Returnable transit packaging (RTP) specialist Schoeller Allibert has taken a technology originally developed for use in the aerospace and nuclear industries and applied it to the design and development of its latest generations of reusable trays and containers. The results for customers of the company’s use of the sophisticated Finite Element Analysis (FEA) techniques are ranges of lighter, stronger RTP which help cut transport costs and trim their carbon footprints.
FEA is a computational technique used to model the physical response of a design to stress, deformation or temperature. Schoeller Allibert has taken state-of-the-art software and adapted it for use with its designs and materials. The technique is used to analyse early stage CAD 3-D drawings and calculate the strength and load bearing capabilities of individual RTP designs.
Design Manager Steve Loftus explains: "Weight is a major issue in products designed to transport goods; our aim is to keep the weight of our products down to save on materials, energy and fuel, reduce waste and lower our customers’ carbon footprints. At the same time, we have to ensure that the RTP we design is fit for purpose, achieving the best strength to weight ratio for specific applications."
Although FEA is a well-established technology in high-tech industries, an obstacle Schoeller Allibert had to overcome was a lack of available numeric data to enable its use on the type of plastics used for RTP. Steve Loftus: "We needed to know the physical characteristics of the plastics we use but, while there is no end of data for other materials, the information we needed was not available. To overcome that, we have produced our own data by carrying out our own tests. By coupling the data we obtain with validation testing from physical models, we gain increasingly accurate results from our FEA testing."
For the manufacturer, the biggest advantage offered by FEA is that it can be used to confirm performance characteristics before any investment is made in tooling and it enables design adjustments to be made easily and inexpensively. For customers, particularly those looking for bespoke products, it shortens the time to market and delivers a product that meets the specified performance levels. It also gives peace of mind, as Steve Loftus explains: "If a customer is investing in a multi-million pound storage handling project, crates that are an integral part of the system need to perform to very high standards. By using FEA we can produce highly accurate simulations so that when we go to tooling and production, the fundamental load requirements will always be met. It means that customers can sleep at night knowing that the delivered product will perform to their specifications."
Developing and using FEA in-house, rather than using external consultants, is considered essential to the Schoeller Allibert product design process. To enable the whole of its design team to access the technology, the company has developed its own custom-built software for use by its designers. Spreading access to FEA across the whole design team prevents bottlenecks at the development stage and enables the team to involve customers in the process.
As well as being integral to new product development, FEA can also be used to re-engineer established products as materials technology evolves. The benefit for customers is that they can continue to use the size and shape of container that they are used to, but will have a lighter product that reduces handling and transport costs. Environmentally, there is the benefit of reducing both the amount of raw materials required in its manufacture and the amount of fuel used for distribution.
Steve Loftus adds: "By introducing an in-house FEA capability and working closely with software houses and materials suppliers, we have invested time in understanding the behaviour of plastics. There are always new materials evolving and with our in-house capability, we can keep pace with developments. The end result that we can manufacture better designed products and be able to prove their performance capabilities."