All Shook Up

FedEx TechConnect lab tests packages

By Amos Maki

FedEx founder, chairman and chief executive officer Frederick W. Smith penned a memo in 1987 outlining his desire for the Memphis-based shipping giant to develop ways to assist customers in shipping their packages, including making sure packages arrived undamaged.

FedEx senior packaging engineer David Nelson demonstrates a drop test at the company’s TechConnect facility, where engineers determine how much abuse a package can sustain before damaging the contents.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

For Smith, a damaged package meant the customer didn’t receive what it was expecting in the condition it was expecting it, which could reflect poorly on FedEx because it shipped the package.

“Mr. Smith realized there’s no use in shipping something overnight if it gets damaged,” said David Nelson, project packaging engineer at FedEx TechConnect. “It’s a no-win situation for everybody involved.”

The end result of Smith’s memo was the FedEx Package Lab. Today, it occupies a nondescript industrial building in Collierville where packages are dropped, squeezed, shaken and heated and cooled to extremes to determine just how much abuse a package can take before the precious cargo inside is damaged.

“There’s only 10 people at FedEx who are allowed to drop packages and they all work here,” said Nelson, who holds a degree in package engineering and has a schoolboy’s enthusiasm for his job.

The 30,000-square-foot facility serves big and small FedEx Express, FedEx Ground and FedEx Freight customers, providing them with free package testing and design services. Shippers send their packaged products to the facility where technicians shake, rattle and roll them to test their strength and effectiveness. The facility tests more than 5,000 packages a year and packaging engineers meet with more than 2,600 customers annually.

One machine drops smaller packages from 10 different angles from a height of 30 inches – about the same height of the conveyor belts used by FedEx trucks.

“If we always knew the box was going to be upright and land on the bottom then we wouldn’t need to test it but we know that’s not the case,” Nelson said.

A compression test squeezes packages to determine how much weight they can handle before the contents inside are in danger. For the record, a properly taped 12-by-12 cardboard box can withstand almost 500 pounds of pressure before it begins to lose its integrity.

A vibration, or repetitive impact, test simulates the movement of a truck on the road and can tell technicians several important details, such as how foam packing peanuts will react while on the move. Like sands in an hour glass, the packing peanuts drift to the bottom of the package when repeatedly vibrated, leaving only the package to cushion what’s inside.

FedEx senior packaging engineer David Nelson demonstrates a compression test. The specially designed equipment subjects boxes to hundreds of pounds of pressure and charts their integrity.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

In delivery trucks aluminum beams are placed across the middle of the containers to provide two levels of storage. Pallets are placed on plywood decks that sit atop the beams. FedEx is exploring replacing the plywood decks with plastic ones but wasn’t sure if the plastic decks would slip more. Lab employees developed an inclined vibrating test to determine which would move more.

“We’ve got to make this test up because there’s no real test for this,” Nelson said.

The lab can simulate weather conditions – from extreme cold to high heat and humidity – that any package might encounter. That can help determine if the label on a package of ribs from Memphis will stay on during a trip to Alaska.

“We can simulate any part of the FedEx network anywhere in the world, from the desert to the rainforest to the Arctic,” said Cary Pappas, president and CEO of FedEx TechConnect.

Nelson and his colleagues aren’t rocket scientists, but rocket scientists have come to them for help.

A space industry client developing containers that will hold experiments bound for the International Space Station asked FedEx to test the packages to see how they would handle the trip to the launching pad.

“They said, ‘We’re rocket scientists and we know how to build these and launch them into space but we don’t know how to get it from Florida to California,’ can you help us?” Nelson said.

That test could prove to be quite useful to FedEx in the future, Nelson said.

“We don’t distribute by rocket yet but Mr. Smith might have some ideas,” he said.