By Billy Rupe, Prototype Specialist, and Carmine Catullo, Office Manager
Packaging and shipping a prototype is one of those things most people don’t even think about until it is time to get it where it needs to go. But it can be just as important as every other step of the process.
About a 12-minute read
Here’s the scenario: you have an amazing product idea, do your research, and choose the right people to complete your project. They complete it exactly the way you wanted, it gets sent to you and when you open it up – it’s completely broken. And if the thousands of dollars gone wasn’t bad enough, the show is tomorrow and there’s no time to fix it. Even a scuff, scratch, or crack can completely derail a project.
Throughout this article we will go over some tips and guidelines that we have learned over 25 years of shipping thousands of prototypes around the world, and how you can prepare for a successful project all the way to opening up the box.
There are many elements that go into writing a quote. Our project managers think about every phase; from design, to engineering, to prototyping, and shipping is a very critical part of the puzzle that can’t be overlooked. We account for the time and budget it takes to properly ship the prototype to its destination.
It is important to account for shipping in this pre-planning period, because in the thick of the design process, it can be easy to forget about these very essential final steps. As we consider the needs of each project, we will go over how to choose the right packing container, materials to secure the prototype, and how to determine the method of transportation.
Brown cardboard boxes. Everyone uses them and for good reason. They are familiar, cheap, and readily available in hundreds of sizes to suit any need. If we need to ship a project from our facility to a client who is the end destination, then the gold standard, the tried and true cardboard box should work out great.
But, the type and size of box we choose is just as important. Whether we are using a standard FedEx or UPS box, or a plain cardboard box, it is crucial to choose a box that is the correct size and type to get there safely. We like to keep a wide range of box sizes and types in stock that way we are always prepared for anything going out that day.
"It is crucial to choose a box that is the correct size and type to get there safely."
We get to know the local box companies so if we need something more specialized we can get it quickly. The types of boxes available range in the hundreds and most of the time it is easy to find a box to fit perfectly whether it’s a tiny jewelry sized piece or a long skinny part that can fit better in a tube or telescoping box. We always make sure no matter what size needed we leave extra room for packing materials.
Occasionally a client will need to reuse the packaging once it reaches its first destination, for example when going to a trade show or traveling around the world for research. In this scenario, we recommend the project to be custom fit into a case.
There are a wide range of cases available that can suit any need. These are typically a hard shell with a cushioned inside. A well-designed case can be used to travel the world many times and be tossed around by clumsy baggage handlers without a scratch on the project. Typically, they are quite expensive compared to a box, and depending on size could have a longer lead time if being custom built.
If you want to present at a meeting and don’t want to stroll in with a taped-up cardboard box, it might be a good option to invest in a reusable case. A professional container can go a long way in a meeting to let the group know you are serious about the project.
"If you want to present at a meeting and don’t want to stroll in with a taped-up cardboard box, it might be a good option to invest in a re-usable case."
Pelican or Storm cases are perfect for smaller prototypes. They come in sizes ranging from a small smartphone to sizes as big as a microwave. They are made from a rigid polyurethane shell and have weather tight seals to keep a project protected when on the go. It is filled with a soft foam that can be custom designed to fit a prototype perfectly. This is the ultimate protection and is even used by the military, so you can trust its durability and security.
Cabbage cases are a good solution for larger projects that can’t fit in a smaller readymade case. We might not be able to lift a refrigerator, but we can pack it in a case and roll it to a trade show in style. Completely protected custom-sized cases are filled with foam in all the right places, and have heavy-duty casters to carry it. They also meet Air Transport Association standards, so clients can fly them to wherever is needed. These can be designed in any configuration so you can rest easy it will get there safely.
Rarely do we just throw prototype worth thousands of dollars into a two-dollar box slap a label on it and ship it across the country. Why? Because that is how things get damaged pretty fast!
A box itself can be the first line of defense, but it also has some downsides. It may say fragile on the side of the box, but once it leaves your doors it may get dropped, flipped, and thrown all in the name of efficiency. Large shipping carriers handle tens of millions of packages each day, they just don’t have the time to spend on individual care instructions for each and every package. So, then it’s useless? Not even close! There are many ways to ensure a box arrives safe. It’s time to think inside the box for once.
Plastic Bags can be used to keep prototypes dry and contained within a box to protect from inclement weather during travel. Especially when shipping a soft goods prototype that cannot get wet, a sturdy zip lock bag can help it get to the destination safely, even in an envelope.
Peanuts are the time tested and easiest way to help add some cushioning to a box. If a prototype is placed in the middle of a box and is properly surrounded by peanuts with enough space between the project and the outside of the box, it is more likely to arrive damage free and unscathed. Peanuts have an irregular shape and are mostly made of air which acts as a shock absorber during drops and tumbles. These are perfect for most heavy items as they rebound to their original shape. Unfortunately, they cannot be recycled and only reused if saved.
Paper acts in the same way as peanuts with the added benefit of being recyclable and compact for storage because it comes on a roll. The problem with paper is after it has been crushed it doesn’t rebound like peanuts and heavy objects can start to compress it. This makes more room inside the box around your project and over its long journey may get less and less secure. Paper is mostly used on lighter projects for this reason.
"Movement with heavy objects compresses paper and creates room inside the box around your project and over its long journey may get less and less secure. Paper is mostly used on lighter projects for this reason."
Air pillows are the most recent filler material to hit the market, which are quickly gaining ground, and for good reason. Air pillows have the same advantages of peanuts providing plenty of security and don’t lose shape over the journey. Added bonus: air pillows are not nearly as messy as peanuts when opening up the box! They can be popped and recycled or kept and reused.
Styrofoam sheets are another great packing material that can be used to protect prototypes. Typically we have sheets in 1 ½” thickness, then cut it down to make a box inside of the cardboard box for a little more crush and puncture resistance. It also makes a good divider between multiple prototypes in the same box. It can be used to keep prototypes that are thin or flexible from bending when they are taped or wrapped together. Styrofoam typically is used in addition to one of the filler materials above to create a combination of rigid protection and soft padding.
Bubble and foam wrap are other materials that are commonly used in conjunction with any of the filler materials. Typically coming in a roll, we use it as a wrapping material around the project itself to protect the paint job and adding a good layer of abrasion resistance. Bubble wrap comes in varying bubble sizes depending on the needs and does a great job at isolating a prototype from the filler material with a cushion of air. Foam wrap is usually ¼” thick and adds more of a protective barrier to keep peanuts and paper away from the finished surface.
When it comes to how we pick a transportation method, we weigh out different options depending on the contents of the package and how quickly it needs to arrive. Every project shipment is situational, but there are many variables to look it when we make our decision.
Freight shipments in a semi are the most cost-effective way to ship large projects that won’t fit in a box. Sometimes we choose freight because it is cost effective when we have multiple parts and pieces to our projects. Shipments can all be wrapped up safely in boxes then strapped to a pallet. Depending on project size, freight shipment can sometimes get there faster and cheaper than traditional mailing services with less movement along the way.
We are not paying a premium for careful delivery, so we take extra packing precautions. Everything delivered freight goes on a pallet to make sure that our packages are stable. This helps limit the ways it can be handled and will ensure it will get there safely. We also strap items down to the pallet with metal or poly strapping, so it doesn’t move around on the pallet. Often, we wrap our project with a layer of bubble wrap or foam to prevent scratches and dings and then a layer of plastic wrap to help prevent dirt or weather getting in and ruining your project.
"We choose freight because it is cost effective when we have multiple parts and pieces to our projects."
Courier service, also referred to as “white glove”, is the ultimate in delivery of our projects. With courier service, someone will bring your project from where it was made to where it needs to go with no other stops between. Typically, they drive large panel vans or small box trucks and have all the equipment needed to transport our prototypes safely. This cuts down on multiple hand-offs and over stacking of packages in a vehicle, which can cause packages to be damaged or lost.
We still take some precautions such as wrapping the items in foam or bubble wrap to prevent scratches, but this will be the gentlest way of getting projects delivered. It is usually also the fastest method unless it is going across the country. The downside is cost. This will be by far the most expensive method of shipping, but for good reason. The risk of damage is much lower.
"Courier delivery cuts down on multiple hand-offs and over stacking of packages in a vehicle, which can cause packages to be damaged or lost."
Rates and Speed of shipping go hand in hand. The rates can be significantly impacted by the speed we choose for when we need a shipment to arrive. There are plenty of options to pick from to make sure that our prototypes arrive as quickly as needed. Air, ground, and freight options through the main carrier services like FedEx and UPS. Another factor for rates is if we declare the value of our shipment, it can impact the price significantly. International shipping will also drastically affect the price of a shipment. By planning ahead, we can save budget by allowing more time to ship with slower, cheaper options.
Hazardous Goods can derail shipment progress very easily if it is not planned for beforehand. There are certain items that are restricted from shipping like paint, batteries, etc. We call the Hazardous Goods hotline with the carrier we are using beforehand to see if we are able to ship certain items and if special labeling is needed.
Simply putting a prototype in a box and shipping it out doesn’t quite cut it. So it’s important to plan and prepare for your prototype to arrive at the final destination safely. When building a prototype, a significant expense of time and effort goes into fabricating parts, selecting materials, and carefully matching colors and finishes. This final step of shipping should always be given the same attention to detail as every other part of the prototyping process.
If you plan ahead of time during the quote phase, the shipping process will be easy and not time consuming. A smooth shipment means you can finish up the project within budget, without surprises, and a final product in hand and ready to move your development along to the next step.