Bill Armstrong has figured out how to pack and ship everything from frozen pasta to embalming fluid.
He's a graduate of the Michigan State University School of Packaging -- "It's actually a profession," he says -- and a student of the history and art of wrapping things up and sending them off. "The pioneers put their dishes in the flour barrels of their covered wagons, but by the time they got to Wyoming, they had used the flour up baking bread. There were a lot of broken dishes on the Oregon Trail."
Today, as we have throughout history, we're still packing things up and sending them off, whether it's dishes for a move, care packages to homesick college students or birthday presents to favorite friends and relatives. And now we're on the Internet trail, ordering computers and clothes, books and CDs, medicines and more, all of which come individually packed and shipped.
With the flour safely in the pantry, we're using a whole range of materials to cushion our packages, including polystyrene peanuts, the ever-faithful corrugated cardboard, and Bubble Wrap -- little pockets filled with air, the popping of which is so oddly comforting.
Cushioning materials are a small but growing part of the very large packaging business. The Institute of Packaging Professionals estimates that packaging in North America alone is a more than $200 billion-a-year business. Packaging means everything from containing to protecting to selling (see In Store, Page F5), and 60 percent of the business is the packaging of food and beverages. Packaging of pharmaceuticals and health and beauty aids makes up 20 percent.
The remaining 20 percent includes soft goods, such as clothes and carpets, and hard goods -- nearly everything you see around you in your office, including the individually shipped phone, lamp, desk, chair, computer, stapler and coffee maker. Packaging those goods requires engineering acumen along with a bit of artistic flair, skills particularly important in the Internet age.
"The Internet has had a huge influence," says Armstrong, technical development manager for Sealed Air Corp., the company that makes Bubble Wrap brand air-cell cushioning. "It has created a whole new channel from manufacturer to consumer."
Not so long ago, Armstrong says, words alone were considered sufficient to protect some packages. This End Up. Fragile. Handle With Care.
"Ten years ago, we thought packages got dropped because people were careless," he says. "We thought if we put 'Fragile' on it, we wouldn't need so much packaging. Now, it's almost all mechanized, and there's no one to read a label that says, 'Please don't drop this.' "
Your package will find itself on a conveyor belt whether you use the U.S. Postal Service, UPS or FedEx, Armstrong says, and there is one guarantee: It will get a bumpy ride. Rest assured that it will slide down a 12-foot chute at least once.