The highs and lows of temperature-sensitive shipping

From East Coast to West, ensure your packages arrive in optimal condition.

By Susan Li, a UPS Upside Blog contributor on 6/1/2014


Here in Atlanta, spring has now given way to summer, which is great news for the air conditioning industry, but not so great for people ordering chocolates.

This time of year is a challenge for all 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 65 degrees Fahrenheit than on a Phoenix doorstep in 115 degrees.

Temperature-sensitive packaging can help ensure the contents arrive in optimal condition in the designated temperature range. 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 temperatures than one traveling from Massachusetts to Wisconsin in January, 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, "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," consider that, by shipping with an overengineered package – meaning more packaging and cooling material than needed – 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. Overengineering 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 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 overengineered 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 spending less on packaging materials (and consequently less staff time during pack out). Unfortunately, unexpected events do happen, and the contents of a package can be put at risk by an unavoidable weather delay.

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 counterintuitive, 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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