Hey, Were There Any Instructions?

Cue up memes and video clips about instruction sheets. Relate. Get back to work. Yes, the best humor connects by nailing a truth, and the truth is that “clear instructions” are priceless. And too often, an oxymoron. The packaging industry is no exception.

A good set of instructions provides plain, actionable direction to line operators. This ultimately reduces the likelihood of failed inspections, rework or customer complaints. Instructions should be easy to follow and include clear, detailed photos. Seems like a no-brainer, right? If it was that easy, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

“It’s just a box”… Or is it?

A common issue we see at the lab is a lack of direction regarding orientation. A client’s work instructions for packaging may include very specific details regarding how to set up a machine, place a product in a pouch, how to seal it, and the inspections that take place afterwards. What seems to be missed time and time again is orientation for cartons and shipper boxes. While it may seem obvious, it’s a critical part of the packaging process. More importantly, omitting a simple orientation note can lead to delays in the lab.

For example, when running an ASTM transit simulation, PCL needs to number box sides to ensure that each axis is exposed to the proper level and duration of vibration. How the sides are interpreted also dictates the orientation of the boxes for drop tests.

Per the ASTM D5275 standard (Standard Test Method for Drop Test of Loaded Containers by Free Fall), a specific numbering scheme is dictated by the location of the manufacturer’s joint (see Figure a1.1 below). We often receive test lots that label different box faces in relation to the glue joint. This makes it impossible for the lab to consistently number the faces while conforming to the standard. And that, in turn, leads to delays in testing while orientations are agreed upon between the lab and the client.

ASTM D5276 rectangular container faces

1 picture = 1,000 words (regardless of the language).

In my time as an engineer, I’ve been fortunate to meet many talented people in the medical device industry. Many come from diverse backgrounds and claim English as a second or even a third language. Consideration should be given to ensure that these individuals are able to easily follow the instructions, even if English isn’t their primary language. Inclusion of as many photos as possible is preferred and often necessary. Including photos from different vantage points as well as including photos of what NOT to do is in incredibly helpful. Every question that can be answered in a photo results in less down time as operators won’t need to seek the help of a supervisor or engineer to determine if their work is acceptable.

What you see in the following image is an example for evaluating seal transfer when starting a tray sealing job. Notice the use of a green check mark for “good” and use of a red X along with red circles around the pictured defects for “bad”. Red and green are universal colors. A check mark and “x” are universally used symbols. Confirming your message with these simple courtesies ensures universally accurate interpretation by most people, regardless of native language.

seal breach using universal labeling

Consistent efforts lead to consistent results.

All of that being said, don’t be overzealous in your attempts to make life easier for those following your instructions. I’ve had several projects where the client has worked to create an ambidextrous packaging solution intended to allow packaging operations to be performed in multiple orientations. While this may seem like a good idea, this can lead to challenges determining the root cause of failures that may occur. Specifying a single orientation for all aspects of the process in the work instructions means all samples are equal. Different orientations can lead to forces being applied in varying directions or orientations to packages as they travel through the distribution environment. Allowing multiple orientations is an inconsistent approach and can make determining the root cause of packaging failures (especially those caused by transit) extremely difficult. To sum it up, inconsistent efforts typically lead to inconsistent results.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

Finally, remember that you’re part of a team. While you may have designed the packaging and written the instructions, line operators are the ones who ultimately do the work. Take time to step through a draft of the instructions you’ve written with some of the folks that will be using them. It’s a great team building exercise and you’ll often be surprised with the thoughtful feedback you receive. There can often be a disconnect between engineers and line workers. This is a great way to make everyone feel valued and also provide input into the tasks that they’ll be performing regularly. When everyone is considered, everyone wins. No participation trophies here.

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