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Corrugated Does It All

By R. Andrew Hurley, Ph.D.

September 12, 2019

There are very few negatives to living in a college town. It’s a wonderful lifestyle with one daily challenge: parking—lots of construction, more cars than spaces, and narrow time slots for a guaranteed spot. In an effort to increase my commute flexibility, I recently ordered a $400 rechargeable motorized scooter from an online store. When it arrived, I noticed three things straightaway:

  1. It was large.
  2. It was heavy.
  3. It was in a corrugated container.

Experience has taught me a few things about ordering something of this size, weight, and surface finish. It is going to be heavily protected with plastic film and foam; there will be small bags of hardware and parts tucked into convenient nooks and crannies; and the assembly instructions will be freely floating around, maybe torn, with difficult-to-decipher pictures and text.

Despite the inevitable unboxing ordeal awaiting me, I was excited. Never again (weather permitting) would I have to crank up the car for the drive to campus, where I would endlessly cruise the parking lot hunting for an empty spot. Now, my eco-friendly scooter would allow me to leave my car in its private, shady spot while I zipped to campus, right up to my office door, in less than 10 minutes! I couldn’t wait. I was stoked, excited, and ready to scoot!

But I digress. Before any scooting could happen, I first had to free my scooter from its protective prison. I reached for my box cutter, took a deep breath, and prepared myself to tackle this thing. What happened next was completely unexpected and left me shaking my head in wonder.

The first thing I noticed was that I did not need my box cutter to open the box. There was no tape at all on the outside of the box, so the aesthetic was clean, which was nice. There were only a couple of straps fastened around it for security during shipping. The only thing I would change about the outer box would be to remove the drawing of the scooter. I can understand why it might be helpful, but studies have shown that (1) it is not ideal to disclose expensive products on parcel packaging, and (2) portrayal of robust products may result in increased handling damage from the carrier.

Once the straps were removed, two tongue locks held the container in place and, when opened, revealed a printed panel. The design of this part of the experience was excellent. Using five pictures with English captions that each did not exceed two lines of text, I was able to understand exactly what was required to prepare the product for use before I even put my eyes on the product itself. I consider this a tremendous advantage of the corrugated design. This one-color print is from the same pass as the primary display panel and is an efficient way to disclose information on the corrugated panels.

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Class-A surface sticker.

After lifting the printed inner top closure, a portion of the product was revealed, with custom C-flute corner guards that secured the product in place. The left corner guard (which is where I would predict the unboxer looks first), includes the product instructions and safety manuals, without any packaging, nested within a cutout and secured with two friction locks. Beneath the instructions in the left corner guard, there was a void where one panel of the corrugated board touched the product, with an adhesive-backed Class-A surface textile applied to mitigate any abrasion between them. This thoughtful touch reduced the need for additional packaging on the product and was effectively used several times within this packaging system. The insert on the right was a one-piece corner guard customized to secure the product in two places. A fold at the top of the design included a hole for easy removal with one finger.

The scooter itself sat in a custom bottom insert that stabilized both wheels, and the super simple design allowed me to easily lift the scooter out of the box. Amazingly, there was very little plastic in sight, and no plastic film to slice through. The well-designed corrugated bottom and corner guards were sufficient to keep the scooter in place. And it didn’t stop there. A small C-flute corrugated insert was used to control the location of electrical wiring on the handlebar. An Allen wrench and a polybag of four screws were nested within this insert, with a one-color design printed directly on the insert, illustrating the Allen wrench and four screws, Ikea-style. The insert had four holes that seemed to serve no purpose, and I’m guessing that the manufacturer initially manually inserted screws into the holes in an attempt to further reduce packaging, but ultimately opted to use a polybag and just kept the original insert dieline.

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Bottom insert with printed die-cut lid.

I peered back down into the now empty box and saw that the bottom insert included a fully printed die-cut lid. Interestingly, the printed lid came from another dieline (potentially the tool insert) printed with a one-color illustration of the electrical charging components. An elongated tongue was designed into the lid so it was friction-​held into the bottom insert. I think this was a great idea—leveraging printing efficiencies of other dielines and not printing the bottom insert to satisfy this piece of information.

Finally, the remaining package, which contained two spare tires, was a C-flute RSC container encapsulated in bubble wrap. Because this container rested on the product itself, my speculation is that the protective bubble wrap was used to minimize scuffing of the product surface.

I learned a lot about e-commerce shipping containers and parcel packaging design through this experience. My main takeaways are as follows:

  1. There are many ways to have printed surfaces without having to print each dieline. Components from one cutting operation can be used within nonprinted systems.
  2. Class-A surface products do not require 100% Class-A surface packaging. Applying protection where it’s needed allows for a more cost-efficient design.
  3. Progressive disclosure of information is simply critical. Many consumers do not default to manuals, and this design leveraged the entire packaging system as a set of instructions that was impossible to deny.
  4. The better-than-average Allen wrench (with a handle) made a positive impression on me.
  5. Having an initial positive experience significantly reduces returns—a major pain point for brands transacting online.

width=150Andrew Hurley, Ph.D., is an associate professor of food, nutrition, and packaging science at Clemson University. He can be reached at me@drandrewhurley.com.