Tuesday, October 4, 2016

How Will New Transportation Technology Impact Packaging Damage?

By: Eric Carlson, Sr. Packaging Consultant, Chainalytics

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I am often involved in the replication of packaging damage due to transportation hazards; frequently there is a new or surprising dynamic between the trailer, the route and the products inside the trailer.  It is important to know the dynamics of the distribution route, which, with today’s technology and instrumentation, is pretty routinely and easily accomplished.  Usually, we can utilize standard test methods for truck vibration, but sometimes there is something in the specific route that may lie outside the standard random vibration sequence.  Just recently, one of the commonly used testing standards ASTM D4169 went through a change in vibration profile based on data gathered over the last few years; the ASTM profile is now similar to the ISTA vibration profile. 

With the advent of lower cost sensors, increased computer power, Internet of Things (IoT), Physical Internet, ‘chronic’ driver shortages, increased regulation on drivers and equipment, higher efficiency transmissions, Google & Uber’s driver-less cars and the ever increasing pressure to reduce operating costs, it seems trucking is on the verge of going through some pretty radical transformations.  A few technologies currently in trial include platooning, driver assist and driver-less tractors. 

What is Platooning?

Platooning is when two or more trucks travel in close proximity to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency for both trucks.  This is enabled by linking the driving and safety systems of the trucks together via wifi.  Some have likened platooning to be a highly advanced form of cruise control; the trucks maintain an optimum, but close distance.  The lead truck uses long distance sensors to look for ‘obstacles’ for collision avoidance.  Further, the braking systems are linked together for safety because the distance between the trucks is so small that the human response may be too slow.  The trailing vehicle gets the greater fuel efficiency benefit.    
distribution vibration profiles
Truck Platooning could create new dynamics for packaging and vibration frequencies
Platooning is envisioned to extend to having a single driver lead a series of autonomous vehicles; this would be most effective high volume and hub to hub routes.  This would be the incremental step toward completely driver-less trucks.  Many prognosticators suggest that driver-less trucks are still 10 years away, but platooning will be here as soon as next year.  Early adopters are favored to be the biggest winners. 
Additionally, auto makers are experimenting with platooning for passenger cars.  In my misspent youth, many of us believed that if you would ‘platoon’ behind a big rig and you were all speeding you would save gas and the police could not figure out a way to pull you over; I can say with some authority that this was a youthful misconception. 

What could this new technology mean to me as a packaging engineer sleuth?

Usually, a known lane or route from a manufacturing facility to a distribution warehouse will result in a fairly predictable rate of damage.  Typically little or no damage is observed on these routes, but depending on load configuration, mis-application blocking and bracing dunnage or other factors will produce occasional but usually a small amount of damage. 

I was recently involved in the evaluation of a very substantial amount of damage to one load. This one load had highly atypical damage to the packaging and the product; severity of the damage was excessive.  This single load was just one of many the company ships from its factory to one of many of their distribution centers.  As with any conscientious company, they launched an investigation into the cause(s) and this is when I was called in. 

When evaluating the output of a system it is important to know whether the cause is the fault of the design of the system.  The system in this case is the packaging design, handling, load configuration & use/mis-use dunnage and the external forces due to trailer/road interaction.  The protective packaging, if it performs as intended is designed to keep damages to a minimum.  The packaging is often tested to ascertain its performance and ability to protect in the supply chain.  If the variation of a system is out of the normal range, such as greatly increased damage, it is important to determine if the system variables have changed.  If the basic system inputs have not changed, the issue could be considered special cause – special cause being a non-repeatable random input that causes the variation in results or output.   

Fortunately, in this case, we already had some good transportation vibration data as well as some unique tests we developed to tease out some of the unique dynamics of their products.  In this case, we applied all the applicable tests without matching the damage observed.  We also applied additional tests  and test thresholds to replicate of the severity of the damage.  No matter how hard we tried to cause this damage level (and we tried pretty hard), we could not come close to replicating the damage observed by this one load. 

In this case, we determined this particular damage occurrence was ‘special cause’.  The leading hypothesis was the driver left his intended route onto some pretty hellacious dirt roads to visit his ailing grandmother; others suggested a less virtuous off-road destination. 

It will be some years before the self-driving technology, ubiquitous GPS and electronic logging is all in place, but each new technology will reduce the incidences of these ‘special cause’ events.  I know that by the time these technologies are available, I’ll likely be long retired and will gladly adopt driverless vehicles to keep one more old man out of the driver’s seat.  

Eric Carlson, CPP is a Senior Packaging Engineer for Chainalytics.  With a thorough understanding of the forces involved in distribution and ASTM / ISTA test methods, combined with extensive understanding of dynamic attenuation, Eric’s design and engineering work focuses on damage prevention and protective packaging.  Eric has been involved with a wide range of highly technical designs in applications such as; medical device packaging, military and space, electronics, test equipment, industrial equipment, recreational equipment & vehicles.

Image source: http://www.pcrevue.sk/files/photo/2016-04/13027/fc5e12/scania-trucks.jpg

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