Plastic Return Containers Speed Automotive Assembly

When we reported this summer on a closed-loop/reverse logistics setup between Ecospan and one of its customers, it surprised us to discover that bioplastic return containers were cheaper than their cardboard cousins. The key was the reuse and recycling model Ecospan devised for its very large consumer electronics customer.

It turns out that closed-loop/reverse logistics systems using regular plastic return containers are already fairly common, especially in the automotive industry. We found this out from comments made on that article by Clinton McDade, senior designer of plastic products for Schaefer Systems International. His company designs and sells products, equipment, and systems for automated warehousing and distribution, material handling, transport, and waste technologies, including custom and standard injection-molded plastic containers.

McDade told us one of his company's largest divisions is the returnable packaging solutions one, which sells closed-loop systems. "Our products, which are mostly plastic, replace disposable, easily damaged containers, such as paper corrugated boxes and wooden pallets," he said. "The systems we sell include plastic pallets and top caps with matching injection-molded totes in multiple sizes."

In the US, some of the main users of these systems are first-tier suppliers to car manuacturers. They must deliver components to the assembly plant in approved packaging. Usually, this includes a plastic tote container, reusable dunnage (packaging inside the tote that separates products), labeling, and tracking and routing information.

One plastic tote container used in automotive applications is Schaefer's NewStac, which was designed specifically for that industry. The dunnage itself has multiple uses, including preventing damage and surface abrasion. The dunnage also holds parts at a certain orientation, so workers can grab, say, a side mirror without having to rotate their wrists, put it on the car assembly, and hit it with a pneumatic screwdriver.

"These systems are, in effect, little closed-loop just-in-time supply systems that run continuously," McDade said. The repair cycle, including returned products and packaging, is a much smaller part of the product delivery system. The return containers come back empty from the assembly plant, and the component suppliers put new products in them and ship them back to the plant, closing the loop.

These closed-loop systems are becoming more common in other industries, such as large mass merchandising. "Plastic returnable systems are usually more cost-effective over the long term than disposable systems, as in your bioplastic example, but the up-front costs are higher."

The containers can make as many as 150 trips a year. They are usually purchased in volume at the beginning of a specific car program, and they usually last as long as the car model does, McDade said.

At the end of the program, all of the boxes, pallets, and top caps can be ground up and recycled to make new product. This larger end-of-life loop is more complicated than you might think. The bioplastic makers can do this more easily because they have a controlled source of waste material, but in our industry, we need huge volumes. Our bulk box uses 118 pounds of plastic. So we need consistent, reliable, repeatable suppliers with high volumes of plastic from multiple waste streams. That's difficult, since [the quality of this plastic] is not regulated.

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