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William A. Levinson


Ship Product, Not Air

Packaged air is of value only to divers and astronauts

Published: Monday, November 29, 2021 - 13:03

Shigeo Shingo was able to summarize entire concepts in single phrases, such as “paint parts, not air.” This meant that paint which misses parts in a spray booth constitutes wasted material and also an environmental aspect. “Ship product, not air” defines similarly empty space in packaging as wasted shipping capacity and shipping material.

“Ship value, not water” extends this concept to products that are mostly water, and that can be shipped in dry forms to which water can later be added.

I ordered replacement heads for my Sonicare toothbrush, with which I have had good results for many years. The pack of six arrived, along with air-filled bags to occupy the empty space in the box, as shown here.

Figure 1: Waste in Plain Sight

The item occupies roughly one-eighth of the box’s volume, while more than half of the packaging material is wasted as well. That is, most of the four of the box’s six sides are not needed, although the sides equal to the length of the item are. This exemplifies the kind of waste that can hide in plain site.

The supply chain implications are obvious, given the current shortage of trucks and drivers for retail and commercial delivery.1 Packaged air is of value only to divers, astronauts, and people in similar occupations where air is not readily available. If a truck carries, for example, 50-percent air in its trailer, then twice as many trucks and drivers are necessary to move the same amount of value. This means the goods cost more, the drivers earn less, the vehicle owners earn less, and twice as much fossil fuel is required in the bargain.

This is true even without considering operations continuity, when nondelivery will shut down a manufacturing line or make retail products unavailable. Some managers say their packaging is twice as big as the product it contains; my example comes to roughly eight times as big.

Packaging-360.com adds that, on a worldwide basis, 25 percent of shipments consist of air that wastes $46 billion annually (across the world).2 The reference adds that the need for more container ships adds 122 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, which reinforces my position that greenhouse gas reduction should save rather than cost money for all supply chain partners.

Henry Ford recognized the problem with shipping air almost 100 years ago.3 “Only a few years ago, seven touring car bodies made a full load for a standard thirty-six-foot freight car. Now the bodies are shipped knocked-down to be assembled and finished in the branches....” A car body contains mostly air, but shipment in a disassembled state allowed far more of them to go into a rail car. One freight car could, in fact, carry as many disassembled bodies as 18 could carry assembled ones.

The same principle is used today in furniture assembly kits, where the parts are supplied in such a manner as to fill a relatively compact if heavy box, as opposed to assembled items that would take up far more space.

This is far from the only time I have gotten packages that contain mostly air. Warehouses and distribution centers should therefore look for ways to use boxes with the minimum volume necessary to accommodate the product. This will reduce distribution costs and also allow far better use of trucks.

When shipping is the constraint

It’s also useful to look at trucks as the capacity-constraining resource (CCR) in the supply chain, as depicted by Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. The constraint limits the system’s throughput, in this case the amount of product that can be transported between suppliers and customers. Placing mostly air in truck trailers due to inefficient packaging is very similar to operating an in-factory constraint at only a fraction of its capacity. Logistics and warehouse companies should therefore seek to elevate this constraint by ensuring that trucks carry relatively full loads in terms of actual product.

Can returnable boxes be used?

Ford also objected to wasting anything, including packaging. “Corrugated board containers, like all other articles, cost money to make.... all cartons that are in good shape are knocked down and returned to the supplier for ‘another load.’”4 There was a story to the effect that wooden boxes came with boards of a specified size so they could be used as floorboards for Model T cars. Although today’s cardboard boxes aren’t environmental aspects and can be thrown away in landfills or recycled if a recycling station is available, they aren’t free, and they add to the product’s cost. The obvious question is whether boxes can be designed so they can be folded and returned to the shipper (perhaps when the shipper makes the next delivery) in exchange for a small payment or credit to the customer.


Ford wrote, “It is the little things that are hard to see—the awkward little methods of doing things that have grown up and which no one notices. And since manufacturing is solely a matter of detail, these little things develop, when added together, into very big things.”5

Poor quality is the only Toyota Production System waste that announces its presence by causing rework, scrap, and customer complaints. The other wastes are asymptomatic, always present as they are built into the job, and often are far more costly than poor quality. This principle carries over into packaging as well as all other aspects of product realization and delivery.

Frank Gilbreth determined, for example, that brick laying as practiced for hundreds of years wasted 65 percent of the worker’s labor by requiring him to bend over to pick up each brick from the ground. Introducing a nonstooping scaffold increased the rate from 125 to 350 bricks per hour, and with less overall effort on the worker’s part. It’s quite likely that nobody noticed the waste motion because the walls were apparently getting built without any quality problems.

In the case of packaging, the objective is to ship the product to the customer as quickly as possible, and if that happens little attention is paid to wasteful packaging. The Packaging-360.com reference adds that only 36 percent of the managers interviewed audited their operations for packaging efficiency, which reinforces this conclusion. Attention to this issue will improve supply chain performance and reduce costs for everybody involved.

1. Smith, Jennifer. “Where Are All the Truck Drivers? Shortage Adds to Delivery Delays.” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 3, 2021.
2. Packaging-360.com. “New study: Too much empty space in packaging.”
3. Ford, Henry, and Crowther, Samuel. Today and Tomorrow. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1926 (Reprint available from Productivity Press, 1988, p. 117.)
4. Norwood, Edwin P. Ford: Men and Methods. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co. pp. 145–146.
5. Ford, Henry, and Crowther, Samuel. 1930. Moving Forward. New York: Doubleday, Doran, & Co. p. 187.


About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., FASQ, CQE, CMQOE, is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford’s Universal Code for World-Class Success (Productivity Press, 2013).


but don't forget

Dear Dr Levinson,

I just want to complement your suggestion - Ship Product, Not air guaranting product integrability when costumer receive it.

Best regards

MODAPTS for Reducing Unnecessary Motion

Bending over to pick up bricks is a type of motion that can be optimized using MODAPTS - a methodology for analyzing and optimizing worker motion. Eliminating unnecessary motion saves time and increases productivity.

I've included an example at https://www.qimacros.com/quality-tools/MODAPTS-template-excel/. Major manufacturers use MODAPTS to optimize worker motion on assembly lines.

Steve Jobs always said: Real developers ship. Nowadays, ones and zeros make up most of the software delivery in the world. No shipping delays. The same is true of books (Kindle) and music (iTunes). There's no air in digital delivery. And very little carbon.