Introduction to Cartonization

Have you ever asked the question, “how can I reduce my shipping costs”? For the conscientious warehouse management team, shipping costs can be a true nightmare. Parcel shipping services charge based on a blended metric derived from package dimensions and weight, typically called dimensional weight. For most warehouses, reducing the weight of an order is not feasible, but reducing the dimensions of the packaging for the order is achievable. Cartonization is the process of determining the most appropriate shipping container size for any given order. An effective cartonization process can save a business thousands of dollars annually. 

Figure 1: Cartonization seeks to consolidate an order’s contents into the most compact configuration to reduce shipping costs.

Traditionally, order fulfillment centers utilized a manual order box size selection process or relied on a template to select the correct shipping container size. These antiquated methods are being widely replaced by reliable software capable of optimizing shipping container sizes to fit each unique order. These cartonization programs allow the fulfillment center to minimize void space in each order box, thereby maximizing space efficiency and reducing shipping costs for each order. The software uses the business’s database of product dimensions and weight to determine the optimal 3-dimensional orientation and placement of each item in the order box. Advanced cartonization programs will even reference a shipping provider’s published pricing information to aid in determining the most cost-effective shipping container size for the order.


How Modern Cartonization Software Works

Modern cartonization software begins its tasks with the product dimensions. In a process known as ‘cubing’, the software analyzes the dimensions of each item in an order to determine the exact volume of the order’s contents. Sometimes an item can be configured in multiple ways, such as when it can be shipped in a master pack vs as a single unit. In these scenarios, the cartonization software can be adjusted to recognize which item configuration to use in the cubing process. Depending on the level of complexity of the cartonization software, even objects with irregular geometries can be analyzed. The outcome of this first step is that the cartonization software knows the physical volume of the order contents. 

Figure 2: In the Cubing process, an object’s dimensions are used to calculate its volume. Complex cartonization systems can even analyze items with irregular geometries.

The second step in the cartonization process is an exercise in geometry, where the algorithms excel. All the items in the order are analyzed in a variety of orientations and positions to determine the most compact, space-efficient placement within a container. A robust cartonization software system will not only test linear and sideways item orientations but will also analyze diagonal orientations to find the optimal solution. Simultaneously, the software sifts through the available shipping box sizes, disregarding any sizes that are too small and selecting the smallest size that will fit all the order contents. The result of this computerized selection is an optimized container size and item orientation for all the order’s contents. This container size and item orientation information are then provided to the packing operator at the time the order is packed. 

Often, cartonization software can be used in conjunction with automation to ensure that orders are packaged as efficiently as possible. One type of automation that might be utilized along with cartonization software is a custom box size machine. When the cartonization software determines that a specific box size is most suited to a particular order, the box-sizing automation can be used to construct a box to the exact size needed. Other automation types that pair well with cartonization software include automated carton erectors, dunnage dispensers, tray forming machines, case sealers, and automated wrapping machines.


Product Characteristics in Cartonization

Sometimes order contents require special consideration. These can include: fragile items requiring extra wrapping, small items separated in different bags, irregularly shaped objects, perishable items, pre-packaged items, stacking limitations, and heavy objects outside the bounds of certain containers. Additionally, some items (e.g. apparel) may be better suited to ship in a plastic bag than in a corrugated box. In some instances, it may even be best to break apart the order into multiple shipments. For all these scenarios, cartonization software can address the specific considerations for these items and arrive at an optimal shipping solution for the order and the business.


Custom Cartonization Configuration

Most cartonization software can be tailored to the unique needs of a business or warehouse. Sometimes a fulfillment center will have specific packaging requirements. This can vary widely by business, but one common situation requiring special packaging is products that need extra cushion, such as Styrofoam or cardboard inserts, to prevent damage during transit. Other fulfillment centers need custom configurations of the cartonization software. These could include a visual indication on a screen of how to pack an order into the shipping container, or guidelines on how to separate certain items which are not allowed to ship together in the same order. For all these scenarios and more, cartonization software can be customized to meet the specific needs of the business. 


Benefits of Cartonization in Warehouses

Typically, the greatest value that cartonization offers is the opportunity to save on shipping costs. Although no two warehouses are identical, it would not be surprising for a warehouse to realize a 10% reduction in shipping costs through the utilization of a cartonization process. Admittedly, some products do not lend themselves to shipping savings from cartonization. Items with a large weight relative to their volume have little chance of shipping savings because shipping costs will be governed by the weight rather than the dimensions. Examples of these include books and heavy metal components. Other items that may not offer shipping savings from cartonization include items that are shipped pre-packaged and items that require special packaging.

For fulfillment centers that transact products unsuitable for shipping savings, what advantages can cartonization offer? Cartonization can save money on corrugate and raw packaging materials. These savings are straightforward to comprehend. Cartonization helps fit the order contents into the smallest shipping container, resulting in less void space in the container. This reduction in void space reduces (or eliminates) the need for dunnage and void fill media, thus saving on void fill material costs. Similarly, fitting the order contents into smaller box sizes can save on corrugate expenses. For example, if the contents of an order that would normally be shipped in a 12” x 12” x 12” box could instead be shipped in a 10” x 10” x 10” box, this would result in a 25% savings in corrugate cost (not to mention the savings in shipping costs). 

Figure 5: Reduced packaging dimensions can result in significant savings in both shipping costs and raw packaging material costs.


Challenges Faced by Warehouses and E-commerce Businesses

The ever-increasing demand for E-commerce style order fulfillment places a huge amount of pressure on businesses to adapt their order fulfillment processes to accommodate direct-to-home internet orders. Fulfillment centers must be able to process labor-intensive order profiles with multiple product lines and low item counts. Combine these challenges with daily and seasonal order volume fluctuations and tight order processing time expectations from customers, and we have a supply chain that can hardly keep up with demand. Add to this the exceptionally low tolerance that customers have for mistakes in their orders – E-commerce fulfillment centers must embrace every efficiency improvement and cost-savings option available.

Cartonization plays an integral part in addressing the challenges faced by businesses in today’s E-commerce world. It offers businesses a chance to reduce shipping costs, minimize the use of void fill materials, reduce corrugate costs, and assist operators in order packaging operations. It helps satisfy customer expectations for sustainable and eco-friendly order packaging – ship less empty air using fewer raw materials. 

Bottom Line: The Future of Cartonization

Warehouse operations should expect to embrace automated processes as a replacement for the traditional manual processes. Cartonization is one of many areas in which computer programs offer distinct advantages over manual processes in the order fulfillment environment. Using cartonization, warehouse management can minimize shipping costs, reduce void space in shipping containers, save on corrugate costs, and have peace of mind knowing that they are using the most efficient shipping container for each order.

Cartonization allows the modern warehouse to fit the optimal shipping container size to each order; this reduces shipping costs and can save the business thousands of dollars annually. For businesses to operate profitably in the E-commerce world, they must investigate every opportunity to cut costs or improve their processes. Reach out to Maveneer to see how implementing cartonization or other automation could elevate your warehouse above the status quo and position you for success in the tumultuous twenty-first century.

Contact a Maveneer