Specially designed to transport and protect perishable foods, IFCO Lift Lock reusable packaging containers enable cost-effective and efficient handling. Discover how the Lift Lock has become the flagship of IFCO’s pooling system in Europe.
Pooling services provider IFCO SYSTEMS was already the market leader when it decided to give its popular reusable packaging containers (RPCs) a makeover. Anastasios Papadopoulos, Director Asset Management and Product Engineering Europe, accompanied the launch and rollout of the new design in 2013. He recalls that some customers needed a little persuasion to accept the slim new RPC.
The Lift Lock offers a folded profile much thinner than that of its predecessor, the Green Plus – in fact, at just 28 millimeters, this is one of the flattest RPCs in Europe. As a result, a few clients wondered if the new construction was robust enough. But their initial skepticism faded once they used the new RPCs. The product’s characteristics convinced them. In particular, because Lift Lock RPCs fold and unfold faster: this feature helps our customers increase productivity.
“The Lift Lock’s patented “active” mechanism for opening and closing the RPCs gives the product series its name. With just a slight upward lift on each locking bar – even with gloved hands – users can unfold or fold the IFCO RPCs with “a natural hand movement.”
This ease of use was quite a change from systems generally used on other RPCs, which snap open or shut when pressure is applied. Unfortunately, this sometimes led to packers or storage room workers even kicking the crates closed with their heavy boots or using hammers to shut the containers’ side walls. By introducing an ergonomic and user-friendly closure system, IFCO also encouraged more appropriate RPC treatment.
One primary reason for creating the Lift Lock was to reduce the folded height of IFCO RPCs. This increases the number of RPCs per 80×120 Euro pallet: 320 (60×40 cm) or 640 (40x30cm) folded Lift Lock containers, compared to for example, 304 or 608 with other pooling solutions. More RPCs per stack results in fewer pallets per shipment, which saves money and reduces emissions. Because more Lift Lock RPCs can be stacked on each pallet, a small rim has been added to the base plates of IFCO Lift Lock RPCs to provide their customary, secure stackability.
The walls of the crates have also been rounded slightly. More than aesthetics, this feature allows the natural curves of fruits and vegetables to nestle securely inside the RPCs, to yield exceptional product protection by reducing damage from friction. The slight curvature also contributes to a more modern design, while continuing to deliver RPCs’ usual reliability in temperature control through optimal ventilation.
On the other hand, aesthetics can be a very good reason to adjust a product’s appearance, and this consideration motivated IFCO to introduce the color black to the Lift Lock line. While green is traditionally associated with plants and nature, using the basic color of black makes fruits and vegetables – whether red, yellow, green, purple or white – appear brighter and more vibrant. On a practical level, any scratches on the RPCs are also less visible than on light-colored side or base panels.
A further goal for Lift Lock’s product development was to make sure that these reusable packaging containers will meet all demands introduced by the increasing use of automated systems. The IFCO packaging applications team regularly confers at length with clients and mechanical engineers on ways to adjust automation processes to IFCO RPCs and visa-versa. "For example, the construction of the conveyors, whether rollers or belts, their inclines, the height of any transitions and the direction of flow of goods are all aspects that have to be considered," explains Papadopoulos.
Another consideration in highly automated distribution centers for perishable goods is the material of the containers being handled. If you are inside an automated warehouse where the system shuttles various types of packaging solutions, you can probably identify the IFCO containers by the sounds they make – or don’t make. On metal conveyors, IFCO containers rattle less than comparable plastic packaging. Lift Lock RPCs also make less racket when machines or people hurriedly stack or even drop them. When opening IFCO RPCs, the corner tabs snap into place with a satisfyingly solid click.
These characteristics arise from the durable polypropylene composition, along with the thickness and construction of the RPC walls, sides and base plate. In combination with the design, the food safe, UV-radiation resistant material provides the right mix of flexibility and stability – neither too stiff nor too pliable – to avoid cracking as well as sagging. This quality is particularly crucial.
Whether full or empty, the RPCs’ dimensions must be extremely precise to ensure secure stacking and efficient handling. This requirement is also critical for automated processes. With nearly 300 million IFCO RPCs in the global pooling system, even a one-millimeter difference in the footprint has an immense effect in the ability of such systems to recognize packaging systems, since many use camera or laser measurements to identify food-carrying crates.
As automation and digitalization in the food supply chain will certainly grow in the coming years, Lift Lock RPCs are already future-ready. "You really never know how fast developments will take place," comments Papadopoulos. To provide transparency regarding the contents in the crates as well as the pooling assets themselves, each Lift Lock has a unique Data Matrix label that is individually traceable. This label is permanently fused in an inset on the RPC, thus avoiding damage during any stage of the supply chain, including washing and sanitation.
Starting with harvest, producers can "marry" their goods with IFCO Lift Lock RPCs by scanning in the code. This identifying information accompanies each crate through shipment, warehouse distribution, order picking and retail sale. Once the contents have been sold, the Data Matrix code becomes available again. Today, when harvesting and shipping products, most growers use thin cardboard labels to identify the produce and its origin.
Specially designed tabs on the short sides of each IFCO RPC hold these identifying labels securely in place along the entire journey from producer to retailer. In some instances, clients use self-adhesive labels that cover the Lift Lock movable bars or leave residue. Sticky labels can influence the function of the Lift Lock mechanism, however, or leave a residue that affects the otherwise pristine appearance following washing and sanitizing of IFCO RPCs. That’s why using non-stick labels benefits everyone.
Since the company’s founding in 1992, the IFCO RPC product range has grown to more than 70 products. Lift Lock reusable packaging containers are available in various sizes and colors: black or green for fresh produce, red for meat, and brown for bread. When refining RPCs or adding new models, IFCO incorporates innovative features such as the Lift Lock mechanism to make sustainable transport of perishable goods more efficient and cost-effective for customers.
IFCO CEO Wolfgang Orgeldinger adds, "We have put a lot of emphasis on product development leading to the creation of product families like our Lift Lock RPCs, which ensure easy and safe handling."
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