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How to avoid a DIM future

Don’t panic. Parcel dim weight pricing is coming, but there are things you can do to skirt parcel Armageddon.

By David Maloney

Parcel shippers may be in for a shock when they open their first parcel shipping bills of 2015. By that time, FedEx Corp. and UPS Inc. will have implemented what is known as “dimensional weight pricing” for all of their ground packages, including those measuring less than three cubic feet that were previously exempt from dimensional weight, or dim weight, pricing.

For the first time, parcels falling under the three-cubic-foot dimensional threshold will be priced based on a combination of weight and carton dimensions, not their weight alone. For shippers of lightweight items with packaging heft to them, this could spell double-digit price increases because the parcels will be rated based on the amount of space they occupy in a van. No longer will the carriers haul Styrofoam popcorn and other cushioning materials that amount to little more than air for free.

The companies say the pricing changes will foster greater packaging efficiency for shippers, reduce fuel consumption through better truck utilization, and result in a smaller carbon footprint. They are also likely to generate for the carriers hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenues without significant fleet investments. “The simple reason for the new pricing structure is it is much cheaper for [FedEx and UPS] than buying more trucks and airplanes. They want to get more product into the trucks and airplanes they already have,” says Jack Walsh, director of sales and marketing for CASI, a company that provides dimensioning and weighing systems.

Before the Internet changed shopping (and shipping) habits, a large portion of parcel loads involved business-to-business shipments that were optimally packed by the manufacturer. Things are different in the age of e-commerce. Speed has now taken precedence, and for most DCs doing e-commerce fulfillment, it is faster for workers to grab a larger carton than necessary than risk having to repack an order because the carton originally selected was too small.

Jack Ampuja, president of the packaging and supply chain consulting firm Supply Chain Optimizers, says an order picker chooses the wrong sized carton about a quarter of the time. “We have all gotten that small item, such as a flash drive, packed in a breadbox-sized carton,” he says.

Such packaging habits result in wasted space. “Forty percent of total shipping volume is unnecessary air,” says Hanko Kiessner, CEO of Packsize, a company that provides on-demand packaging systems that enable users to build custom cartons. “If we can reduce shipping volume by 40 percent, we can actually increase fleet efficiency by 66 percent.”


So how can companies avoid high parcel shipping charges? The first step is to talk to the carriers. Many companies have negotiated rates, so it remains to be seen if, or by how much, the pricing changes will immediately affect them. Experts emphasize that the time for shippers to act is well before their contracts are up for renewal. “If your water bill goes up, you turn off the sprinklers,” quips CASI’s Walsh.

The second step is to know what is actually being shipped. “You can’t make intelligent packaging decisions if you don’t know the [dimensional] volume of your products,” says Walsh. Few companies know their product characteristics, especially those companies that have a constant churn of stock-keeping units (SKUs). But knowing the actual weight and size of products can pay big dividends. It can make handling easier, optimize storage space, and save on shipping costs. If you know the size and weight of each item shipped, you can then optimize how the items are packed so you’re not paying to transport air.

As for how you can get those dimensions, there are a number of ways. Sometimes, suppliers will provide you with that data. But more often than not, shippers have to gather the data themselves. They can measure and weigh products manually using a tape measure and a scale, but this can be very time consuming. Another option is to use automatic dimensioning and weighing systems. Not only are these systems much faster and more accurate, but they can help take the guesswork out of the carton selection process. The systems can transmit the weight and dimensional data they capture to a warehouse management system and shipping software. The software then guides packers in choosing the best packaging for the product, including the correct size carton and the amount of dunnage needed to protect its contents. Some systems will also tie into a computer screen to display the optimal way to arrange products within the carton—for instance, with heavier items on the bottom and lighter ones on top.

In addition to being used to collect data on individual SKUs handled at the facility, automated dimensioning systems can be installed at the end of the line to capture information about each package in a shipment. This information is then passed along to the carrier and can also be used for customer billing. “It is important for shippers to include the dimensions of the parcel when processing their ground shipments. If they don’t, they are likely to receive significant ‘back-charges’ from their carrier, which cannot be passed back to the shipper’s customer,” notes Randy Neilson, director of sales and marketing for Quantronix, the manufacturer of CubiScan dimensioning systems. “The system will collect the parcel’s ID/order license plate number as well as its length, width, height, and weight,” he says. “All of this information is then electronically transferred and integrated with the user’s shipping software system.”

Such systems are certified as legal-for-trade dimensioning and weighing systems. Therefore, the information they gather may also be useful in settling any billing disputes that might arise with the carrier or customer.


Another way to address shipping costs is to evaluate the packaging you’re using to see if the cartons you employ are the best ones for your needs. Consultants like Ampuja can help shippers determine carton characteristics, the number of cartons that are ideal for their products, and the sizes those cartons should be. “Six box sizes are about optimum for manual operations,” Ampuja says. Companies that use computers to select the proper box size really have no limit on the number of boxes they employ but typically use about 15 to 18 boxes, which will provide more freight savings, he says.

Ampuja notes that shippers are sometimes reluctant to increase the number of boxes they use because they feel it will complicate their operations. However, expanding their carton lineup can save money if the cartons are a better fit for their products, he says, especially if computers handle the carton selection. “The money is in the freight, not in the box,” Ampuja says.

Making even minor changes in the boxes’ dimensions can also greatly affect the dim weight. For example, simply trimming a half-inch off the length, a quarter-inch off the height, and so on can save significant money when multiplied by thousands of boxes.

Obviously, consideration should be made for the types of products shipped—how heavy and fragile are they? What is the ideal corrugated thickness and design to assure the products are protected? The cartons should not be too weak or too strong, but as Goldilocks would say, “Just right.” Another matter to consider is the optimal amount of dunnage to use to ensure the product will survive the journey while at the same time making the most efficient use of space.


Another option for companies looking to eliminate wasted space is to go the custom carton route. They can do this by installing an on-demand packaging system that allows them to make custom cartons on the spot. Using measurements obtained from dimensioning systems, an on-demand packaging system forms the correctly sized box for the product being shipped. In short, these systems can neutralize the effects of the new dim weight charges, as the package is already as compact as it can get. “Our solution can actually help customers see a reduction in their shipping charges even with dim weight pricing,” says Packsize’s Kiessner. He says customers using his company’s on-demand packaging solution currently obtain at least a 20-percent overall savings even before dim weight pricing kicks in. The savings come from lower shipping charges as well as a reduction in the amount of corrugate and dunnage needed.

Using a carton of the correct size also reduces the potential for product damage. “There is no better protection for any product than the best fit, so that there is no shifting inside the box,” explains Kiessner.

On-demand packaging can be especially useful for companies shipping irregularly shaped items. One such shipper is CarPartsDepot Inc., an online store that sells automotive body parts, such as bumpers, fenders, grills, radiators, hoods, and headlights. Not too many of these parts fit neatly into a standard box. For that reason, CarPartsDepot relies on a Packsize system to create the oddly shaped boxes it needs.

“We have around 6,000 SKUs. Every one has a different shape, so we need a perfectly shaped box for each item,” says Tony Chiu, CarPartsDepot’s general sales manager. He says the retailer captures each part’s dimensions, which are then stored in a computer until it’s time to create the box for the shipment. About 1,200 to 1,500 parcels ship daily from his facility. He adds that he is not worried about dim weight pricing as he is already optimized for parcel shipping. “We are saving 15 percent now and will save even more comparatively when the dimensional weight [pricing] starts.”

For cubing, future looks DIM

Given the new carrier rules, your company’s approach to determining cube for shipments had better be on the square.

By Sterling Anthony

The parcel ground carrier industry has adopted dimensional weighing (DIM). As with most, if not all matters involving supply-chain management, packaging is at the core.

DIM is a calculation that divides a package’s volume by a dimensioning constant of 194 (166 for international shipment); that is to say, (L x W x H) / 194. As such, a package’s actual weight and its DIM “weight” are not the same, and a carrier will base charges on the greater.

DIM vs. actual is a comparison made for packages that are three cubic feet or larger. Smaller packages are charged according to actual weight. DIM compensates carriers for the space that large, but lightweight packages occupy inside a vehicle. The underlying concept is package density, which relates to cubing-out (vehicle has reached its space limitations) and weighing-out (vehicle has reached its legal load-carrying limitations).

Factors that steered parcel ground carriers to DIM include rising fuel costs, which will remain a factor, despite the present drop in oil prices.

Another is the increase in Internet and catalog businesses, including from brick-and-mortar retail stores.
Yet another is the increase in brand-owners that market through infomercials and direct marketing. Another stemming from the previous two is the increase in low-density shipments routed to many consumer consignees as opposed to higher-density shipments to fewer business consignees.

DIM places premium on speed and accuracy

Throughout the supply-chain and especially at the distribution center (DC), obtaining information about the weights and sizes of packages traditionally has been low-tech, mostly employing scales and tape-measures. The latter, particularly, is fraught with slowness and imprecision—costly shortcomings, since shipping a package under DIM charges can be as much as 50-75% more expensive than shipping it under actual weight charges.

If a shipper tenders a package for actual weight charges, but the carrier later determines that DIM charges apply, the shipper will be accessed a charge-back. In the interim, the consignee has received the goods. The shipper, therefore, has to decide whether to absorb the penalty or to invoice the consignee—an embarrassment in all instances and an impracticality in consumer shipments.

Incidentally, how does the carrier know that the shipper tendered the package under the wrong designation? The carrier has equipment, known as cubing systems, that makes that determination.

Shippers are increasingly investing in such equipment, their justification being: the avoidance of charge-backs; the avoidance of damaged customer relations resulting from passing the charge-backs on to the consignee; the reduction of labor costs incurred by the manual recording of package cube and weight; and, the addition to the bottom line that accrues from cost-containment, higher efficiencies, better management, and improved customer service.

An equipment and technology primer

Cubing systems are based on sensor technology. The main sensing sources include ultrasound, infrared, laser, and to a lesser extent, photodiodes, each with its own pluses and minuses. What the systems have in common is the ability to perceive an object and determine its volume (and weight, when designed with that capacity). Furthermore, systems range from stationary to mobile, as well as from those that generate data about packages at rest to those that do so about packages in motion.

As does any major investment, this one introduces a host of considerations, among them: costs, set-up, complexity of operation, maintenance, operating speeds, and versatility as to the ability to handle a variety of package/load shapes and sizes. Such considerations go to the understanding of one’s options, along with the associated trade-offs.

And, whereas any sales rep worth the printing cost of his business cards will argue that his system is the wise choice, the buyer should never delegate the responsibility of determining his own needs. That determination should be the result of a detailed assessment of the buyer’s operations. Only then can there be talk of return-on-investment, whether payback or another metric.

A place at the table for the packaging professional

DIM, cubing systems, and the analysis required to profitably marry the two afford packaging professionals with yet another opportunity to demonstrate strategic capabilities and to not be regarded as niche tacticians. Unfortunately, sometimes their contributions don’t extend beyond projects such as determining the optimal number of standardized sizes of corrugated boxes for minimizing void and determining the most cost-effective materials for purposes of void-filling and cushioning.

Not that such projects are to be demeaned, for in many instances they are foundational. The purpose of a foundation, however, is to provide support for that which is built upon it. And, it’s at those upper tiers where packaging professionals also should have a presence.

Meeting the challenge is facilitated by understanding the supply-chain as inbound and outbound flows, wherein the principal activities—storage, material handling, and transportation—heavily rely on package cube and weight for cost-containment and efficiencies. The packaging professional’s mission is to incorporate that reality at the package design/redesign stage, so that benefits are incurred throughout the supply-chain.

But, too few packaging professionals spend adequate time in a DC, mistakenly conceding it as the province of those with logistical titles and duties. Any imagined encroachment is just that, imagined, for by its nature, packaging cuts across disciplines. The packaging professional should become intimate with how packages are received, moved, stored, retrieved, and shipped, because each activity can be modified for optimization of the system.

Therefore, one’s perspective should go beyond cubing and weighting and onto tracking. In other words, dimensioning systems can be combined with scanning (think RFID) and label printing. This trove of data and capabilities, in turn, can be integrated into a warehouse management system (WMS) as a valuable aid to analysis and decision-making.

Widening the perspective further, specific challenges to the supply-chain can be addressed, security being one of those. Authentic, quality goods are made to tight tolerances. If a system were so sensitive that it could detect slight, but consistent deviations of cube and weight, it could signal the possibility of counterfeit goods.

And, here’s a parting inducement to the shipper: retailers increasingly are demanding that they be supplied reliable dimensional/weight data to better allocate their receiving, storage, and merchandising operations.

Now is the time to throw away that measuring tape, less it prove to be tape of the red (as in ink) variety.

Before becoming a packaging consultant, Sterling Anthony worked for Fortune 500 food, healthcare, and automotive companies, and has taught packaging at the university level. He welcomes your comments by phone, 313/531-1875 or by e-mail, His Web site is

When should you cube and weigh?

There’s a lot to be said for collecting weight and dimensional data right before an order is shipped. But that’s just part of the story.

By Susan K. Lacefield

In today’s high-velocity distribution centers, there’s no room for guesswork. That’s particularly true when it comes to the size and weight of products stored and handled at the site. Having accurate weight and dimensional data can help you calculate outbound shipping costs correctly, determine your exact storage and material handling system needs, and catch mispicked orders before they go out the door.

But where and when should you gather cube and weight data? Most people would say it should be done at an outbound packing station just prior to shipment. While there’s much to be said for that approach, it’s not the only answer. There are good arguments for cubing and weighing at other times and places in the DC. Here are four recommendations from those in the know:

1. During a one-time inventory audit. Data on the exact size and weight of every product you handle can be helpful in optimizing your material handling and storage systems and for choosing the best picking mechanism for those products. But not all companies have that information at their fingertips, says Bob Babel of the systems integrator Forte.

“In particular, small and medium-sized companies usually don’t have good, accurate sizing information of products that move through their material handling system,” Babel says.

If that’s the case in your operation, a size and weight audit of active inventory might be in order. Babel notes that this could be as simple as renting or buying a static dimensioning system and setting it up near receiving. As items arrive, they can be placed on the dimensioning system, which will automatically capture their height, length, width, and weight.

Another option would be to take a static dimensioning system and place it on a cart with a battery, says Jerry Stoll, service market manager for Mettler-Toledo Inc., a manufacturer of cubing and weighing products. Workers can then can simply wheel the cart around to the various storage and picking locations to capture the relevant data.

2. At receiving. A one-time inventory audit probably won’t be sufficient for DCs whose product mix—or product packaging—changes frequently. These operations will likely need to make cubing and weighing a routine part of their operations.

But where’s the best place to carry out these activities? Clark Skeen, president of Quantronix, the maker of the Cubiscan line of cubing and weighing equipment, has some ideas on the subject. He strongly urges DCs to consider making it part of the receiving process. “The ideal time and place to collect cubing and weighing data is at the point of receipt,” he says.

If you only gather cube and weight data at an outbound shipping station, you’ll miss out on at least 50 percent of the benefits that the data can provide, Skeen says. That’s because a product’s cube and weight can and should influence decisions about slotting, storage location for putaway and picking, and repacking and containerization for shipping. “If you collect that data at the point of receipt, then it’s available for each and every one of those decision points,” he says.

Indeed, some facilities may choose to collect cube and weight data only at receipt, Stoll says. Those that do typically are simply storing and distributing product and are not repackaging or altering it in any way, so they know the dimensional data will not change, he explains.

To gather this information during receiving, many companies use automated dimensioning systems. For instance, high-volume operations that use conveyors to unload trucks might use an in-motion dimensioner attached to the conveyor. This approach has the advantage of allowing companies to check 100 percent of the products moving off the truck and obtain up-to-the-minute data on them, says Dan Hanrahan, president of the Numina Group, which supplies inline-scan weight dimensioning solutions. “That way, the warehouse management system and transportation system are always working from real-time data, so the information is being audited [during] the upfront process, and you can make changes to your system in real time,” he explains.

3. After putaway or picking. Collecting dimensional data at receiving might not always be practical. For example, on a big receiving day, you may not have the time or floor space to perform cubing and weighing activities. In that case, an alternative might be to weigh and measure items after putaway (which can be accomplished by means of a mobile cart) or as they move from picking to shipping.

There are a number of potential benefits to this approach, experts say. For one thing, dimensioning systems can help with quality control after picking, according to Hanrahan. If a picker selects the wrong item or quantity, the order’s weight will likely vary from the expected weight. And a damaged carton’s dimensions may not conform with those of an undamaged box. An inline system located on a conveyor belt between picking and shipping will detect these deviations immediately and divert the order to an inspection station, says Hanrahan.

An alternative to a conveyor belt system is to use lift trucks with scales incorporated into their forks, says Stoll. He notes that this approach is popular with operations that place a premium on speed. “That [alternative] is mostly used by companies that have multiple forklifts that are moving a lot of freight fast, so they’re worried about time constraints,” he says.

4. Right before shipping. Perhaps the most common application of cubing and weighing systems is to collect data on parcels immediately prior to shipping. After all, that information is essential to determining the correct shipping costs.

To get the most accurate reading for this purpose, it’s best to measure the dimensional weight of the box after it’s been sealed and labeled. This is particularly important when shipping via parcel carriers that charge based on dimensional weight. By gathering precise dimensional data on their packages, shippers can ensure they’re rating their parcels correctly and avoid chargebacks or overcharges by carriers. It is also important for less-than-truckload (LTL) shipments because carriers often “ballpark” weights to determine shipping costs, says Derek Jones, senior marketing product manager for Lantech, which recently began offering a scale option for its stretch wrappers.

Even companies with private fleets that don’t have to calculate parcel shipping rates can benefit from cubing and weighing at the time outbound shipments are prepared, Stoll says. Accurate weight and dimensional information can help them make optimal use of the available truck space.

Substantial payback

To be sure, it’s possible to get dimensional weight information without using a cubing and weighing system. For example, companies can get the data straight from the supplier, or they can manually measure and weigh the products. They also have the option of using cube calculation or “cartonization” logic based on the dimensional data in a WMS. But those results are not guaranteed to be accurate. According to Hanrahan, 5 to 10 percent of the time, packers use a smaller or larger box than expected.

In the end, what matters is not so much how or where you collect cubing and weight data, but that you do it, says Skeen of Quantronix. The information you collect will have great value, he says. And the more you use it, the more that value grows. Accurate, up-to-date cubing and weighing data offers a substantial payback for a relatively small investment, he says. “The information it provides is absolutely essential if you want to be a world-class distribution center.”

Future Manufacturing Trends Increase the Demand for Machine Vision

by Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor

In the 1990s, productivity drove the global manufacturing engine. Today, concepts such as lean manufacturing and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) continue to further refine the concept of productivity.

Lean operations depend on real time awareness of raw materials and production within the overall manufacturing process. Armed with real-time information, manufacturers can optimize power and materials consumption, labor, scheduling, maintenance and other critical operational factors to produce the right amount of quality product while minimizing overhead. Material handling systems are often a key link in the chain, providing moving product from place to place while providing a platform for automated data collection. In some cases, such as robotic assembly, machine vision actually enables the material handling system, often while delivering extra functionality such as quality inspection and product tracking. Today, all of these manufacturing trends are creating demand for machine vision systems to help a growing variety of industries to manufacture, track, and ship goods while keeping costs down.

Handling vs. Inspection

Machine vision systems continue to shrink in size and cost, while growing in power, functionality, and ease of use. These trends mean that machine vision is being considered more often to replace traditional, discrete sensor tracking and sensing systems because unlike the photoeye, machine vision can do more than simply turn an electrical current on and off.

For example, QUANTRONIX INC. (Farmington, Utah) makes CUBISCAN dimensioning systems for manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution centers. These systems use a combination of infrared 3D scanners and 2D machine vision cameras to capture the size of boxes, irregular shaped containers, pallets, and even full truckloads. When combined with images of the container for verification purposes, the 3D dimensional data can then be used to audit shipping costs, optimize trucking shipments, or insure that customers pay their fair share of shipping costs. “Primary applications are for determining shipping rates, storage of items, making sure warehouse has sufficient space, etc,” explains QUANTRONIX’s Joseph Cal.

Shipping costs are determined by both the weight of an object and its volume. “Generally, we’re concerned with finding the smallest rectangular package that will fit around a product,” adds Cal. “One of the important differences between a machine vision system for product inspection, and another for package dimensioning, is spatial resolution. While we need to determine the smallest box to hold the toothbrush, the vision system that inspects the toothbrush and bristles typically requires higher resolution than the dimensional vision system.”

Size Matters

It makes sense that a vision system designed to measure palletized product for shipping would not require the same spatial resolution as a vision system inspecting the product inside the pallet boxes. However, not all products are large enough to go on pallets. The shrinking world of electronics is a good example of how high-resolution machine vision systems can enable material handling operations while conducting important quality checks at the same time.

Matrox Imaging (Quebec, Canada) recently helped Netherlands-based IMS to build a micro-assembly station for feeding and inspecting micro-parts prior to final assembly. When sorting miniature electronic parts, an operator traditionally places the parts into a vibratory bowl feeder, a bowl with ridged sides. When the bowl is switched on, the parts jiggle and separate themselves on the ridges, but micro-assembly components tend to stick together or have too little mass to be transported by vibration. Other alternatives, like robotics systems or manual supply, often lack either speed or accuracy. In micro-assembly there is a need for a system that combines the functions of feeding, orienting, and inspecting parts.

According to Jasper Kerkwijk, IMS Marketing Manager, IMS and its partners developed the Vision Inspection Feeding System (VIFS) as a multi-purpose, modular system for the supply and recognition, inspection, handling, and placing of parts. VIFS is based on IMS’ standard frame and equipment control system called ProMicro. To use the system, a technician calibrates the VIFS with a part that is within tolerance to create the Golden Template. Then the camera takes pictures of the parts on the inspection stage. Finally, specific processing modules in the Matrox Imaging Library analyze the parts. First the Geometric Model Finder (GMF) module locates the parts in the image, so the Metrology module can measure the features of each part. The results, both good and bad parts, are displayed on the monitor. Parts that pass inspection can be used for assembly; parts that cannot be recognized are most likely lying on their sides or too close to another part, so they are re-fed into the system by the vibratory tray. If the inspection shows a part to be out of tolerance, the system tags it; if the system is feeding parts for assembly, the non-conforming parts will be kept out of the assembly step. The system can also be programmed to find surface defects.

“Most feeder systems can’t offer the combination of accuracy, speed, and flexibility that the VIFS has,” he explains. “Substitutes like bowl feeders are not flexible and reliable enough to meet the challenges of micro assembly.”

Small Packagers: Next Big Thing

Size also matters when it comes to vision-guided robotics, but not always in the sense of robot payloads. At the Robotic Industries Association’s Robotics Industry Forum held in Orlando last fall, small companies with palletizing and similar operations were one of the few bright spots for industry growth in 2009’s down economy. A small contract packaging operation in central New Jersey is a perfect example of how vision and robot companies are expanding their markets to include new, smaller corporate customers that may be fielding their first vision system.

Faber Industrial Technologies Inc. (Clifton, New Jersey) distributes Denso robotics and DALSA IPD Vision Appliance products. A small contract packaging operation came to Faber’s Greg Raciti to help automate placing sample packets of shampoo, lotion, etc., on cardboard holders for insertion in magazines, newspapers, and direct mail pieces. Previously, several laborers would stand between two conveyors, pulling packets off one conveyor, and sticking them to a glue bead on the cardboard backer before final shrink-wrap. The process was labor-intensive and prone to inconsistent placement.

The operation and set-up of the small manufacturer poses unique challenges to automation providers. Unlike large companies where product changeover is limited, products change by the day or week for small contract packaging operations. The solution needed to be simple enough for packaging technicians to reconfigure a new product, and portable enough to move from one set of conveyors to another.

The solution was to build a mobile metal frame with a Denso 6-axis robot suspended upside down from the top of the frame. A pair of DALSA IPD cameras attached to a single vision-appliance image-processing unit collects images of the packets and boards coming down each conveyor and determines their X, Y, and rotation. The information is combined with encoder location for each conveyor by the robot controller, and when the packets come within reach of the robot arm, they are picked up and placed on the glue bead/mailer card on the second conveyor.

“DALSA’s Sherlock software with its 4 point calibration algorithm for each camera and Smart Search algorithm made it easy for the packager to move the frame to new conveyors and adapt to constantly changing product dimension and handling needs,” explains Faber’s Raciti. “They don’t need a PhD to set up this system. Today, it takes them about a day to move the system, place the cameras, and adapt the system to the new conveyors, which are all of different heights and sizes. As the client becomes more familiar with the operation, they expect to cut that set up time to a few hours.”

A decade ago, simply bumping a machine vision camera would necessitate flying an engineer from the system integrator to the customer site to get the vision system back on track. Today, as machine vision software takes advantage of computational advances, complex features are masked behind increasingly simple user interfaces. When combined with the improved affordability of vision systems, the result is a growing, more stable market that is supported by a wider segment of the manufacturing industry.

180 Packing Days ’til Christmas

Dear Mr. Claus,

We know you see us when we’re schlepping, but we wanted to remind you that we are very worried about the 2004 Christmas rush. Every year, we pack more and more boxes, and every year when we tell you we can’t keep this up, you tell us to hire more temps, give us the old ho ho ho, and show us the door.

But that solution isn’t going to work anymore, big guy. Unless we relocate to Memphis as we suggested last year, it’s going to be hard to find the numbers we’ll need. Besides, there are always problems: Remember those Icelanders we brought in last year who quit the very first day because of that fight about the music?

This spring, some of the guys and I have been doing a bit of research, and we have some recommendations. First, we think the Icelanders are right. Bjork is cooler than Burl Ives. We estimate that just getting rid of the “Holly Jolly Christmas” song alone will increase productivity 13%.

Second, we believe you should consider switching to straight-to-carton picking. Cleverly disguising ourselves as Operations & Fulfillment writers, we did some research and found that you can create a much more efficient operation if you find a way to eliminate the packing tables.


Right now, most direct-to-consumer retailers are still packing on packing tables the way we do. In fact, Jeff Kline, principal at Kline Management Consulting in Memphis, says that the vast majority of catalog companies pack the “old-fashioned way, which is you get the stuff that you’re going to pack and you find a box to put it in.”

But bigger and more advanced companies are now picking straight into the box, Kline says. They use a software system that looks at the order, makes a box selection, and then lets the packers know what needs to go inside.

Houseware and gadget retailer Hammacher Schlemmer, which is based in Chicago, is one company that’s taken the plunge into direct-carton picking. The company ships 700,000 to 800,000 packages a year, according to Don Rogers, vice president of operations, much of that during the Christmas season. And listen to this, fat man: Since going live in 2000, Rogers says, Hammacher Schlemmer has not only increased its picking and packing productivity by 76%, it has reduced its peak-season temporary hires by 60%.

Their situation before they installed their system sounded a bit like ours: “We were picking orders to carts and presenting carts to packers, who then decided what box the goods went in, and then hand-packed the merchandise and sent it on over to shipping to ship,” Rogers says.

The huge Christmas-season spike tended to create a lot of problems, he says. They had to run two-plus shifts at Christmas, and hire a huge number of extra people — and they didn’t have enough managers to do that, he says.


To cope with its high seasonal demand, Hammacher Schlemmer first added a conveyor picking system. Originally, Rogers says, they didn’t consider moving to direct-to-carton picking at the same time. After spending a million dollars on the conveyor system, Rogers didn’t have $750,000 to install a system that would permit picking to carton. But then they learned that Ecometry Corp. of Delray Beach, FL, their order management software vendor, had a boxing logic module that they could use without an additional fee, and they decided to try it out.

Rogers is still a satisfied customer. “I can’t say that all the results that we got are because of the boxing logic, but without it, we would either have had to have gone another three-quarters of a million dollar investment … or continuing to work with pack tables, which to me wasn’t solving the problem that we had,” he says.

“To be honest with you, the Ecometry tool is very rudimentary,” Rogers says. It just measures dimensions, and doesn’t look at three dimensions the way some of the more advanced systems do. However, he adds that it selects the right box probably 95% of the time — especially now that they’ve been working with it for four years.

So that’s one way to go. But if you really want to cheer us up this year, get us one of those more expensive systems that can optimize boxes in three dimensions. Prashant Bhatia, director of product management for Atlanta-based supply chain execution software company Manhattan Associates, says that the kind of 3D-capable software that Manhattan Associates offers as part of its integrated warehouse management system can handle such things as recommending that the packer stack a fourth box of shoes upright to fill a carton. It can even recommend nesting five trash cans one inside the other, rather than suggest putting them in five different boxes.

John Marrah, president of Ecometry Corporation of Delray Beach, FL, says that using a boxing logic system isn’t for everyone. For someone packing mostly standard sizes or just a few SKUs, it probably doesn’t make sense. But for operations that ship more than a few hundred boxes a day, it can be cost-effective, he says — and I’d say that includes us elves.


Whatever system we choose, a lot of the effectiveness of the software comes down to good measurements. Rogers says that one of the biggest challenges is making sure that the dimensions are entered correctly into the system. “It’s critical,” he says. “It’s the old garbage in-garbage out. You give it crap and that’s what you’re going to get back.”

One way to handle the measurements is machines like CubiScan, produced by Farmington, UT-based Quantronix, which can automatically weigh and measure anything. Ten billion SKUs are no joke, Santa, and CubiScan or something like that would speed up the process a lot. But if it turns out that people aren’t very good this year, and you end up cutting back to, say, a few thousand SKUs, we could do it by hand. Rogers says that for his operation, which generally ships between 2,500 and 3,000 SKUs daily, taking measurements by hand and then entering the details into the system hasn’t been too overwhelming. “You’ve got to get over that initial hurdle of measuring everything that’s active, but once you do that, then it’s just all the new stuff as it comes in,” he says.

I know you’re going to ask, can’t we just use the vendors’ measurements? Rogers says don’t even think about using them in your distribution center. “Our buying office gets all of that information from the vendors, but you can’t trust it, because the dimensions may be as the product is set up or something other than how you actually end up dealing with it once it gets to the DC. I don’t think there’s any better way than to just, as it comes across the back, re-measure and weigh the stuff,” he says.

Bhatia of Manhattan Associates thinks so too. Just putting your thumb in the air and saying, “Well, this looks like it’s about two pounds, this looks like it’s about 15 inches,” isn’t going to work very well, he says. The algorithms in the system “are only as good as the data that’s provided to us.”

Users also need training to use such systems properly, Bhatia says. “A lot of times, people will say, you know what, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, it can’t be that different, I’ll just figure it out as I go,” he says. But that can lead to problems, he adds.

Hammacher Schlemmer certainly found that to be the case when they went to straight-to-carton picking. “It probably took a year before people were running it the way it was designed to be run and not figuring out their own little workaround every time something didn’t work right — they just didn’t realize what further impacts were downstream from that,” says Rogers.


One technique that may help with training: Bhatia says that Manhattan Associates often encourages its clients to designate a “super user” — an employee who gets extensive training on the new system, who can then pass that along to others on the distribution center floor. “What we’ve found is that a lot of users, especially on the distribution floor, they relate better to one of their own versus looking at a Manhattan consultant,” he says.

If you want to buy one of these systems, we need to hear from you soon. Installations of a major warehouse management system can take anywhere from 12 weeks to a year, Bhatia says. Testing the system and training people to use it both take time. “It takes time to tweak the system. It takes time to make sure that the data that you’re inputting is being maintained properly and being used properly by the system as they get down on the floor,” he explains.

So the clock is ticking, big guy. We hope you’ll make the right choice. I don’t think we’ve got much time. I know those guys from Wal-Mart who drove by on snowmobiles the other day said they’d just gotten lost, but they were taking a lot of pictures and I’d say they have something else in mind. Then there’s that fellow Bezos who keeps showing up. I know he says he’s just ice fishing, but trust me — he’s up to something. He only looks like an elf.

Sincerely yours, Zig, Senior Distribution Elf

Bennett Voyles is a business and financial writer based in New York City. He can be reached at

Navigating Dim Weight Charges

The process of shipping and managing your freight expenses is becoming more dependent on the size of your freight and the space it occupies than ever before. Many carriers are, in essence, selling space on their vehicles. All air freight and most ground freight on major carriers now require declared dimensions for correct manifesting. Without a declaration, you are subject to carrier audits and accessorial back-charges. These back-charges can hurt margins if you apply “Flat Rate” charges to customer shipments, and they can cost you (the vendor/shipper) money if you are billing customers for reimbursement of actual freight costs. Either way, if you are not declaring dimensions, you are probably headed for disputes with your carrier over carrier-imposed dimensional weight charges that will be costly and difficult to resolve.


To realize how costly it can be, you must first understand the rules a carrier uses to charge for handling your shipments. FedEx and UPS use similar formulas to determine rates for domestic and international shipments and surcharges. While domestic rates vary for ground versus air transport, all expedited shipments—including next-day air and two-day air—are subject to dimensional weighing, regardless of the size of a parcel. Ground shipments, however, are only subject to dimensional weighing if the parcel is greater than 5,184 cubic inches in volume (three cubic feet). For both domestic air and ground shipments, the dimensional-weight formula is the same: (Length X Width X Height)/194. For international shipments, all freight is subject to dimensional weighing regardless of the size, but the formula uses a lower ‘dim factor’ of 166: (Length X Width X Height)/166.

In addition to dimensional-weight charges, there are other size-related UPS and FedEx surcharges that will be increased in January, 2009. An additional handling fee is charged when the parcel is greater than 60 inches in length or a package measures greater than 30 inches along its second longest side. Also, both carriers charge a fee for oversize packages. FedEx refers to this as an “oversize fee” and UPS calls it a “large package fee,” but both carriers use the same formula: If the length plus the girth (girth is twice the width plus twice the height) is greater than 130”, you pay a $45 fee. All of these fees are in addition to the base rate, irrespective of the calculated dimensional-weight or actual weight of the shipment. The United States Postal Service also increased oversize rates for parcel post in January 2008.


It is clear that providing accurate dimensions to your shipping software is critical. Any good shipping system will handle all of the calculations required by freight carriers, but the software is only as good as the data coming in. If dimensions are left blank, most shipping applications assume dimensional-weight and/or other size-based surcharges are not a factor. Consequently, billing customers for freight charges without considering dimensions can cost you a lot of money. How much depends on how much you ship.

We recently analyzed the shipping expenses of a large company that sells motorized recreational equipment, parts and accessories. It shipped thousands of parcels a day, many of which were spare parts by next-day air. The company wasn’t declaring any of the dimensions for its small-parts shipments. On average there was a three dollar difference for each parcel, adding up to under-billings of $5,000 per month. Needless to say, overlooking dimensional declarations can add up quickly, making it more than just a small and inexpensive oversight!


One way you can address the problem and leverage the functionality of your shipping software is to employ automated dimensioning (or cubing) equipment. These devices use various forms of non-contact sensing technology (such as lasers, cameras, ultrasound, infrared light, light diode sensors, etc.) to quickly and accurately assess parcel dimensions. Most dimensioning systems can be combined with scales and barcode scanning technology to form highly efficient cubing, weighing and identification stations.

Several types of systems are available: small static, in-motion and large-freight systems. Small static systems are the least expensive. They generally replace a small to medium-sized bench scale, are usually designed for hand-held parcels under 70 pounds, range in price from $5,000 to around $20,000 and typically have a throughput capability of 100 to 400 packages per hour.

Conveyorized (or in-motion) cubing systems are typically used in high-volume, highly automated facilities along with fixed-mount barcode scanning technology (capable of single to six-sided scanning). These systems come with or without a scale and are generally designed for hand-held parcels under 70 pounds. Some in-motion systems can measure non-singulated and/or some non-cuboidal freight but require freight to be singulated if in-motion weighing is necessary. Conveyorized dimensioners are quite productive, operating at belt speeds up to 600 feet per minute (generally slower with a scale) and processing anywhere from 2,000 to over 20,000 pieces per hour (lower if a scale is involved). Pricing ranges from the low teens to over $40,000 for a “premium” integrated system that measures and weighs.

Large-freight cubing systems (typically called “pallet-dimensioning systems”) are usually combined with a floor scale or forklift scales. These systems are generally used to measure full pallet loads, but you can also utilize them for single and multi-piece shipments. Most are designed to work with “non-cuboidal” freight (since most pallet loads are anything but perfect). Nearly all pallet dimensioning systems use multiple sensors to reduce or completely eliminate “shadowing” (i.e., the inability to conclusively see a load’s length and width dimensions from above). Additionally, they are usually designed to allow pallet dimensions and weight to be “tared off.” Throughput rates range from 50 to over 120 shipments per hour. Most systems are static in nature, but conveyorized pallet dimensioners are also available.

There are several things you should look for in an automated dimensioning system. First, if you’re charging your customer based on the output of your scale and/or dimensioner you may have a legal-for-trade (LFT) application. This may require a Weights & Measures type-approved device. Your vendor should be able to explain LFT regulatory issues (beware if they can’t). Type-approved LFT devices have been independently proven accurate and consistent to certain regulatory performance standards. An approved system may have other desirable qualitative and reliability attributes. Second, you’ll want a system that can interface directly and easily with your shipping software. Data/user interfaces can be customized to work directly with many computerized shipping systems. This is a critical feature, since a good dimensioner without a functional interface is not very useful. Last, a system that is consistent in operation, durable, easy to service and has a good user/data interface is best.

The carrier practice of applying dimensional-weight shipping charges is here to stay and will likely be adopted for additional modes of transport in the future. Knowing industry and carrier-specific policies as well as using proven shipping software and automation technology will help you save time and effort, reduce costs, and eliminate unpleasant surprises.

Peter Starvaski is the director of product management for Kewill, Inc. Peter can be reached at Clark Skeen is president of QUANTRONIX, INC. and can be reached at For additional information, please visit and/or

Big Picture: Little things that make a big difference in your operation

cubiscan_qunatronix_logo_200x27 CubiScan® by Quantronix offers the broadest range of dimension scanning equipment available including portable static, large static, and in-line configurations. CubiScan systems will dimension and weigh freight in warehousing and transportation applications where dimensional and weight data is used in storage space planning, warehouse slotting, order picking, carton selection, order packing, and freight manifesting by volume. Quantronix also offers a broad range of software integration solutions that will pass cube and weight data to an existing WMS, Transportation, or Manifesting System.

Cubiscan in the News

Big Picture: Little things that make a big difference in your operation

Automation is transforming distribution centers. But don’t overlook the little things that can have a big impact on your performance. (March 01, 2013)

Winning the ecommerce battle

Packaging and shipping are becoming the new battleground for etailers (October 12, 2012)

Skechers: Optimized case handling

Skechers’ new facility brings together automated storage, cross-belt sortation and conveyor to handle multi-channel order fulfillment from one system. (December 01, 2011)

Cubiscan on the Web

Product: CubiScan 125 integrated cubing and weighing system …

Using a combination of sensing technologies, the small CubiScan 125 static cubing system from Quantronix weighs and measures irregularly shaped parts and components …

CubiScan Dimensioning Systems For Industrial Applications

CubiScan dimensioning systems for industrial applications. Home; Products; Services; Rentals; … carton selection, order packing, and freight manifesting by volume.

CubiScan 100

• Compatible with case packing/load optimization software packages …
• Mobile CubiScan work station options include: Sturdy metal cart with hard rubber tires

CubiScan – Supply Chain 24/7 Company

CubiScan® by Quantronix offers the broadest range of dimension scanning equipment available including portable static, large static, and in-line configurations.

Emerging Technology Cubi Scan Dimension System Central Carolina Scale

Cubiscan Dimensional … The savings derived from the immediate reduction in shipping and packaging material costs should immediately spark your interest in this …

carton selection | Cubiscan Blog

The answers will dictate everything from the design of the facility’s picking and packing areas to the type of … CubiScan® and the Quantronix logo are …

CubiScan 100 – Static Cuber | Cornerstone Automation Systems

Cubiscan 100 static cubers and cubing systems from CASI. … Cold Seal Packaging. Liquor Fulfillment System; Open Case Pick Verification; Order Fulfillment Systems;

Quantronix || CubiScan® 100 || Datasheet

• Compatible with case packing/load optimization software packages …
• Mobile CubiScan work station options include: Sturdy metal cart with rubber tires

More about Cubiscan

Winning the ecommerce battle

Retailers are at war and it’s not just the usual competition. The battle here is all about logistics and it presents an opportunity for the materials handling industry to provide solutions to meet the new challenges.

Just look at Wal-Mart and Amazon.

This past week, Wal-Mart announced on Wednesday that it will test same-day delivery of online orders in select markets. Where available, you will be able to place an online order in the morning on and get it delivered to your door later that day from a nearby Walmart store.

Wal-Mart’s announcement followed on the heels of Amazon’s plan plan to offer same-day delivery in select markets.

Meanwhile, every retailer worth its salt is trying to figure out how to offer free shipping without giving away the store. No one makes money on shipping any longer. The game now is to minimize the cost of giving it away.

That’s where materials handling comes to play. In our October issue, going online next week, Josh Bond provides four examples of multi-channel retail warehouses – facilities that are successfully doing traditional store replenishment and filling direct-to-consumer orders.

Picking those orders is a challenge. Minimizing the shipping after the orders are picked is a separate challenge. We’re seeing a number of innovative packaging solutions coming to market to reduce the amount of corrugated and dunnage required to ship an order and to maximize a parcel carrier’s cube.

Getting the most out of those systems is shining a light on cubing and weighing systems. They provide the data a packaging and shipping system needs to figure out the best way to pack an order. With that in mind, I talked to Clark Skeen, the president of CubiScan to find out about the best practices he’s seeing among e-tailers.

“The big change we’re seeing is the way etailers look at shipping,” says Skeen. “When ecommerce first started, etailers just wanted to break even on shipping so they charged their customer whatever it cost them. The next step was to drive down their shipping and handling costs so they could turn shipping into a profit center.”

That all changed with free shipping, a relative term since free shipping is only free to the customer and not the etailer. “It used to be that our customers just needed information about cartons,” says Skeen. “Now, they need dimensional and weight data about every individual item. Many times, those items aren’t packaged or they’re irregularly shaped.”

Instead of just picking a carton from one of three sizes and filling the void with dunnage, the best etailers are collecting weight and dimension information at the point of receipt and using that data to be much more precise about their packaging. “They want to reduce the cost of corrugate, they want to reduce the amount of dunnage in the box and they want to reduce what they spend with shippers, especially those that dimension their freight.”

The data is being used in four ways, says Skeen.

To make layout and slotting decisions about where to store the product.
To prioritize picking when the weight or size of an item is a factor, such as picking the heaviest items first so they’re on the bottom of a carton.
To do a better job at cartonization.
And finally, to minimize shipping costs.

“At the end of the day, a shipping trailer is just a mobile warehouse where you’re renting space,” says Skeen. “You want to take up as little space as possible.”

As the battle for customers is fought over customer service, the etailer that figures out how to best minimize its picking and shipping costs is going to win the war.