Tech Industry

UPS will save you from that mountain of empty Amazon boxes

As e-commerce explodes, the shipper teams with Bubble Wrap's inventor to create a "packaging innovation center." Cardboard boxes may never be the same.

The new Packaging Innovation Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Inside a gigantic supply chain warehouse a stone's throw from Louisville International Airport, UPS set up a showroom filled with long, shiny packaging machines that spit out fast-expanding foam or inflated plastic sheets into Bubble Wrap.

The shipping giant on Monday presented the new space, dubbed its "packaging innovation center," which it will use to show off the newest concepts in packaging to retailers and shippers. All the machines were built by Sealed Air, the inventor of Bubble Wrap, which partnered with UPS in creating the space.

Fine, I get it: Why should you care about packaging equipment? Well, it's actually more important than you'd think, and it all has to do with e-commerce.

There's a huge shift in consumer spending going on, with billions of dollars moving from stores to websites. That's been a boon for companies like Amazon and a big problem for traditional retailers and malls. But it's created problems, too, for online retailers and shippers, which now have more and more packages they need to ship at faster rates to keep up with customers' demands.

"Consumers today expect to receive virtually anything they can imagine through small parcel shipments," Ken Chrisman, a Sealed Air executive, told a crowd at Monday's event, "and that's putting quite a strain on logistics all over the world."

Shipping channels and delivery trucks are getting clogged, shipping costs are pushing up prices for retailers and consumers, and there's a lot more trash, like that mound of Amazon boxes you're storing in the kitchen. By 2020, FTI Consulting predicts that e-commerce will reach 20 percent of all US retail, doubling its sales in just 10 years. That means this logjam may worsen and slow shipping times, so good luck getting that Harry Potter limited-edition action figure with same-day delivery.

A shoebox that's been wrapped in "StealthWrap." This kind of packaging could cut down the use of cardboard boxes.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Hoping to help shippers and retailers keep up with this change, UPS and Sealed Air created the showroom to test and present what's possible. The space includes machines that help automate packaging and cut down on packaging materials, in some cases eliminating cardboard boxes entirely.

In one demonstration Monday, a Sealed Air worker showed off a new machine that wrapped shoeboxes in a new material called "StealthWrap," an ultra-durable film made up of 29 superthin layers. Using this machine, retailers could cut down on boxes, saving money and space in delivery trucks. Plus, there's less packaging for you to throw out or recycle.

In another demo, a long, glass-encased machine stuffed with metal pieces and piping was able to create different-size boxes depending on the stuff inside. Elsewhere, a machine shrink-wrapped detergent and household cleaners, which could ensure fluids don't rupture in a box and ruin everything else inside.

Some other machines helped make the packaging prettier, giving customers more of that store-display feeling while still shopping at home. Folks at the event showed Bubble Wrap shaped like dog bones (perhaps for pet supplies) and colorfully designed insides of boxes to present products with more polish than stuff just being stuck haphazardly in a brown box with some air cushions.

Down the line, Chrisman suggested, boxes and Bubble Wrap could have customizable ads or coupons included to make them more than trash once they arrive at your home.

"You want to be surprised," he said of those extra touches. "You want to be more than a click."

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