Here in Atlanta, summer has now given way to early fall, which is bad news for the HVAC industry but a welcome change for Atlantans.

This time of year is also welcome to shippers of temperature-sensitive products. A package containing insulin, which must be protected from excessive temperatures, will remain unspoiled longer on a Minneapolis doorstep at 60 degrees Fahrenheit than on a Phoenix doorstep in 105 degrees.

Optimizing the design of temperature-sensitive packages can help ensure that package contents will arrive in optimal condition by staying within the designated temperature range through the transportation process. Avoiding spoilage is not, however, only about the package itself; it’s also about the ambient temperatures in the environment that the package will pass through.

For example, a package traveling via ground from Florida to southern California in August will encounter different ambient temperatures than one traveling from Massachusetts to Wisconsin in January, and so it’s important to design packaging that not only suits the product but also can protect it in the different environments it will encounter in transit. The hotter and longer the ride, the more coolant and insulation are necessary. The colder and shorter the ride, the less is needed.

You might ask the question, “If the package design can protect temperature-sensitive contents for a four-day haul across the country in July, it’s going to be fine for the same journey in January, right? While the answer is “yes” one should consider that, by shipping with over-engineered packages—meaning more package and cooling material than you actually need— you’re throwing away money (and being no friend to the environment).

It can take expensive materials to create packaging, and energy to move packages. Over-engineering is a waste, and an unnecessary drain on the bottom line. What’s required instead is a packaging solution that reflects three elements:  the product’s requirements, the conditions encountered in the specific “shipping lane,” (or, put another way, the package transit route) and the amount of risk the shipper is prepared to accept.

Let’s look quickly at each of these.

First, the product’s temperature requirements are fixed, and packaging should be designed to meet those requirements. Call it the “Goldilocks” solution. Not too much packaging and not too little.

Second, temperatures encountered by a package in a given shipping lane can’t simply be guessed. Last year, UPS completed an extensive study on actual conditions in hundreds of our shipping lanes in the U.S. and Europe, and the results were revealing.

Temperatures were far more extreme than traditional assumptions, indicating that the level of risk to temperature-sensitive packages is greater than had ever been imagined.

More about risk: In general, the more valuable or chemically unstable the contents, the greater the “safety margin” that is usually built into the package. Such a package is typically over-engineered to ensure its contents are protected—even if it is subject to a weather delay followed by a long spell on a doorstep in Phoenix.

The same will not be true of a package holding less expensive, more stable products. In these cases, a cost-benefit analysis may reveal that minimal packaging is appropriate and that an occasional spoilage event is more than compensated for by less expense on packaging materials (and consequently less time taken by staff during pack out). Unfortunately, unexpected events do happen, and the contents of packages are inevitably put at risk by an unavoidable delay such as a weather challenge for example.

So, finding the right level of packaging depends on the ambient conditions in the shipping lane, the value of the product being shipped, the speed of the desired shipping service and the amount of risk that the shipper is willing to take. It can be a delicate balance and an analysis by a packaging expert is highly recommended. More often than not, inefficiencies can be identified and savings can be made.

In fact, scaled-back packaging combined with express delivery can frequently be less expensive than engineered packages that travel via ground service. It may be counter-intuitive, but it works, and it brings real added value to the bottom line.

What is your experience?  What value have you seen by changing your packaging?

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By Susan Li

Susan Li joined UPS in 2011 as a Marketing Manager in UPS Healthcare Strategy group. She specializes in temperature sensitive packaging logistics and manages UPS’s Temperature True Packaging program, providing cold-chain package consulting service to healthcare customers. She is also a member of ISTA Thermal Council.