Anyone who has ever moved knows firsthand the challenges of packing. Is this box the best size for that large, odd-shaped vase? Would it be best to pack that lamp in two boxes, one for the base and one for the shade? Can I fit any other items into these boxes? But then will the boxes be too heavy to lift?

In the business logistics world, the answers are addressed by cartonization, which is the process of evaluating the size, shape and weight of every item to be shipped in order to determine the optimal packaging option. Among its benefits, cartonization can accelerate order delivery, which makes for happy customers, and increase profitability by reducing waste and improving the efficiency of operations.

What Is Cartonization?

Cartonization is an automated process within a modern warehouse management system (WMS) that calculates the best packaging configuration for an item or group of items scheduled for shipment. That includes the optimal size of the “carton” (like a cardboard box) for a product, as well as how many and which products should go into it. When orders are packaged as efficiently as possible, businesses can minimize the costs for packaging materials, increase productivity and boost picking efficiency.

This process can also increase the speed of delivery to customers and, importantly, increase profitability. This is especially relevant for businesses that sell online, where speed and convenience are central to building strong and lasting customer relationships.

Cartonization also ensures packages are packed securely to reduce the risk of damage during shipment.

Key Takeaways

  • Cartonization determines the most effective way to pack items for shipping.
  • Cartonization can improve cost savings and increase efficiency.
  • Cartonization is an essential component of a modern warehouse management system (WMS), particularly as customer demand for secure, same-day or next-day delivery rises.

Cartonization Explained

Cartonization is a bit like the video game Tetris. Tetris is a classic puzzle game in which players rotate and move falling geometric shapes to complete full rows without empty spaces. Cartonization works under a similar concept in which the goal is to pack products in an order as tightly (and safely) as possible based on their unique shape and characteristics, while leaving minimal empty space between them. Cartonization automates this process, thereby cutting out significant time and guesswork when performed manually under tight warehouse and shipping deadlines. Indeed, left to their own devices, it is common for workers to choose inefficient packaging options in an effort to remain productive and move on to the next task.

How Does Cartonization Work?

Cartonization relies on advanced algorithms to take the guesswork out of packaging. It does this by analyzing three main variables to determine the number and size of containers required for a shipment. With all of these factors accounted for, pickers pack each carton accordingly. The three variables are:

  • The material and shape of each product: Different materials and shapes require different packaging. For instance, a round heavy object, like a bowling ball, must be packed differently than a long pointy object, like a pair of skis. And they certainly shouldn’t be packaged together. Meanwhile, refrigerated goods are typically packed in insulated coolers, often with padding, to minimize movement and keep food fresh.

  • Its size: Packing large products in a single container is not always the best idea. If an item can be broken down into component pieces, it may be more economical to ship it disassembled in several boxes, as shipping carriers tend to charge less for smaller packages.

  • The product itself: Cartonization takes into account the nature of each product to ensure it is packed correctly and safely. For example, refrigerated goods cannot be packed in the same box as toxic substances, like paint stripper. Some products may also be fragile and require additional packaging material, such as bubble wrap or cardboard inserts.

When to Use Cartonization

Cartonization is a key part of order fulfillment that can begin as soon as a sales order is released. Cartonization is commonly used in concert with wave (cluster) picking in large warehouses that carry extensive inventory. Wave picking aims to minimize cart traffic by grouping and picking multiple orders at certain times of the day. Once order lines are grouped by delivery or according to the business’s individual delivery grouping rules, cartonization automatically determines the number of boxes and shipping materials to help pickers pack them accurately and as quickly as possible.

Types of Cartonization

Cartonization uses advanced software algorithms that determine the optimal way to pack orders for shipment. The type of cartonization algorithm a business selects depends on the nature, range and volume of products it sells. In general, there are four types of cartonization used in today’s warehouse environments:

  • Single item: In the case of single-item cartonization, items are always matched to the same types of container. This is suitable for businesses selling a select group of goods of a particular shape or that have specific shipment requirements.

  • Mixed item: Mixed-item cartonization is highly efficient and pertinent for businesses that sell a wide range of products, like department stores or ecommerce marketplaces. Here, cartonization checks the capacity and dimension restrictions of each container against the item category for each product being shipped, and then calculates the most efficient way of packing various products together in the fewest boxes.

  • Pick-slip grouping: Warehouse workers rely on picking slips or handheld digital devices to know which items to pick, their locations and stock levels. With pick-slip grouping, cartonization assigns one carton for each picking slip. Next, a license plate number (LPN) is generated for all items included in that slip so pickers can simply retrieve and place them in the right container.

  • Customer algorithm: In some cases, companies want to define their own cartonization rules for more efficient, cost-effective packaging. Leading warehouse management systems with cartonization enable them to create their own algorithms to suit those specific requirements.

Benefits of Cartonization

Plain and simple, cartonization can boost a business’s bottom line by the efficiencies it creates. It also creates a virtuous cycle: When orders arrive as expected, customers will be happy, which can lead to future orders. Additional benefits include:

  • Reduced material costs. Cartonization determines the optimal boxes and packaging material for each order. This in turn can cut down on the material cost of packing too many boxes that don’t optimize space. Properly packed orders also reduce the changes of something breaking en route, lowering the number of returns and damaged customer relationships.

  • Efficient picking. Cartonization makes it possible for workers to pick items directly into their final shipping containers with the correct label, speeding up warehouse processes and shipping times. As same-day delivery becomes the norm, these efficiency gains will become essential for businesses that want to build customer loyalty through reliable, accurate and fast delivery.

  • Increased productivity. With a powerful cartonization algorithm determining the size, quantity and type of packaging needed for each order, packing operators spend less effort on time-consuming calculations and repacking boxes. This increase in productivity can lead to a greater number of orders fulfilled and a lower cost per order, in addition to boosting employee satisfaction and motivation.

  • Lower shipping costs. Carrier capacity constraints can quickly eat into a business’s bottom line, especially as more consumers expect free shipping for their orders. Cartonization makes packing and shipment as cost-effective as possible, even taking into account different carriers’ specific constraints to avoid unexpected additional fees.

Cartonization in Warehouse Management Systems

A WMS is an integral component of a business’s operations, ensuring that putaway, picking and shipping processes drive growth rather than simply acting as a cost center. The cartonization features in leading WMS software automatically recommend the best and most cost-efficient packing configurations for any group of items, thus improving the bottom line.

In fact, cartonization is a crucial piece of getting the most out of your WMS. When combined with advanced capabilities like wave management, cycle count planning and real-time inventory updates, cartonization helps organizations optimize order management and distribution. All of this information from the WMS can then be tied to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system like enterprise resource planning (ERP) system like NetSuite which offers a unified platform to manage every aspect of your business.

As a company’s warehouse operation grows, inefficiencies in picking and shipping run the risk of compounding quickly and hurting your business. Conversely, every reduction in cost per order can add up to significant savings, higher profitability and breed better customer relationships. Cartonization plays a key role in this quest for efficiency by simplifying complex processes that have traditionally been time draining and prone to error, freeing up warehouse workers to focus on delivering orders quickly and accurately.


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Cartonization FAQs

What is cartonization?

Cartonization is a process that evaluates the size, shape and weight of every item that needs to be shipped in order to determine the most efficient packaging options. Cartonization can speed up order delivery, which makes for happy customers, and increase profitability by reducing waste of materials and packing time.

What are the benefits of cartonization?

Cartonization adds efficiency to order picking and packing by using algorithms to determine how products should be packed for shipment. It minimizes empty spaces in cartons, yet also factors for when breaking up shipments into smaller boxes makes sense — which is one way cartonization can bring down costs. It also helps reduce material waste and packing inefficiencies, another two cost-cutting benefits that, of course, ultimately boost the bottom line.

What is cartonization in WMS?

Cartonization is one component of a warehouse management system that assesses items in an order to determine the best way to pack cartons for shipping. Calculations are based on each item’s dimensions — namely, size and weight — along with box options, carrier restrictions and the nature of the items themselves.

What is wave management?

Wave management, or wave planning, involves grouping warehouse activities so that a batch of work is carried out at a particular time. Activities include wave picking, cycle counting, packing and stock replenishment.

What is wave picking in a warehouse?

Wave picking is a method for retrieving orders in warehouses in which picking is scheduled to occur within specific intervals of time, or waves, to better correspond with other important warehouse processes, such as shipping. Cartonization is commonly used in concert with wave (cluster) picking in large warehouses that carry a lot and wide variety of inventory.