Top Packaging Tips from a FedEx Packaging Lab Engineer

Dave Nelson, packaging engineer for FedEx, has the unusual job of trying to break things. He actually tests packaging and redesigns it to cost-effectively protect the contents. He's looked at packaging for everything from quarter-million-dollar INDYCAR engines to 75-cent coffee mugs, hens' eggs and seedlings. It's one of those unheard-of but important behind-the-scenes jobs that keep commerce alive.

Nelson extended this primer on some of the harms your package faces on its way from you to your customer:

  • Dropping. Packages must have cushion for their contents that passes shock-test impact.
  • Vibration. Conveyor belts, trucks and aircraft vibrate packages — often with surprising results. Jars can open, screws loosen, components unplug, edges come apart and soft material can rub to dust.
  • Compression. Packages must be able to stand pressure from the top and sides as loads shift.
  • Temperature changes. Season, geography, mode of transport and destination can mean dramatic temperature fluctuations. This can change the chemistry, bonds, contents and more.
  • Humidity. Humidity can weaken boxes as they absorb moisture, and may cause condensation during environmental changes.
  • Air pressure. Packages that move through elevation changes (by air shipment or through ground transit from low to high elevation) undergo pressure changes with unusual results. For example, a sealed bag of potato chips may inflate and pop at high elevations.


Consult early to save money
The most important rule of thumb: Get your shipping provider involved early. Consult your account executive or a packaging engineer before investing in packaging materials, settling shipping rates, determining price points and making other decisions that affect your profit margin. Beyond that, the most important money-saving tips Nelson believes you can follow are:

  • Plan ahead — far ahead. Weight, dimensional weight, oversize charges and special handling affect the cost of shipping your product. Dimensional weight and oversize charges relate to the size of the package itself. If you are developing a product now, it's not too early to consult with a shipping engineer to consider minor changes that could reduce your shipping charges; a change of even a few inches can save $50 per shipment. Some products can be redesigned for easy shipping and partial assembly by the consumer, for example.
  • Don't assume the original package suffices. Many businesses buy products for redistribution. These may be mass-produced and shipped safely enough to the distributor on pallets, but once off the pallet, single boxes may not withstand the rigors of transport.
  • Cushioning is king. Understand and protect the most fragile part of your product. If you ship multiple goods in a single box, explore the use of compartments, box-in-a-box packaging, the organization of products in the box and split shipments. These may reduce costs and damage.
  • Don't "ship air." Minimize the empty space in the container. For example, if you ship gift baskets, choose a basket without a handle; it will take up less space.
  • Use quality packing materials. The quality of the box, cushioning and packing tape matter. It's acceptable to reuse boxes, but inspect them and be sure to re-tape the box.
  • Pack like a pro. Cutting corners can result in damaged goods and unhappy customers. FedEx offers good instruction on How to Pack.
  • Label clearly. Follow your carrier's instructions. Usually, the label goes on the largest surface of the container. Avoid the edges of the box, since they can cause misreading during scanning. Put special instructions on the box (fragile, this end up, etc.) but never assume that these instructions will protect the contents. Most boxes receive mechanical transport at some point, and most boxes will rest on their largest surface regardless of written instructions.
  • Understand the regulatory environment for your product. A host of regulations shape shipping processes.
  • Monitor and adjust. Track shipping costs and damage rates, and then revisit all of your processes to find out how you can improve. If you build monitoring into your product cycle, you can improve your outcomes while keeping costs low.

Shipping is like any other part of your business process. Risks come with the package, and you need to plan for and mitigate them cost-effectively. Nelson noted that delivering a pristine package may not be worth the cost. It's all a balance. The goal is to minimize risks to products while ensuring customer satisfaction with the purchase — and to generate a profit. It's never easy, but as with everything else in life, planning pays off.

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