A hauler operator delivers components to assembly lines at BMW’s Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant. Part packaging and delivery can play a role in vehicle quality by preventing damage to components during assembly.

Automotive manufacturers and other companies are moving away from paper, plastic, and other non-reusable materials toward sustainable packaging, says R. Andrew Hurley, PhD., founder Greenville, South Carolina, company Package InSight and an associate professor of Packaging Science at Clemson University. Package Insight director and former BMW Spartanburg (South Carolina) packaging engineer specialist Bianca Hurley adds that recyclable packaging within manufacturing plants helps companies reach conservation goals. The Hurleys note several trends in the future of packaging that will impact automotive production.

Nothing is disposable

Wooden crates and pallets were once deemed disposable. Yet during her packaging career at BMW, Bianca Hurley worked on programs to refurbish wooden products by replacing nails and heat-treating the boards again. BMW’s costs fell, generating a strong return on investment (ROI) with its repair dollars.

Plastics and wood have long been favored for their low weight and cost, but Andrew Hurley says heavier materials are a better option in terms of reuse and durability.

“Metal is easy to manipulate and iterate on the fly,” Andrew Hurley says. “A lot of metal racking systems are constant prototypes. Once you’ve made a rack, it’s not done. You can get data and then iterate.”

Sewn fabric dunnage bags can protect components and simplify packaging in manufacturing plants.

Packaging design

At Package InSight, the Hurleys are using eye tracking to monitor how shoppers and line associates handle packaging – evaluating how quickly parts and packages are picked, ergonomic performance, and biometric data. If associates are performing an excessive amount of bending, back injuries could occur. The solution could be as simple as adjusting the height of a racking and rolling dunnage system, but designers need data to make the right decisions.

“At BMW, things that aren’t ergonomic won’t get approved,” Bianca Hurley explains. To avoid worker injury, packaging designs must avoid requiring repetitive movements such as loading and unloading of steel racks. Better ergonomics can ease the difficulty of some jobs, increase efficiency, reduce labor costs, and improve quality.

Andrew Hurley adds, “By combining data such as eye movements with facial coding, we have a better understanding of how and why associates make decisions within their environment.”

Collapsible packaging

“If you’re going to ship (a container) back empty, you want it to nest or collapse,” Andrew Hurley says. As Bianca Hurley relates from her experience at BMW, some cardboard boxes that are stapled to pallets can be difficult to collapse and expensive to discard. In the future, manufacturers will likely avoid difficult-to-collapse product packages to reduce labor costs.

Combining steel racks with compartmentalized storage bags creates a durable, flexible storage system – compartments can be changed by altering bags while leaving the steel structure untouched.

Advancing technology

Andrew Hurley says he expects future packaging and assembly systems to be designed in virtual, digital environments to optimize space and throughput.

“By building it all in virtual reality, you could train people to operate it before it exists and before you install it,” Andrew Hurley explains.

Augmented reality (AR), a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real-world, could supply information to workers using special glasses or computer tablets. Bianca Hurley says AR would have been extremely helpful during her time at BMW.

Incoming parts for a car must be packaged, ordered, and sequenced so they could arrive at the assembly line just in time (JIT). A virtual assistant like an AI chatbot, could help workers select the right part and then put it in the right place, supporting the JIT arrangement.


At BMW, parts are shipped from a warehouse in Germany to South Carolina. Some containers are damaged, but more are lost. The adoption of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is inevitable, Bianca Hurley says, because so many reusable containers are lost in international supply chains. Tiny RFID tags, costing a few dollars each, can be applied to steel containers and metal racks.


Package InSight