Ask a Packaging Expert: Andy Schumacher

Reusable Packaging’s Environmental Repurpose

In the automated material handling industry, SSI SCHAEFER is a global leader known for its innovative solutions. Just as innovative is the company’s Packaging Systems Division, led by Andy Schumacher, vice president of packaging systems.

In this one-on-one interview, Schumacher shares his insights about returnable packaging trends, sustainability in the automotive industry, and how reusable packaging is protecting the environment.  

Q: The packaging industry has many facets. How did you find your way into returnable packaging?

A: Few people start their career off thinking about getting into returnable packaging. I feel fortunate to have a job where our products have such a dramatic impact on the environment.

My journey began in consulting, but I wanted to move into a company that manufactured something physical. That opportunity opened up and I’ve loved it ever since. Working on sustainable initiatives to eliminate expendable packaging is a fascinating industry. During my 21 years in this field, I’ve enjoyed the marketing, sales, and operational sides of the business. In my current role, I have the privilege to enjoy all three at once. It’s the perfect role.

Q: You were promoted to vice president of packaging systems in 2018. How does your leadership style complement the culture at SSI SCHAEFER?

A: When I moved into more leadership roles, it became apparent the impact you have on the people around you and at all levels of the organization. I try to make time for everyone within the organization. Making sure that all employees within the team are heard and have a voice is the absolute, most critical aspect of our SSI SCHAEFER packaging culture. Sometimes, it’s as simple as saying hello, while other times it involves sitting down and working through challenges at all levels.

Q: The returnable packaging industry has evolved over the last 10 years. What trends are having the greatest impact today? 

A: The biggest trend over the last two years is the circularity of raw materials within our industry. While the product itself (returnable packaging) is naturally circular and reused many times over, the latest trend is to ensure the raw materials have those same properties. This hasn’t always been the case.

This is a positive trend for our marketplace and our industry. You’re seeing this focus in many markets, but especially in new technologies such as electric vehicles. Companies want to make sound decisions as they relate to sustainability and the environment.

Another major trend in returnable packaging is the track and trace side of the business. Companies want to know where their assets are within the supply chain. This trend emerged eight to 10 years ago, but has gained momentum in returnable packaging for the first time.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is a fascinating technology that used to be an exception but is now part of every reusable packaging system solution. All of our customers are using RFID technology to track and trace their assets.

Q: As the leader in automated material handling solutions, SSI SCHAEFER is a global brand with a worldwide presence. In terms of its Packaging Systems Division, what separates you from your competitors?

A: First and foremost, what separates us is our people and our focus on the customer. We have a very focused team with a passionate group of individuals who puts in 110%.

Second, is our stability at SSI SCHAEFER. Our company has a solid foundation worldwide, especially in North America. We examine the business strategy of our customers and design long-term solutions for their needs. We’re partners with our customers for the long haul, and they appreciate that.

Third, are new ideas and innovations the company is rolling out. In North America, we’re turning the corner on innovation as an organization and seeing significant progress on several projects.

Those three areas make SSI SCHAEFER unique and well-suited for packaging systems in North America now and in the future.

Q: The automotive industry appears at a crossroads, especially as it relates to sustainability and the environment. How does this trickle down to returnable packaging?

A: We’re seeing the electrification of all things in society, but particularly in automobiles. Consider that the average number of parts is 2,000 in a traditional gasoline vehicle, while an EV vehicle only has an average of 1,000 parts. Thus, your packaging requirements are cut in half, which is not what you want as a packaging supplier. However, with fewer parts that can fail, this is a positive trend for the end user.

It’s the future of automobiles. There won’t be gas-driven cars down the road. While I can’t say exactly when that will occur, I think everyone can see the writing on the wall. We deal with this reality every day.

Along with electrification, you also have specialty-type parts that are more electronic-based than in the past. Those parts require different types of custom dunnage solutions. We have battery packs and dangerous goods packs, for example. Our solutions are a result of the innovations occurring in the marketplace.

Q: The pandemic forced many industries to establish new ways of doing business. How did your Packaging Services Division adapt to COVID-19?

A: Like many organizations, COVID-19 had an extreme impact on our company. Our first priority is the safety and well-being of our employees. At the beginning of the pandemic, we utilized our textile dunnage sewing capabilities to manufacture face masks for our employees.

It felt good to watch folks walking around our buildings wearing face masks made by our own people. While this wasn’t a large-scale operation, we distributed our face masks to different customers to help keep their doors open. It was during a time when the need was there in the marketplace for us to help support everyone and do our part for mankind.

There are markets that flourished in the COVID-19 environment. You have more retail distribution occurring than ever before because of the increase in e-commerce. So some industries were thriving and others nearly came to a halt like automotive. Each industry that we work with had a different reaction to COVID-19 and a different impact.

For us, I feel really grateful that we haven’t had to lay off a single person throughout this pandemic. We’ve been able to work for a healthy organization that has stood by its employees and made the right long-term decisions for everyone and the business.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see the long-term market impacts of the pandemic—people working remotely and customers ordering online affects returnable packaging. It’s hard to say what’s on the horizon, but there’s certainly going to be more innovation because of the pandemic. Supply chains will evolve and we’ll need to adapt to them.

Q: As the only material handling company to participate in the 50 Sustainability and Climate Leaders Initiative, it says a great deal about SSI SCHAEFER. How does your Clear Stream program support that initiative and the environmental goals of the company?  

A: We’re constantly challenging ourselves. As an organization, we’re using a larger percentage of ocean-bound materials than any other company in the material handling world. It’s our mission to continue taking unused material in the ocean and utilizing more of the feedstock either through additives or innovative material mixes.

It’s critical that we keep our oceans clear of these types of plastics. Anything we can do as an organization to support that initiative makes our product even more exciting. Sustainability is already part of SSI SCHAEFER’s DNA. However, adding sustainability with saving the oceans and contributing to circularity, it’s the trifecta of environmental stewardship.

Q: There is always room for more innovation sustainable reusable packaging. What is your next initiative beyond the Clear Stream project?

A: The success of the Clear Stream program is astonishing. Customers care about the circularity of materials and will pay a premium to support the cause.

However, our new solution takes the Clear Stream concept to another level. We’re combining ocean-bound materials with a new compound that’s truly unique in the marketplace—hemp-based resin. Hemp is a plentiful resource and easy to obtain. This is an exciting time for us and we have many customers that want us to make this product available to them in the near term.

Our packaging systems division is in its growth stages. As a niche player, our focus is to make an impact in the world by spreading the word about the positivity we’re creating.

I’m grateful that I’ve had this incredible experience, whether it’s customer-based, competitor-based, or the marketplace in general, to drive toward a common theme and goal, which is to make a difference. As a board member for the Returnable Packaging Association, I’m a firm believer that we as a group or association can do more than any one individual or company.

We’re not trying to do this on our own, because if we were, it wouldn’t have the impact. It takes everyone doing their part.

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