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Considering Reusable Packaging



As a Packaging Specialist, my mission statement is to “Serve and Protect”. I want to serve my customers by giving them the best value their packaging budget can buy all while protecting their most valuable shippables. Let’s explore the “serve” portion of my mission statement.  There are many ways to ship products, as well as considerations to think about when deciding what packaging works best for your specific needs.

A corrugated carton filled with shipping peanuts protecting the unit inside would be one examples of a one-time shipment product. Wood crates are another.

Plastic rotationally molded (or roto-molded) and injection molded cases are examples of reusable packaging. These cases come empty or foam filled. Some come with a “Pick and Pluck” system - an off the shelf option which allows you to create your own cavities by removing square cubes of foam. Having a designer create a foam insert custom to your specific needs may be best for your application. Another style case in reusable packaging is the rack mount case. These cases have metal frames that allow you to mount your unit securely inside. For extremely sensitive equipment a deck system might be the best option. Both the rack mount frame case a deck system case include rubber isolator shock mounts to protect your units if dropped.

A few years ago, I was in a meeting with the head of procurement of a company that ships hard drives to and from movie cinemas. The hard drives contained the actual movie you see when you attend the cinema. The procurement person started out by stating very boldly, “We just need a basic package. We do not need a military grade package.”

I asked him how many times the typical case would be shipped in a year. He said they shipped thousands of movies to thousands of cinemas and the packages are in constant rotation. He estimated that each package probably shipped once per week. The company would send the new movie hard drives out to various the cinemas and they would return the hard drives of movies that were no longer playing.

I told the head of procurement that these cases were going to see a lot of abuse because they were only briefcase-size, which meant a shipping person could toss the case into and out of the truck. I told him a case sold into the military typically sat in a warehouse for months - or years – then shipped once to a deployment location. Then the cases would sit there for months on end. A military grade case was actually exactly what he needed.

He disagreed, and ended up purchasing thousands of one-time shipment boxes. Six months later a new procurement manager was assigned to the project and came back to us admitting her company had made a mistake. There were several issues. They were spending money in labor to assemble boxes. The cinemas were complaining about the waste of shipping bubble wrap and peanuts they were required to dispose of as well as their costs of having to purchase new corrugated boxes to ship back the out of date movies. In the process hundreds of hard drives were damaged. You can imaging the burden this company put on themselves as well as the cinemas who had new movie release dates - only to receive a damaged hard drive that would not play.

In the end, we put them in the correct package of an injection molded case with custom cushion.

There are 4 key elements to consider when deciding the best value for your packaging project:

  1. The unit / package size
  2. The fragility of the unit
  3. The cost of the unit
  4. The shipping method of the package. 

Unit / Package Size and Fragility:

The unit and package size go hand in hand with the fragility of the unit. For instance, if you have a unit that is 24” x 24” x 12” and it is a moderately fragile unit, 1” to 2” of foam surrounding the unit will be enough to protect it in shipping. This would lead to a case size of approximately 28” x 28” x 16”. If the unit is extremely fragile,  it may take upwards of 4” of foam to give the unit enough sway space (if dropped) to allow the cushion to do its work. This would lead to a case size of approximately  36” x 36” x 24”.  Fragility is measured in Gs, or the number of times gravity the item can take without breaking.

Unit Fragility:

Unit Fragility

G Levels

Equipment Type

Foam Thickness Required

Extremely Sensitive

12-18 G’s

Fragile Navigation equipment


Very Delicate

18-25 G’s

Precision Testing Equipment



25-50 G’s

Printers, Computers, TV’s, Cameras


Moderately Fragile

50-80 G’s

Laptops, DVD Players, Lighting Equipment



80-120 G’s

Refrigerators, Ovens, Rescue Gear


Very Rugged

120+ G’s

I-Phones, Flashlights, Small Appliances, Cables


Cost of the Unit:

This is the easiest of the 4 factors to decide. You will likely consider different avenues if you are shipping a $50 unit as opposed to a $10,000 unit. The cost along with fragility of a unit should weigh into your final decision. Would you trust a corrugated box with shipping peanuts to hold up in a shipment across the country if you had a very expensive and fragile unit? Would water affect the unit such as TV’s, Stereos, and Laptops?  If so – you may want to consider an air and water tight package.

You should also factor in the cost of potential down-time if the unit was damaged in shipment. What will it cost you to have a damaged unit sitting idle while you either have to replace it entirely or pay for repairs? My friends who were shipping hard drives to movie cinemas could tell you the cost of the hard drive was minimal compared to the down time costs.

The Shipping Method of the Unit:

This can be the trickiest of the 4 factors. There are 4 questions to consider in this area:

  1. How you will be shipping the package?
  2. How many times will you ship?
  3. Is there a closed loop system to get the package back?

How will you be shipping the package?

There are many ways to ship a unit. You may be carrying it on an airplane yourself. Or it may be in the back of a sales person’s vehicle. Or you may need to ship the package using standard ground transport. In this scenario, your package will likely start and stop at a few transfer locations.

How Many times will you be shipping the package?

Depending on the size of the package, reusable packaging will typically start to pay for itself around 4 or 5 shipments. There is a high initial cost for the case and cushion, but rugged roto-molded cases will survive hundreds of shipments and 20+ years.

The other thing to consider is the minimum buy on the one-time shipment product. Many times you have to buy corrugated boxes in bulk. The initial cost of reusable might not look so bad when considering this.

Is there a closed loop system to get the package back?

Are you shipping to a location you own? Will they ship the package back? The movie hard drive scenario was the perfect closed loop system. The choice becomes obvious that reusable packaging will save you money in this instance.  If you are shipping to end users and won’t likely get the shipping package back, and may not be shipping it around themselves, then the one time shipment package may be the obvious choice.

You have to use your math and analytical skills to make determinations on the best value, and many times that is best left to the person that has specialized in packaging. Ask them to do a cost justification for you by giving them as many of the above details as possible. A good packaging specialist will be glad to take you through your options.