After investing such a lot of time and money into designing, developing, and finally mass-producing their new products, importers don’t want their packaging to be the weak link; and that’s where ISTA testing comes in.
Imagine that a container load of your products has arrived from China after a month-and-a-half on the ocean, but a high percentage of them are defective thanks to the shipping cartons giving way under the weight of those stacked above, or allowing moisture inside that has ruined delicate components. How do you fulfil your orders? Can you afford the cost of scrap or rework, not to mention the wait for a replacement order to be completed?
This could have been avoided had you undertaken ISTA testing for the packaging in order to put your cartons through a realistic simulation of their journey in advance so you knew they would be up to the job of protecting the products during transit.
Hopefully, this has gotten your attention, so keep reading and listening to learn what the ISTA standards are, the tests involved, the costs, and when it’s a good time to do them.
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Who is ISTA and what testing standards do they offer?
ISTA stands for international safe transit association. They are a body concerned with the transportation of goods that has developed 3 standards for package transportation testing that we’re focusing on here. Performing ISTA-2a testing, one of the three standards, on your packaging is considered to be a best practice for the majority of importers who plan to ship goods by sea, air, rail, or road.
ISTA 1a, 2a, and 3a are the different testing standards. They are all formulated to test the ability of packages of 150 lbs (68 kg) or less to withstand the transportation process and protect their contents, so this would typically be a shipping carton containing a number of products. That means that the tests aim to mimic the transportation environment, with temperature, humidity, vibration, dropping, compression, and more, as goods shipped by container, for example, will be exposed to a number of extremes during transit that could damage the products if the packaging is not up to standard. (03:02)
This is the most basic testing standard and it does not replicate the shipping environment as well as 2a and 3a, but it still provides importers with a minimal level of assurance that their packaging will be reliable enough and so is better than no testing. It includes just 3 tests: humidity, vibration, and incline and horizontal drop testing with basic specifications for the packaging, not your actual specifications such as your actual full package weight. (09:28)
ISTA-2a is a more realistic simulation of the shipping environment than 1a, perhaps around 50+% similar to reality, therefore its results are more accurate. It is the best choice for most importers because it is a great compromise between cost and accuracy.
It includes 6 tests which are geared more towards real-life scenarios, such as two kinds of temperature tests (ambient and controlled), compression test to assess if the boxes can withstand being stacked, vibration testing at low G-force, drop testing on an incline and horizontally from different heights between 0.5 to 1.5 m depending on the product, and then further random fixed displacement vibration testing.
Importantly, these tests need to be performed in sequence in order for the test to be valid. The 6 sequences have an impact on each other which helps provide you with results that are similar to real-life conditions. For instance, there is vibration testing in sequence 4 which mimics transportation, drop testing in sequence 5 mimicking a package being dropped during delivery, and then more vibration testing in sequence 6 which will confirm if a package that has been dropped is still sound enough to protect its contents. (10:34)
This testing standard is a full simulation of real-life conditions and so provides the greatest peace of mind that packaging will not fail, but it may be overkill for a lot of importers and also costs the most to do due to including 11 tests.
It includes the same tests as 2a, but also vibration tests mimicking different transportation types, such as rail, air, etc, drop tests including rotational, so the package will tumble, impact tests, and more.
Overall 2a is probably adequate for most importers, but if you need to protect particularly costly or fragile goods, for instance, 3a will give you that extra reassurance. (15:46)
Is ISTA testing mandatory?
No, it is not mandatory. But as with a lot of testing, you do it because you want to reduce risks. Is it worth your while to ship products and then find out that they got damaged and couldn’t be sold upon arrival because you selected packaging that wasn’t up to the job? (18:49)
What does it cost?
The costs vary and increase as the tests become more complex:
- 1a – approx. US$500 – good for lower-cost products where high quality is not critical.
- 2a – approx. US$600-1,500 – a good all-around standard which is suitable for most importers.
- 3a – approx. US$1,000-3,500 – the most comprehensive testing which should all but eliminate the risks of packaging failing during transit – good for high-value, medical, testing and measuring, or fragile products. (19:47)
What does an ISTA test pass actually mean?
It means that you can have peace of mind that your carton will protect your goods from damage during transit. There is always a chance that human actions may lead to packages being damaged even after passing ISTA tests, however, so importers need to bear that in mind. One example would be a delivery person leaving a package sitting on the floor next to the truck in the rain leading to the soaked package collapsing from the bottom. (22:26)
What if your package fails its ISTA tests?
A fail is never welcome news, but you need to take note of which sequence of ISTA testing the package failed in. If it’s in the first sequences this suggests that you (or your supplier) have selected a carton that simply isn’t strong enough to do the job you need it to and you need to get advice on sourcing a more suitable type.
However, if the carton made it through the vast majority of the tests and failed on, say, the last one, you might decide to consider it a ‘pass’ because you can be reasonably satisfied that the packaging is likely to withstand transit anyway. This will depend on your product type and the level of protection you need, though. (24:28)
When should importers start thinking about their packaging options?
The best time to start working on which packaging you’re going to use is just before mass production starts at the same time as you are developing the last build of the product prototype (so approximately 2-3 months before production starts), because you’ll have a good idea of the product’s shape, form, weight, and probably even the retail packaging, all of which influence your carton choice.
You’ll determine carton size by calculating how many retail packages need to fit inside it, understand the weight of each carton, and then this will help you choose the correct strength of the carton. For instance, you may select a two or three-ply cardboard carton with corrugated support in a sandwich if you need more strength. A packaging plan will also be made with a standard procedure to load the cartons and label them according to transportation rules.
By the time the products are produced, the packaging is ready to go and they can be packed and shipped seamlessly. (26:01)
Do the ISTA tests require real product samples to be used?
Yes, in order to understand how the packaging will react during transit when filled with your products, they must also be tested filled with the same products in their retail packaging that you’re going to ship. If you use an empty box or fill them with scrap the results will not be the same and you will not have the assurance that the cartons will do an adequate job in the field. Some samples of your product may be damaged or destroyed during the testing process if a package fails, but this is far less costly than it happening in the field to large numbers of them. (29:33)