How to pack automotive parts
Even if you work within the automotive industry, it can be easy to forget its sheer scale.
Automotive-related manufacturing in the UK generates approximately £67 billion of turnover annually. The UK produced almost 860,000 cars and 1.6 million engines in 2021, as well as approximately 73,000 commercial vehicles.
And as estimates indicate that a single vehicle can have as many as 30,000 parts, ensuring you are using the correct packaging can be a significant challenge.
If you work within the automotive industry, this guide to car parts packaging provides you with a detailed overview of considerations and options. Whether you are responsible for packaging at an OEM, tier 1, tier 2 or tier 3 supplier, this article details a range of tried and trusted options that allow you to pack and ship car parts successfully.
Car parts packaging can take various forms. It can include everything from returnable containers within the supply chain to corrugated boxes used for aftermarket parts. Your packaging can be designed to improve handling, protect components in transit, and enhance the efficiency of production lines.
Considerations when packing and shipping automotive parts
Before looking at the varying types of car parts packaging, it is essential to consider several factors. The six primary considerations for car parts packaging are:
- The weight of the product/part you are shipping
- The fragility of the parts
- How valuable are the items you are shipping
- The packing and unpacking processes
- How your parts (and packaging) are handled in the supply chain
- Any impact on the environment
Weight of products
The weight of your parts or components is important when specifying your automotive packaging. Heavier items need more durable packaging to ensure it does not fail during transit. Lighter items should have their packaging optimised to minimise weight and reduce costs and CO2 emissions through the supply chain.
Fragility of parts
How delicate your car parts are also influences the best packaging for your business. You may require cushioning and inserts to minimise damage caused by handling in the supply chain, although even the more robust items still need protection. You should also consider protection for surface finishes on painted, polished or decorative surfaces.
How valuable are the items you are shipping
The packaging you use for shipping high-value infotainment units or gearboxes, for example, needs to be a different specification than that used for relatively cheap plastic trims or ancillaries.
Packing and unpacking processes
It is crucial to consider how quick and easy it is to pack and unpack your products. Does your car part packaging use much secondary packaging such as bags, inserts or films? Is it easy to pack multiple smaller parts in the same outer container? Are there any additional processes that packing teams need to carry out which may impact production times and efficiency?
How do transport providers handle parts during transit?
It is wise to consider how your items are handled within the supply chains. For example, are there many touchpoints that could result in mishandling? Does packaging need to look presentable at its final destination (e.g. for aftermarket parts or retail items)?
As well as how items are likely to be handled, it is also essential to consider the methods of transport and the possible environments your car parts packaging may encounter – will it be left outside or have the potential to get wet, for example?
Impact on the environment
The final consideration is the impact that your packaging has on the environment. Does it allow you to maximise transport efficiency, or are you shipping lots of empty space? Can any single-trip packaging be easily recycled by the end user? Would returnable or extendable packaging be most suitable?
Expendable vs returnable
This final point leads nicely to arguably the most important consideration for shipping car parts – whether to use expendable or returnable packaging.
But how do you decide which is best for your business?
Generally, the longer the distances involved in the logistics leg, the less practical it becomes to use returnable packaging. The vast majority of returnable automotive packaging is used within short loops and those with fixed arrival and distribution points.
Of course, you may not have reliable return transport, your parts are for use by the end consumer (hence the packaging cannot be returned), or it is not economical to return empty containers to your warehouse or manufacturing site.
Another point to consider at the outset is what different manufacturing plants or customers accept. Many do not have facilities to dispose of large volumes of single-trip packaging and only accept products in returnable packaging. Others may specify expendable packaging. It is vital to check what your customers want!
Returnable supply chain packaging
However, it is likely that, as part of an automotive supply chain, you will use returnable packaging of some description.
Due to the vast numbers of parts and overall throughput of vehicle manufacture, using returnable containers eliminates the generation of huge amounts of packaging waste compared with single-trip.
Returnable containers are typically more robust, providing better protection for parts, and are frequently industry standard sizes that allow for improved space efficiency in transport and production lines. They can also allow for safer stacking and handling.
And arguably the most crucial point, returnable packaging provides a lower cost per trip or lifetime cost than expendable packaging.
Euro containers are the most commonly used returnable packaging for car parts and components. Often referred to as KLT containers or ALC (attached lid containers – when including a lid), these moulded plastic boxes are available in standard sizes to be compatible with most pallets, racking, conveyors and so on.
They are both cost-effective and robust, hence their popularity and widespread use.
Correx tote boxes
The main limitation of Euro containers, however, is their standard sizing. Fixed dimensions can sometimes mean wasted space within containers when shipping unusually shaped or sized items. This issue reduces transit efficiency (you are paying to ship fresh air) and can also mean adding a large volume of void fillers or other inserts. It also reduces assembly line part density.
As a result, a returnable packaging option that is growing fast in popularity is Correx tote boxes. The key benefit is that you can opt to manufacture them in custom sizes. This size flexibility means they can accommodate unusually shaped items or a defined number of parts for a specific assembly.
Correx totes are also lighter than moulded containers, which can help reduce transit costs and emissions. And, due to a range of material options, you can select to have them manufactured with strength comparable to euro containers or tailored to the requirements of specific items.
Despite the benefits of returnable car part packaging, there are scenarios where single trip or expendable packaging would be most suitable. As well as parts that ship directly to end users, there are uses within supply chains for these options. Particularly where parts travel long distances and/or return is difficult.
Heavy duty corrugated
Many businesses use corrugated packaging within automotive supply chains. It has the same advantage as Correx in that it allows for the production of custom-sized boxes. Bespoke sizing enables the benefits of space efficiency, lower transit costs, emissions etc.
Several heavy-duty material grades can provide surprising durability, including various double and even triple-wall materials.
Other benefits include easy printing of handling and other instructions directly onto the packs and, of course, cardboards’ ease of recycling.
Timber crates and cases
Timber crates are another option in certain parts of automotive supply chains. Like corrugated, they can be easily produced in bespoke sizes to accommodate specific parts. They are particularly suited to shipping larger panels, assemblies or even engine blocks.
Whilst they can offer some reusability, they are also more challenging to dispose of and more costly than cardboard equivalents.
Dunnage and inserts
Whether you use returnable or single-trip packaging to ship your car parts, you can enhance the performance and efficiency using dunnage – effectively different forms of inserts.
Inserts can allow for much-improved part density within an outer container and make packing and unpacking quicker and easier. Inserts also help minimise damage as they limit movement and prevent parts from colliding with each other. Inserts can also provide precise positioning of components to allow for robotic assembly.
Simple divider sets manufactured using Correx or even cardboard can provide all of the benefits mentioned earlier. Usually created to suit a specific product or assembly process, you can choose the cell size and configuration (e.g. 4 x 4 cells within the container). Dividers can be removable and folded flat or integral to the construction of Correx totes or trays.
Some parts – for example, interior fittings or painted parts – have decorative surfaces that customers can reject due to surface scuffs or marring. If this is a concern, using a material such as Bubble-board can eliminate this. The plastic material is laminated with spun-bond fabric to protect from scratches or foam to provide additional cushioning during shipment.
For unusually shaped parts, custom fittings can provide a perfect fit for the item in question.
Vacuum-formed trays are another option widely used to handle car parts and components. They have recesses moulded to the exact shape of the items they carry to provide protection and ease of packing/unpacking.
Finally, you can use various foam inserts for particularly delicate or high-value items. As per vacuum-formed trays, foam inserts can precisely match the contours of any part or component. They go a step further, however, in that they also provide excellent cushioning protection.
Specialist software even allows for the optimum level of protection to be engineered into the foam packaging – crucial for high-end parts that cost thousands of pounds.
Protecting car electronics
As technology advances, more and more aspects of new vehicles rely on electronics and microchips. Everything from telematics, navigation, driver assistance systems and even infotainment units rely on increasingly sophisticated technologies.
But these parts and components can be susceptible to a different form of damage – electrostatic discharge (ESD).
What is ESD?
ESD is the transfer of an electrical charge between two objects. Whilst this occurs naturally, the heat generated during this process can cause significant damage to microchips and electronics. And whilst the effects may not be immediately apparent, latent damage can result in performance degradation and decreased lifespan of items that rely on electronics to function.
Conductive packaging options
Due to this, several anti-static and conductive packaging products are commonplace in automotive industries.
Corstat – a corrugated cardboard with a carbon coating – creates a “faraday cage” effect. This essentially channels any static around the outside of the packaging, protecting any items within.
Plastic options, including Corriplast conductive Correx and moulded plastics, operate similarly, whilst various ESD-safe foams are also available.
Other specialist car parts packaging
Several other specialist packaging applications are common within the automotive manufacturing industry.
A volatile corrosion inhibitor (VCI) is a material that protects metals from corrosion (i.e. rust). Vehicles use a considerable amount of metal components, so shipping these over long distances has the potential for this type of damage to occur.
Numerous VCI papers and bags are available to pack components in, whilst others may be coated in grease or similar substances to protect them during shipping. However, all these add another process to packing and unpacking operations.
An alternative is to coat your packaging with a VCI material, which can provide an equivalent level of protection.
As mentioned earlier, inserts and dividers can be manufactured using material that prevents surface scuffing and marring. These properties are essential for painted, polished or coated parts or those which form part of the interior of a vehicle.
What is less well known is that cardboard can be surprisingly abrasive, although again, there are coatings for corrugated boxes that can help to minimise this.
A new challenge facing automotive manufacturers and parts suppliers is lithium batteries. Prevalent in electric vehicles, the UN classifies li-on batteries as hazardous goods. This classification requires specialist packaging that meets defined regulations (UN3480) to ship.
Options for this include returnable aluminium cases with specialist inserts that contain fires should batteries fail or malfunction during transportation.
Spares, eCommerce and retail
Of course, not all businesses in the automotive sector supply parts used directly in the manufacture of new vehicles. Many provide spares and aftermarket parts that go straight to service centres, garages and even consumers.
In fact, the aftermarket industry in the UK accounts for £21.1 billion in turnover each year.
The packaging required for shipping these car parts faces different challenges. Firstly, it tends to be a single trip as there is no easy option for returning it. Being expendable means considerations surrounding recyclability must be balanced against ensuring it performs well within courier and postal networks and the multiple touchpoints these comprise.
In some instances, there may even be a requirement to add branding, instructions and other information, as some parts may be displayed within retail stores or be required to provide some form of limited “unboxing” experience.
As such, businesses typically use corrugated packaging for applications of this type.
Whether you work for an OEM, or a tier 1, 2 or 3 supplier, a team of packaging experts at GWP and Macfarlane Packaging is on hand to ensure you select the most suitable car parts packaging for your specific application.
Get in touch today for advice and guidance on sourcing the optimum packaging for your business.