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Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer

What Happens if I Drop it?

Richard Harrop discovers that both you and your packaging have to be tough to get through the thermal shipping process in one piece

I drop everything and if I don’t drop it, it will only be a matter of time before I stand on it, sit on it or drown it in the washing machine. I have a cupboard full of broken mobile phones, laptops and cameras, each of them in various states of destruction or repair, all victims of my bumbling ways.

This condition (I call it that in the hope that I will someday find a cure) has led to a considerable change in my buying habits over the years. I often find myself pondering not only the capability of the item to complete its designated task, but also its ability to survive long enough to do so, albeit with a few scuffs and cracks. What was the user group like during the product’s development? Did they have people like me in the room on test day? These are the things I think about when looking for my next new gadget/victim.

When I approach the development of thermal packaging, those very same buyer concerns cross my mind. I am left wondering how physically strong a solution needs to be to cope with the shipping process, as well as how thermally robust it should be. As a consumer I often look for proof of capability before I buy. I like to see the adverts of a camera being run over or dropped in the ocean – it feels as though they thought of my world during development.

The process of including mechanical testing at the start of a thermal packaging development project is actually not a complicated one, and there are several packaging suppliers who offer a qualification programme that includes mechanical testing as well as thermal.The benefit of including this type of testing early on ensures that, rather than nervously awaiting a result post-packaging implementation, a solution is developed with physical attributes in mind and is introduced into an organisation documented as being ‘fit for purpose’.

Beyond this, early stage mechanical tests can help further define most suitable materials, which can lead to financial savings; whether through optimised material specification or fewer product losses caused by mechanical failure.

But why are these tests needed? Packaging for non-thermal products can arrive covered in bumps, holes and breaks so long as the payload survives. When we add in a thermal control factor, where packaging integrity is important to ensure the qualified level of thermal control is achieved, mechanical testing sometimes needs to yield different answers.

For example, if we are looking to understand the operating limits of the packaging, then a repeated process of mechanical testing followed by thermal testing will tell us how much damage can be sustained before thermal performance is compromised, which could later support a release sign-off.

If, however, there is a desire to re-use the container, then we must understand how we can mix material types to ensure the parts that take the impact are either stronger than that of a single-use solution or cheap enough that they have little cost impact on the entire packaging spend in the event that they need replacing.

There are, of course, many other reasons for adding in a mechanical testing aspect during development stages, rather than it following a completed thermal qualification project. It could even be argued that the importance of such testing increases when the packaging is thermal, as your objective is no longer to just protect payload; the packaging now must also be engineered to protect certain parts of itself.

The final thought is this: a lot of time is taken to understand what happens if you ‘cook’ or ‘freeze’ your package, but what happens if you drop it? Will it still do its job?


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Richard Harrop is a qualified structural packaging design engineer, coming previously from the FMCG sector. He has been involved in the temperature-controlled packaging industry for almost 10 years. During this time he has developed and implemented several successful temperature-controlled solutions for many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and biotech corporations.
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