Holding it Together During the Global COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

By Bradley Dunlap, Product Marketing Manager at Shurtape Technologies, LLC

In times of crisis, manufacturers tend to focus on front-end concerns: Are the raw materials necessary to make their product available? Do they have sufficient staff to maintain operations? Do they have processes in place to maintain the safety of their workers and their products?

Likewise, retailers wonder: Are suppliers up and running? Can they keep up with customer demand? Is our staff prepared to operate at peak levels to meet essential customer needs?

But the end-of-line details are just as critical to keeping operations up and running. Under peak operational stress, everything from raw material availability to end-of-line packaging efficiency will either help you rise to the occasion or hold you back.

In the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, packaging tape has an essential role to play in helping consumer packaged goods  (CPG) retailers and manufacturers meet the needs of consumers stuck at home and turning to eCommerce for the essentials of daily life, from non-perishable food items to cleaners and disinfectants to personal hygiene products.

COVID-19 Has CPG Demand Up

Even under typical circumstances, food, health and related CPG companies are among the highest consumers of end-of-line packaging materials like corrugated and packaging tape as their products are boxed, palletized and shipped to grocery stores and discount retailers across the country. In this historically unique situation of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, those essential products are being purchased online more frequently than ever before, adding another level of packaging and case sealing in their journey to the end customer.

Any increase in demand puts stress on the packaging line. Just how much demand are we looking at as a result of the COVID-19 response?

  • Credit Suisse predicts that U.S. packaged food companies’ retail sales will grow an average of 15 percent to 30 percent between March and May of 2020. Industry estimates suggest that food at home, which typically represents 50 percent of food spending, currently makes up 80 percent.
  • In 2017, Nielson and the Food Marketing Institute predicted that by 2025, one-fifth of all grocery shopping ($100 billion worth) would be online. By summer 2018, they had already revised that prediction to estimate the $100 billion mark would be hit by 2022. And that was more than a year before COVID-19 arrived on the scene.
  • One multi-billion-dollar non-grocery eCommerce company whose packaging needs were already growing 40 percent year over year is up an additional 50 percent due to the pandemic. This company actually reached out to their packaging tape supplier to confirm they could keep up with the increased demand. They considered their packaging tape vendor a key raw material supplier and a critical component to the success of their eCommerce operation.

COVID-19 Has Acrylic Tape Supply Down

The unusual nature of the pandemic’s particular path across the globe has impacted packaging material supply in a specific way. Of the two types of packaging tape, acrylic and hot melt, acrylic tapes are primarily produced in Asia and India, while hot melt tapes are manufactured in the U.S. and other parts of Northern America.

The initial breakout of coronavirus in China disrupted production of acrylic tapes earlier this year, and its more recent movement into India continues to impact supplies. Those who rely on acrylic tapes are soon going to experience shortages, if they haven’t already.

This may result in a shift to hot melt packaging tapes, the manufacturer of which is still considered essential and continues in the U.S. and other parts of North America, making it a more reliable resource with no production shutdowns or shipping delays.

Hot melt tapes are considered the better choice for many packaging applications, but they are especially well suited for eCommerce packaging. There is a significant difference in the strain put on a package that is loaded onto a pallet of identical packages, wrapped for stability, and transported directly to a warehouse or retailer compared to a package that is shipped out with other packages of varying weights and sizes. These packages may ultimately have to travel the last miles to their urban destination by a contracted ride share driver or other less secure means.

The quick stick and lasting holding power of hot melt tapes, coupled with their reliable availability, make them a sure bet for reliable performance in eCommerce packaging applications.

Maximizing Efficiency Is the Answer – Short and Long-Term

In the long-term, the need for flexibility and increased output for end-of-line packaging is going to drive more eCommerce operations to automate. There is simply a limit to how much they can move out with existing infrastructure and manual processes. It’s also going to drive automation further upstream to include order picking, processing and packing as well as unitizing and case sealing.

Being prepared for the impact of automation is key. In a manual packing operation, human workers can adjust for and accommodate material weaknesses. Without that back-up, automated systems are 100 percent reliant on material performance. The interface between the tape and the corrugated must form a strong bond that will last throughout the entire delivery process.

Moving to an automated process doesn’t happen overnight, and the middle of a demand surge is not the time to make the switch. But it is certainly the time to start considering the benefits of automation and consider investing the fruits of an increase in business into a packaging automation solution that will have long-term benefits.

Automation isn’t a once and done solution to optimal end-of-line packaging performance. eCommerce operations that manage their own packaging as well as third party packaging providers that contract with eCommerce companies can optimize the performance of their case sealing.

Whether it is a fully automated top and bottom case sealing mechanism for single-size packages or a semi-automatic machine that can be adjusted to the size of the case before automated tape application, a continuous improvement evaluation can identify inefficiencies in a current case sealing system and suggest solutions that can be implemented rapidly with limited disruption to the line.

Some of the issues frequently identified in these evaluations and addressed with new solutions include:

  • Downtime spent fixing tape jams;
  • Time spent reworking cases due to broken, loose, uncut, twisted, missing or flagging tape;
  • Wasted tape from unused stub rolls; and
  • Wasted tape from overly long tabs.

Looking Forward

The COVID-19 pandemic will one day be behind us, but its impact on eCommerce will likely be a lasting one. Packaging operations – in-house and contracted – must have the mechanisms in place to meet increases in demand, whether sudden or sustained. This means a shift toward automation and the more reliably available and high-performance packaging tapes and other materials automations demands.

About the Author:

Bradley Dunlap is the product marketing manager at Shurtape Technologies, LLC where he is responsible for leading the product development and marketing support for the packaging tape and equipment category. He is a member of the Pressure Sensitive Tape Council (PSTC) and Institute of Packaging Professionals (IoPP), and has completed PSTC training for Manufacturing and Testing of Pressure Sensitive Tape Adhesives and Tape University Advanced.