Remember how your mom always made you take a jacket when you left the house if she thought it might turn cool before you came home? You probably remember rolling your eyes and begrudgingly taking that jacket just to keep her off your back, but what you might not remember is exactly how many times you ended up being glad you had it with you. That bit of parenting wisdom is based on generations of learning that it’s better to have a kid that has a jacket and doesn’t need it than one who doesn’t have a jacket but does need it.

Something similar can be said of your supply chain. The moment you send merchandise off your dock, it faces a world of potentially hostile environments before it reaches its final destination. If it lacks adequate protection for that journey, it isn’t going to come home with a case of the sniffles. In a best case scenario, it will arrive looking beaten up and paint a negative picture of you as a supplier — more likely, the contents will be damaged upon arrival. Either way, you’ve lost goodwill and could very well lose a customer relationship.

The only barrier between you and a truckload of broken merchandise is packaging; but how do you optimize it to withstand the transportation journey without overspending on wasteful material? The path to designing optimized packaging is a delicate balancing act, with packaging spend on one side and acceptable damage on the other. Achieving that equilibrium depends on visibility into the supply chain, determining damage risk, and identifying each individual packaging hazard along the way.

Know Your Supply Chain

Products spend considerable time, sometimes years, in development. Marketers often spend weeks or months determining the best way to display items on store shelves. Supply chain managers do research and careful planning to determine the best distribution channels. But how much do you know about the physical forces your package faces between point A and point B — or in the case of most supply chains, point A to point B, then point B to point C, and so on.

What are the specs on the suspensions of the trucks that haul your merchandise? What temperature is maintained in the warehouses or planes? How high do warehouse workers and trucking staff stack boxes? How long are they left stacked? Do clamp trucks move boxes in the warehouses, or are pallets and forklifts used? It’s not enough to know where distribution centers are located and how long it takes to get to them; full visibility into how boxes and pallets are handled on every step of their journey and what vehicles haul or move your products are vital to packaging them to easily tolerate the elements they face without wasting money on protecting them from forces they will never encounter.

Calculate Your Risk

Risk is calculated by multiplying a hazard by vulnerability and then dividing by your packaging’s capacity to cope. In its most general sense, a hazard is defined as a situation that poses a level of threat to life, health, property, or environment. In supply chain transportation, a hazard is a specific event that occurs in a distribution cycle that may pose a hazard to a product. When we apply this risk equation to supply chain transportation, it can be said that damage risk is calculated by multiplying a package’s vulnerabilities with the hazards it will face in on its journey, divided by the packaging’s ability to cope with these forces.

Determining the amount of damage risk packages face is vital to understanding how much upfront package design is necessary to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. The other element that requires a bit of research — but no complex analytics — to obtain is the cost of packaging. Reconciling the added cost of packaging with damage risk will provide an optimal range (with a little wiggle room on both sides to best fit the value proposition and positioning of your individual company) that is an excellent reference point to strive for. It can, and should, be finely tuned over time as conditions dictate.

Identify and Solve For Each Specific Hazard

Packaging faces seven basic hazards that affect product integrity, and the functional purpose of packaging is to protect contents from them. Almost every hazard within a standard deviation of operations can be mitigated by packaging suited for it, so packaging optimization relies heavily on knowing what hazards are likely to be encountered:

Handling — Rough handling at the hands of humans or machines like forklifts and clamp trucks often leads to crushed corners, punctures, and crushed cases. Drop testing can simulate manual handling damage, while testing using the mechanical systems encountered on the supply chain will reveal their associated risks. Appropriate packaging designed to work with equipment and withstand drops coupled with reductions in manual handling reduce this hazard.

Warehouse stacking — When stacked for an extended period, or in stacks that are too high, boxes on the bottom can become crushed. Stacks can also become obstacles for people and equipment navigating around them in warehouses and easily get knocked over or damaged if heavy machines contact them. Studying compression rates and stack heights advises packaging decisions and warehousing best practices that mitigate the ill-effects of warehousing.

Transportation hazards — These include vibration experienced from the motion of trucks, compression from how items are stacked or sequentially loaded, impact from rail cars hitting one another on intermodal journeys, even natural vibration frequencies emitted by truck trailers and suspension systems. Strapping and bracing loads in trucks with appropriate dunnage reduces jostling when in motion and air-ride vans can also be used for susceptible freight. Increasing pallet integrity and hardening products can also be effective tactics.

Environment — Temperature, humidity, and moisture can be tremendous enemies to packaging: Pharmaceutical items can be notoriously difficult to transport over long distances and modes and must be packaged to withstand problems with temperature fluctuation (for example, while being transported in the belly of a plane). Likewise, condensation, melting ice and transferred moisture can quickly compromise an entire pallet of food packages. Understanding all environments a package will be subject to is extremely important, and they should be appropriately tested for the environmental conditions in the distribution environment

The real key to guaranteeing items and packages arrive in top shape is complete visibility into the entire supply chain and every hazard faced along the journey. Designing and testing packaging to protect against any hazards that are unavoidable will yield the best results while keeping the supply chain efficient.

Just like your worried mother always knew when it might turn cold, you need to know what conditions your packages could face and protect them adequately.

Tom Blanck is a Certified Packaging Professional and leads the Packaging Optimization competency at Chainalytics, where he manages the delivery of supply chain packaging optimization and complex package engineering services as well as packaging value improvement programs for leading supply chains globally.