Unsung heroes: Paper engineers

Sculpture by Mark Langan

Sculpture by Mark Langan

My new 27″ ultra-high-def monitor arrived from Amazon last week. It came in the usual corrugated Amazon box with loose paper stuffed around the edges, cushioning the jewel within.

But I’m not talking about the monitor itself. I’m talking about the box in which Dell packs the monitor.

In the old days, delicate electronics shipped with custom-molded styrofoam inserts. Many still do. It’s strong, light – and pretty awful for the environment. So companies have experimented with alternatives such as rigid plastic and molded paper pulp inserts (think egg cartons) that can be recycled or, even better, composted like the kind our client Be Green Packaging makes.

As long as two decades ago, that innovator Apple Computer shipped its G3 Powerbook laptops suspended in the box by interlocking air-filled sacs. An amazing unboxing experience if there ever was one.

Wanting to top that, our firm worked with a packaging engineer to create the box for the Qbe, an early tablet computer. It was held in a sandwich of very tough, clear elastic film that suspended the product inside the box, holding it away from the sides and functioning as a shock absorber during shipment. Also cool.

My new Dell monitor, however, used corrugated cardboard to protect itself on its way to me. Pretty old school. But the fascinatingly intricate die-cuts create locking tabs that hold together the necessary shapes with no glue, no tape. They pop into slots and create powerful, rigid support elements that you could drive over with a tank. I discovered this as I was breaking the box down for recycling. Whole sections of the structure simple unhook, unroll, and turn back into flat sheets. It really is a magnificently executed solution.

Design thinking applies to almost anything, but certainly to the problem of creating strong, light shipping materials that don’t destroy the planet. I wonder what’s next?

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