efficiently and making your packing station the best version of itself.
There are a few ways to pack boxes efficiently. Choosing the right box being one. Selecting the right packaging materials to go with that box being another. But once you’ve done both these things correctly and let’s face it, there are enough articles about how to do so - read two of ours here and here – you might think your work is all but done. The bad news is, it’s not.
The good news is, we’re here to tell you about a way in which order fulfilment can be streamlined and overall efficiency improved to the max: the packing station – that last destination within your company that your product is subject to before it waves goodbye and wings its way to its new home.
In the simplest terms, a packing station is the designated space given over to where orders are packaged ready for posting. Packing stations vary enormously and can be anything from the corner of a desk, to a dining room table, an area of a warehouse or indeed, an entire warehouse filled to the brim with automated machinery and sophisticated label and wrapping machines.
Any shrewd e-commerce business will consider its packing station an integral component of its success, even if it seems as though the hard work - gaining consumer attention, convincing them to buy a product, producing beautifully branded boxing - has been done and dusted. The thing is, it’s not enough to sell a product and send off an order. The way in which that order is prepared for despatch as part of warehouse operation also deserves attention. It might be considered the least interesting part of order fulfilment, but it's still integral to business strategy.
Everything needs an overhaul occasionally and packing stations are no exception. It pays dividends for a company to regularly analyse how each part of their business is working in order to maximise both profit margins and employee satisfaction. And that includes packing stations. A well-designed packing station increases employees’ productivity and leads to fewer errors, lower shipping costs, employee efficiency and contentment and ultimately, that all important customer satisfaction.
Amazon, that e-commerce behemoth, has re-defined the humble packing station to meet the scale and breadth of its enterprise. That’s no mean feat considering the sheer quantity and variety of the products it promises to deliver to its customers, many of those in under 24 hours. Amazon is a company known for using technology as the bedrock for everything it does in order to facilitate its goals, but experience proved that a human element is just as vital and Amazon was happy to admit it.
Initially, the on-line giant aimed at making its packing stations wholly automated. This worked incredibly well for books, but when it came to the more oddly shaped items, things started to go pear-shaped. Consequently, Amazon had a re-think and acknowledged that it needed to “keep the humans for high-value, complex work and use machines to support those tasks.” Now, this is exactly what Amazon does and it does it so well that's it's worth looking at in a bit more detail.
Firstly, Amazon fulfilment centres have at least 100 dedicated packing stations allowing for flexibility (i.e., room and capability) when it comes to seasonal variances. Secondly, human packers scan orders and aided by specialist software, they can see by means of a display monitor exactly which packaging option is the best one for that particular order. Void fill materials are close at hand, as are machines programmed to automatically dispense the exact length of tape needed to seal a particular box with zero wastage. This means it takes seconds to package an item and seconds to send it on its way to another contingent of packers who stand by to scan, label and manifest the packaged order, ensuring its status can be tracked at all times and that a package contains all the information it needs to be delivered successfully.
Ultimately and as a final safeguarding measure, each Amazon package is weighed. If there’s a discrepancy between the product’s recorded weight and its packaged weight, that all important human will carry out a manual check.
The process of order fulfilment at Amazon is practically an art form (read more about it here). This is not down to luck, coincidence, good software or even hiring motivated employees; it is thanks to Amazon's own willingness to constantly analyse their methods, following a philosophy of continuous improvement and a manufacturing model applying lean principles (maximising productivity, minimising waste).
But, there’s no reason why any e-commerce business - even one operating on a minute scale - can’t apply a few of Amazon's principles and ensure that their packing station is the most efficient it can possibly be.
For packaging to be carried out effortlessly, orders need to arrive at the packing station fully complete and confirmed as ready to ship with an accurate delivery address.
If a packer isn’t able to fulfil an order because some part of that order is missing or worse, they have to scrabble around to work out what’s gone wrong and what needs sorting out, this will cause frustration and take up valuable packing time. And of course, time means money. This should be avoided – excuse the pun - at all costs.
Your packer needs to concentrate on packing. They should also know exactly what orders they’re dealing with, where they’re going and when they have to be there. If necessary, for example, orders could be sorted into coloured bags or bins. Whatever the system, it must be devised to eliminate doubt or confusion. A packer's job is to pack: economically, appropriately and above all else, swiftly.
It sounds obvious, but a packing station should be the right size, not only for the number of employees working there, but also in terms of the number of products and any equipment that might be required to pack larger, heavier items safely (e.g., hoists, lifting equipment, etc.).
It’s also a good idea to consider seasonal variances well before you hit those busy periods. Does your packing station have capacity for a few extra employees during peak times? Can you get orders packed and dispatched just as quickly when demand is high?
Give your packers easy access to all the packing supplies they need and ensure they don’t have to bend crouch or stretch in order to get hold of packaging materials. Everything should be at hand: not just the packaging paraphernalia, but any miscellaneous items like promotional materials that might need to be included. Naturally, the items used the most should be in the most prominent and accessible spot. If supplies are kept fully stocked and are routinely stored in the same place, packers will unconsciously reach for items without first having to think about where they’re kept.
As far as paper void fill is concerned, it's worth considering programmable machines. Take a chip off Amazon's block and assess whether or not your packaging methods could be further stream-lined by offering your packers automated options, helping them to minimise wastage and maximise packing speeds even further.
Packing doesn’t need to be overly complicated. Know your products and select the right crash lock box or the perfectly sized seal and peel envelope or book wrap mailer. Products can be ready to go in a matter of seconds without the need for time-consuming void-fill and tape.
And speaking of tape, traditionally, corrugated cardboard boxes have always been sealed using the handy tape gun, but these days, it's not always the best option and there are products out there which are quicker to use and give better results. Water activated tape machines, for example, might seem like an expensive investment, but they’re faster to use and believe it or not, create stronger seals which are more difficult to tamper with and far more environmentally friendly.
Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious, employees need training. Everyone has some experience putting a present or a parcel together, but they don’t have experience in packing specific products in a certain way to fit with a company’s brand strategy and a consumer's expectations. Training is vital.
But don't forget, packers are the ones at the coal face. They will be able to tell you what, if any, the packaging sticking points are, where difficulties lie and what slows them down. As Amazon's former Head of Operations, Marc Onetto says, "You have to ask people to use their brains and their imaginations to solve problems".
It will always pay, not only to listen to your packers, but also to actively encourage them to come up with ways to contribute towards making your business' order fulfilment exceed expectations.
We hope that this article has been useful in helping you establish or even, re-assess, how to run your packing station. The success of any e-commerce business only comes as the result of the sum of all of its parts and the speed and efficiency of a packing station is one such part. Should you wish to discuss your packing station or any aspect of packaging, contact The Packaging Club today. We'd love to talk to you.