I design bulk packaging, technically referred to as Flexible Intermediate Bulk Containers (FIBCs) but commonly called Bulk Bags, Totes, Sacks, Big Bags,
etc. I’m fortunate to work for JohnPac, Inc. – a large family-owned American business that started in the early 50s from the back of a pickup truck,
Sam Walton style. We’re a vertically integrated USA manufacturing facility, located in the heart of Cajun country, producing both small and bulk bags.
We also maintain and distribute a massive stock of several thousand different packaging related SKUs. Yes, we are a genuine packaging superstore! My
previous technical roles, design, and production experience with the largest global FIBC manufacturers forged my appreciation for a well-made
package. My company has the knowledge and talent required to meet, and often far exceed, customer expectations.
I was recently on a flight to California when my perpetual hunger made me order the airline’s premium snack box. Pulling out the assorted goodies I noticed
a rather well-packaged item and closely examined the attractive wrapping. “Nice job!” I thought to myself…well now, I’m a packaging engineer
so I have an unhealthy (nerdy?) curiosity towards all things packaged – toilet tissue, tasty goods, peanuts, almonds, cheese and this interesting enclosed
thingy, basically everything. I don’t discriminate. Unwrapping the treat’s outer skin I exposed an inside clear pouch containing, what appeared to
be, the world’s smallest cookie.
“Look here” I offered, showing it to an extremely fit Arkansas blond sitting next to me. She paused from eating her much healthier fruit tray and we pondered
what the puny grape sized thing might be…”It’s some sort of cookie” I finally declared, munching forward and saving it for last. I had to wrestle
the wrapper off, but it turned out to be incredibly delicious. Baked in Italy and flavored with Amaretto, the tiny morsel left me wanting another.
But, I wasn’t about to spend an additional $8.99 on a nibble. So I mused it would have been bigger, with more bang for my buck, if it were an American-made
cookie. You see, having been in the packaging manufacturing industry for the better part of 20 years, I remember when most of our bulk bags (FIBCs)
for domestic consumption were exclusively produced within in the States. NAFTA, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and America’s booming trade relationships
with other countries flooded my industry with less expensive goods. Partially because of lower labor costs, but also due to government supported currency
coupled with some interesting offshore manufacturing incentives. Americans have seen the shift from producer or provider to consumers for many tangible
products or intangible services. It’s a challenge to find a “Made in USA” label in a large department store and, in some cases, to actually speak with
a customer service representative based in Anytown, USA.
Quite often there’s some confusion regarding the difference between broker and manufacturer. A Manufacturer is intimately familiar with the design, construction,
and performance of their product. Manufacturers will not only produce a package but may outsource their design and specifications to an offshore manufacturing
location and distribute those items. A broker has no direct manufacturing capabilities and while some may comprehend the manufacturing process, many
A good analogy would be to compare a car factory that produces the automobile to a car salesman who sells the vehicle. Compared to manufacturers, yes,
most brokers do have a lower overhead competitive advantage. However, an Emersonian trade-off exists “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” The challenge for a bulk bag consumer is to determine if the discounts gained are worth the advantages, service and expertise lost. While some FIBCs
may not appear to be a technical challenge, even the most basic bulk bag needs to meet minimum performance standards. For instance, ISO 21898 is a
globally acceptable FIBC standard that dictates UV and strength testing procedures as well as additional construction parameters.
If your FIBC Broker does not understand or cannot explain the Safe Working Load and Safety factor relationship then you are not getting the expertise and
possibly the performance you may require. One of the most basic FIBC requirements is a proper Safe Working Load (SWL) which will be set to a Safety
Factor (SF). For instance, a bag designed to be used once and hold 2205lbs should always have a minimum Safety Factor of 5:1. In layman’s terms the
bag is tested to hold 5 times the SWL. In this case, a single-use bag would be tested to 11,025lbs (5×2205) but first tested 30 cycles to 2x the SWL
(4410lbs), then a final straight lift to 11,025lbs. The number of cycles and the multiple of the SWL cyclic test will vary depending on the role of
the bulk bag i.e. single trip, multi-trip or heavy duty reusable package.
An FIBC fabric’s protection from sunlight can be diminished by the percentage of filler mineral and the addition of recycled resin. Many customers have
shown me a paper white stiff bulk bag, and compared it to my virgin resin fabric container and immediately noted the difference. Because my FIBC isn’t
as stiff or as white it may initially be deemed inadequate. Looks can be deceiving as that stiffness could be the result of excessive Calcium Carbonate
additive, reducing the strength and diminished UV (sunlight degrade) protection, depending on the particle size, distribution, cut and coating of the
mineral. If your bulk bags are exposed to sunlight and your broker doesn’t understand UV protection then your packaging could be at risk.
I’ve only covered 2 basic areas of concern, but there is a vast array of other points to consider:
- Brokers may be less expensive due to lower overhead and related manufacturing costs.
- Manufacturers will be more experienced in construction and design.
- Brokers may be more susceptible to quality fade which can occur before or during production. As buyers require lower pricing there can be some manufacturing
reductions in construction and formulations of fabric weaving tapes and sewing yarns.
- Many companies have a Good, Better and Best supplier with certain bags assigned to each location and this will often depend on the material being packaged
in the FIBC. For instance an Industrial Mineral (Good), a Chemical (Better) or Pharmaceutical (Best) product. If you need packaging for Crumb Rubber,
Worm Casings, or Sand you will probably not require a clean room with positive air flow and air particle size containment. Manufacturers are more
likely to understand the capabilities of their offshore contract manufacturing locations.
- Supply Security. If for any reason a Broker fails to deliver, then your bulk bag supply options may be limited. Manufacturers guarantee you will have
FIBCs to fill, and your facility will not be affected or suffer a shutdown or miss critical production and delivery targets. Quite often customers
will not maintain a substantial stock of warehoused packaging. What is the personal and financial cost of lost production?
- Customers are increasingly relying on the expertise of their suppliers for advice and consultation on bag design and performance. Large corporations
were once flush with Packaging Engineers, but the dynamics of the market seems to have changed.
- Duties: Is your supplier of offshore imported bags paying the correct duties based upon a legitimate Harmonized Tariff Code (HTC)? If not, Customs
could prevent your container from reaching you.
In summary, many brokers may initially be less expensive, but over time FIBC manufacturers can often lower your packaging cost by design savvy, consultation
and other factors that take into consideration further variables such as package dynamics, fill technique and labor, processes, transportation optimization
and supply security.
In closing here’s my favorite quotation which may, or may not be, attributed (up for debate) to 19th-century art critic and social thinker John Ruskin:
“There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that
person’s lawful prey. It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that is all.
When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common
law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something
for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”