Drones, helicopter blades, military-grade weapons, championship trophies, delicate glassware … what do all of these have in common? They are extremely fragile and range drastically in design, weight, and form – and can therefore be something of a nightmare to ship. But getting expensive and delicate equipment from one place to another is often a necessity.

The goal with any shipment, fragile or not, is to ensure it arrives at its final destination in excellent condition. But when shipping delicate or valuable cargo, keeping the contents safe and secure can be complicated – yet of the utmost importance.

Here, we outline your three main options and explain their advantages and shortcomings.

The Cardboard Question

When shipping fragile items, our first instinct is often to use the easiest and most widely available method: cardboard boxes and layers and layers of bubble wrap. While cardboard and bubble wrap are undoubtedly your most lightweight option, they’re also the riskiest (by a lot).

Even when bubble wrap is squeezed into every last pocket of air, cardboard boxes offer minimal protection against the perils of shipping. They are easily crushed and provide almost no protection against impact after being dropped. Moisture, air, and dust can easily pass through cardboard, putting your cargo at risk of significant damage, particularly for electronic equipment.

And while cardboard may seem sustainable because it can be recycled, it’s actually quite wasteful. Cardboard boxes can rarely be used more than once or twice, and the environmental strain on trees and water resources is not insignificant.

You might think that cardboard is an excellent option because the vast majority of the shipments you receive arrive unscathed in cardboard boxes. While this is an understandable conclusion, it doesn’t account for the enormous amount of products that are damaged during shipment – most of which normal consumers don’t have visibility to.

The Word on Wood

Wooden crates are another option for shipping fragile material and are typically used in conjunction with some sort of durable cushioning material (like a blanket) or the original packaging of your cargo.

Since wood is heavier and stronger than cardboard, it provides much better protection against being crushed. However, it does not hold up well to being dropped and offers no protection against air, water or dust. The heaviness of wood (four times the weight of cardboard) also makes crates more expensive and cumbersome to ship.

Finally, while wood is more sustainable than cardboard or plastic, it doesn’t last very long; at most, a wooden crate can be reused about 10 times (which is still significantly more uses than you can get out of a cardboard box).

The Case for Custom Cases

Made from materials like plastic or aluminum, standard custom cases are designed to protect against impact and crushing during transport – and waterproof, dustproof, and airtight features typically come standard.

Fit with custom-made interiors like sturdy waterjet-cut foam, custom cases are engineered to the exact specifications of your cargo to ensure minimal movement during transport. Custom cases can also be outfitted with protective qualities based on the mode or modes of transport.

Though many people assume custom cases are prohibitively expensive, they can actually save money in the long term. When the cost of other modes of shipment – like frequent purchases of cardboard boxes or wooden crates – and damage-based losses are taken into consideration, the ROI for reusable custom cases is considerable.

When it comes to shipping fragile items, the easy and fast solution – that might appear less expensive upfront – is rarely the best option for your business.

Entrepreneur and drone enthusiast Tim Jennings has been in the manufacturing business in San Dimas, California for over 20 years. He’s president of Custom Case Group — creator of DroneHangar cases and manufacturer of custom shipping cases for industries ranging from biotech to the US military.

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