Pretty often, when you order something online, something as small as a perfume or a bottle of shampoo, it comes in a huge package. Products ordered online are often shipped in oversized cartons. The size of the overall package is much larger than its contents. This is fine as a protection for the ordered goods, but too much packing material goes against sustainability.

Helping to combat this issue is the CASTN (Carton Set Optimisation) software created by the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML), which puts together the optimum order-to-carton combination for each customer’s order. Clever algorithms calculate the best carton utilisation based on the item and order structure.

With the help of this software, shipping companies can select the optimal carton set for each item and order structure, says a press release from Fraunhofer IML.

30% item, 70% air

The CASTN software functions using two algorithms — The first uses an approach to create different carton sets based on parameters such as the number of permitted cartons or the maximum and minimum dimensions. The second — a bin-packing algorithm — ensures that the orders are efficiently packed in the selected cartons. The aim of this is to minimise packaging volume and achieve the smallest possible overall volume. At the end of this process, the software assesses each carton in a set, checking how well the internal capacity is filled by the order inside. This information is fed back into the evolutionary algorithm, which uses each carton’s score to create new, better sets. This continues until no better volume utilisation can be achieved.

Lukas Lehmann, scientist at Fraunhofer IML, says that customers are often unaware of the volume utilisation of their packaging, which is often only around 30 per cent. “They have no idea how much air they send. This is what our software calculates,” says the researcher. Once optimisation is complete, the results are analysed together with the customer so that they can select the appropriate carton set, says Lehmann.

Several industry partners, each with their own online retail business, have already benefited from carton set optimisation and increased their volume utilisation by 35 to 45 per cent while also reducing the number of carton types used.

Long way to go

While the concept looks good, it may not suit India as the cartons cannot be customised to the requirements of the e-commerce market, says S Veeraragavan, Managing Director, Sri Srinivasa Cartons & Containers, a Puducherry-based carton box manufacturer. If the company has a large volume, the cartons can be customised, but presently, the items are packed mostly using padding materials, he added.

An official of a leading e-commerce giant agrees with Veeraraghavan, saying it is too complex to have customised cartons — there would be too much variety, compared with standardised cartons. So, for now at least, India is not ready for the Fraunhofer’s solution.