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Q&A with LPC’s Design Manager – Jason Valentine

What are some common mistakes people make that lead to unnecessary spending when designing or purchasing crates?

People often assume that you need thick plywood material everywhere on the crate. In reality, the panels surrounding the crate (other than the base) are pretty much function as protection from the elements.

Instead, it’s typically possible to mount heavy equipment on a strong base, then have light-duty panels elsewhere. In these instances, it’s possible to save a lot of money since all these lighter panels function as dust covers that keep dirt and debris from getting inside, or prevent people from seeing the contents.

There are a lot of crates that don’t even have plywood panels — it’s just an open cleated crate like a skeleton.

It all depends on how the crate’s used. If they’re going to be stacking them, then we have to take that into consideration. But if they’re just picking it up with a forklift, a pallet jack or something similar and moving it from point A to point B, you probably don’t need to invest in super-strong panels.

Can you give examples of features or materials that are often over-specified or over-engineered, leading to wasted resources?

Types of plastic and foam in general.

For example, you’ll have a customer who’s looking at mil-specs trying to make it look like they’re knowledgeable. So you end up wasting time and resources looking for and researching a 50-year-old military spec that’s long-superseded, and sourcing fancy (and often unnecessarily expensive) materials.

Or, if someone asks for brand names such as Velcro, there may be a much more inexpensive generic hook and loop equivalent that will do the job equally well. If you were to specify Velcro or equivalent, then I could use the equivalent.

When you meet with someone to design a crate, a case, or some other packaging, do you usually advise them on the best materials for what they need to have shipped?

Not at all. Usually, what happens is a customer will say: “Hey, I want use Velcro on this I, I want to hold my component down with Velcro and I reply OK we can use hook and loop no problem.”

I use general terms that people are going to understand. And then when I come back with a concept, I say these are the materials we’re using.

This is best practice.

When I design something for a customer I have our capabilities already considered; when a customer designs something, they’re just trying to figure it out the best they can. You know, they’re not trying to figure out for manufacturability or how to use the best materials.

What strategies would you recommend to businesses to reduce costs when ordering a crate without compromising quality or functionality or safety?

I think the best thing to do is to let us do our job and design it for you.

A recurring theme is people being overly specific or rigid.

And customers can have a poor grasp of design. They don’t really know how to make things manufacturable, how to best exploit the advantages of our machinery or how to use the materials that we have. Some will have special call outs (or things like that) that we’re not able to use.

When we’re helping them save time, money and labor, we’re never trying to go cheap on design. Instead, we’re trying to make things more manufacturable.

Is there a certain design flaw or type of crate that breaks more often? Like, is there like an Achilles heel for crates or anything like that?

When someone is putting something heavy inside of a crate — say, a big rectangular item with four feet in the corners — and the base isn’t loaded correctly, the weight of the unit will break the palette and you’ll end up with holes in your deck because all the load goes where the unit’s feet are.

You need to place skids very precisely in a situation like that, otherwise you’ll have issues when it’s loaded or if it’s dropped. Also, it’s not going to work if we use a plywood base (instead of some other substrate) when we know we are working with a heavy weight.

Or there’s the opposite issue where something is, say, 2,000 pounds but we are putting in a floater deck that’s rated for 5000 pounds. You just know that’s way too hard for that unit.

Are there any little-known tips or tricks you would suggest to make packaging sturdier, better, or more efficient? Is there a certain design aspect or detail would always want add?

I like ratchet straps. I like floater bases. If you have a sturdy enough internal floater on anything, you could have a standard palette and just insert a different internal floater inside that crate. You could have model A for 1,000-pound unit, model B for a 2,000-pound unit and so on.

I think it would be cool if we figure something like that out.

In your experience, what aspects of a crate are worth spending extra money on to ensure best performance or longevity?

One of the things that is important to us is our customer’s time.

So, if a customer were to buy a crate and it took four hours to put together and take apart every time it was used, it’s extremely inconvenient. It’s labor-intensive and ultimately that’s costly. We also know that customers will be disinclined to use it unless they absolutely have to.

But that’s the type of solution some packaging suppliers come up with.

Instead, we’ve become really good at toolless solutions for crates: something that just has a couple latches on it.

Then one person can rapidly load and unload it instead of a team of five people taking several hours.

Or a solution that anyone can use. For example, if you’re sending something over to the UK they might not have American standard hardware for our fasteners. What if they have to open something up for Customs? They waste time searching around for special tools. In the worst scenario they might break open your crate to inspect the contents.

A toolless solution fixes that problem because it makes it easy to open the crate, take the unit out, check it, replace it in the crate and close everything up. There’s no hassle.

Can you explain how investing in certain crate features can lead to long-term cost savings and benefits?

It’s a similar situation.

A small investment is maybe a couple hundred dollars for something like a toolless system. But that couple hundred dollars could really add up when you’re buying hundreds of crates.

On the other hand, you don’t have to hire five people for packing — you only need one person. And it doesn’t take hours to load and ship each crate, it might take only minutes. So, because of that salary that you’re saving, you’re able to spend a little bit more on the product yet still come out vastly ahead in the long-run.

Are there design elements that can help improve the ease of transport for crates?

There’s a four-way entry crate that makes it possible for a forklift to pick up a crate from the front or from the side.

If you build something that has a large footprint, it makes it difficult to ship sometimes. Typically, you would have to request a special truck to pick it up.

If we have a crate with a four-way entry, that gives the shipper more flexibility. They might be able to more easily pick it up from the end and fit it on a more normal type of truck.

Are there any innovative design features or trends in crate design that you think will become more popular in the future?

We are currently working on a cartridge system of rack crates. I’m looking forward to see how that hits off with a couple of our customers.

Essentially, we’ve developed a crate shell, and it’s the same crate, but there’s five different cartridges that go inside that are able to support cargo of different weights.

Each cartridge is rated for different weight, so the customer will buy the crate, buy up to five different cartridges based on their shipping needs. They’ll no longer have to order (and stock) five different crates.

The crate itself is heavy duty, so it capable of going back and forth between them and their customer.

So next time, if they need to ship a unit that weighs 2,000 pounds more than their usual units, they just swap in a cartridge that’s rated for that heavier weight. They’ll save money by having one crate, but five different cartridges.

Finally, can crates ever be reusable? What makes them reusable? Are there worries about sturdiness or other things?

The real issue is always the people handling the crates. If your truck driver is careless about handling, then things are going to bounce up and down. Forklift drivers will also pop holes in the crates.

That’s where the real damages occurs. It’s always in shipping; in-transit. It’s not anything that the people handling the crates within the warehouse do.

If we ever have to replace anything, we know how we build our crates — they’re easy to take apart and refurbish. So it’s a relatively easy fix, but the equipment being carried might get damaged. You always want to avoid that.

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