Jonathan Newell discovers how avoidable product damage in the distribution environment can have a huge impact on brand image.
Distribution has always been a headache for manufacturers, with most spending large amounts of money on product and packaging design to make sure the product reaches its destination in one piece. In the past, that destination was usually a commercial customer for direct delivery or a retail outlet for consumer goods.
However, the growth in e-commerce has changed the distribution environment for both commercial and retail customers, with many placing orders electronically on distributors, warehouses and manufacturers and thereby placing the responsibility of “the last mile” of distribution on the supplier, rather than the customer.
Maintaining brand loyalty
Discussing the implications of failing to account for this last and often critical part of the distribution chain with TUV SUD in Segensworth, Ralph Harris says, “As purchases are increasingly made via the Internet, never before has packaging played such an important role in brand loyalty. This part of the distribution chain is poorly monitored and can be very harsh, resulting in poor brand confidence from customers if the package arrived damaged. “
According to Harris, manufacturers often focus entirely on making the product compliant and meeting environmental testing requirements which relate to the in-use environment, taking no account of distribution.
Compared to the service life of most products, the time spent in distribution is short but severe and often inadequately protected. TUV SUD recommends taking packaging design into account early in the design cycle. This should prevent over-engineering the product and ensure that the correct kind of distribution environment is taken into account.
Modes of transport
Distribution environments vary widely and so do the standards which cover them. Understanding which are the most appropriate for a product will determine what testing is required. Sea and air transport are characterised by certain vibration frequencies, whilst road transport is the most demanding – as well as being the most prevalent. Meeting the shock, bump and vibration testing requirements for such a distribution system is demanding.
Other factors also determine the kind of environment to which the product will be exposed, as explained by Ian Veale of TUV SUD: “Certain factors, like product size, determine both the environment and the risk. An example is the drop risk. Larger, palletised packages are exposed to risks of relatively low drops whilst manually handled smaller packages, which are lighter, are more likely to be dropped from greater heights.”
The majority of e-commerce products that are purchased online fall into this category and appropriate testing to one of the generic packaging specifications is recommended.
Distribution and packaging standards
The standards which apply to packaging and distribution of products are complex with various specifications, codes of practice and other documents specific to certain industries , such as the military MIL and DEF standards. There are other default standards published by ASTM, BSI, ISO and the distribution specific International Safe Transit Association (ISTA).
Testing and consultancy services are available within the UK, including TUV SUD’s Segensworth facility in Hampshire which has an ISTA-approved laboratory. These can provide various services to help companies understand the environment which is most applicable to their products and which standards are most appropriate. Testing can then be performed for certification as required.
“Whether it’s maintaining the sterility of critical medical supplies for a hospital or preventing damage to someone’s order from Amazon, the packaging used must meet the customer’s expectation for quality. Otherwise it could severely impact the brand’s reputation,” Harris concludes.