How to Pack: Shipping Big Science




Introduction: How to Pack: Shipping Big Science

About: Hi! I'm Star Simpson! I'm a real me! See more at []. photo by [ Jeff Lieberman] ( stasterisk - my name is Star, and when I was 13 I si…

So, say you have a $20 million dollar science experiment, and you need to ship it to somewhere like Antarctica.  How do you do it???

The KECK2/BICEP radio telescope project here, at Harvard, needed to do just that, and hired the American Repertory Theater crew to do the packing.

You can tell immediately that ART have been doing this, have passed down their best practices, and have been paying attention to how to do it right, for many years.  You can also immediately tell that their team features clear communication and well-thought-out designs, by how easy it is to assemble their crates, and by the confirmatory labels that make mating parts match to each other.

The job they did was SO amazing, that I had to document their techniques.

Step 1: Packing Theory

Anyone who has ever packed anything, from a homemade ceramic mug that you only need to get across the state, all the way up to this telescope that needs to cross many continents, knows that shipping can be a dodgy proposition.

The secrets are to have 1) a structurally sound box -- one that isn't going to crush or crumple, and that is well-supported and braced on the inside and 2) make sure the item you are packing is surrounded -- tightly packed -- with material, or generally otherwise constrained -- so that if the box is impacted, the object experiences little of the force.  Packed, literally.

The ART crew did all of this with very high quality materials (e.g. no two-by-fours -- all milled lumber), the right types of materials (angle brackets when necessary, stiff foam when necessary), a clear minimum of excess packing material, very exact measurement and fitting tolerances, and a generally all-around incredibly high level of expertise.

Step 2: This Crate

This crate was built to carry three large aluminum I-beams and eight carbon fiber spars.  The top part of the crate held the aluminum, and the bottom held the spars.

The two compartments are separated by a plywood "floor" that lifts up.  The floor has circular thumb-holes drilled out (with smooth walls, no splinters) allowing a human to lift the floor anytime.  The floor is supported on its edges by a molding-like feature of 1x lumber screwed onto the wall of the crate, just below.

It slots down over the vertical brace lumber, and is cut to have enough room to slide by even at a ~15° angle -- which is exactly the amount of tolerance required.

Shown here in the first image is the crate, before packing, and its future lid (to be screwed on) leaning on the side.

Step 3: Braces

These braces are placed to fit exactly over the aluminum spars.  They actually exert a slight downward force on the spars when installed, thanks to the hinging installation.

The bent nail is a retainer, and it is a tight-fit through the hinges that takes some "working" to pull out.  It is highly unlikely to come undone in shipping, but is quick to insert and remove while packing the crate.

One of ART's true genius design novelties here was to not only encode which brace section went to which post with sharpie/lettering (e.g. Brace A, Brace B etc.), but by also using the hinge hardware in a puzzle-piece fashion, so that Brace A had two single-loop hinges designed to slot between double-loop hardware, Brace B had one of each kind, and Brace C had two double-loop hinges, slotting around single-loop hardware attached to the wall of the crate. 

This ensured that even if the braces were cut to slightly different lengths, there was just no possibility of a lazy packer switching around the construction of the box.

Step 4: Documentation, Everywhere

In a feat of forethought, the ART traced outlines of the objects meant to fit into the crate.  These make it incredibly easy to put things in and take them out again -- because the information about "where things go" remains in the crate.

Step 5: A Small Box for Hardware

This box is definitely shipping an assembly, and every assembly requires its own hardware, spare hardware, and tools.  The ART crew built a little box inside this crate, specifically to retain all of that extra random junk.

We added a bill of the box's contents to the lid, in sharpie, when it was packed, so the receiving crew could check the contents against what they expected to find.

Step 6: Padding/Retention

The things in this box are therefore retained on six sides by the plywood floor, by the wooden braces, by these steel angle brackets preventing lateral motion and elsewhere preventing translational sliding, and at the ends by these foam "headboards" that are around two inches thick and quite stiff.  The aluminum parts are also tightly packed one-inch pieces of the same foam.

The above-and-beyond winning technique, here, was a light coat of spray adhesive that stuck the foam to the alumiunm, and that ensured the foam would not work its way out from between the aluminum bars.

Step 7: Forkliftability

A box for shipping is not a very good box unless it can be easily moved and transported. These standoffs allow the crate to be moved around by standard forklifts.  We have the luxury of a 10-ton hoist and a remote-controlled gantry, and the floor clearance is also quite good for throwing webbing/straps underneath the box to hoist it up.

Step 8: Wrapping It Up

Finally, after everything was packed, we screwed the lid on with copious wood screws, used a strapping machine to strap the lid down, and taped the destination address and recipient on every face of the crate.

A final touch of American Repertory Theater genius?  They left an entire roll of "This Way Up" arrow tape for labeling the box.

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5 years ago

Thanks for the tutorial :)

A good enclosure has a satisfaction all it's own, but how much more so when you get to put part of such a grand instrument inside of it! Was this telescope an optical telescope or some fancy microwave gizmo for detecting B-mode polarization?


10 years ago on Step 8

It's always nice to realize that others also pay attention to the details, both ART for taking the time to fabricate the case, and you for noticing.

Dream Dragon
Dream Dragon

11 years ago on Introduction

... and the mark of true genius lies in finding the right people to do the job. Of course it makes sense to have the theatre company pack your radio telescope.


11 years ago on Introduction

1. Would Tim Anderson roll over on his kon-tiki because this shipping crate might end up as landfill on the tundra or drift out with the garbage tide? Sure, it may be good quality formaldahyde-free plywood but you could have used some eco-friendly packing fill.  I would have printed some cut-out patterns for furniture on the crate so it would get reused, at least not for firewood, it does get  cold there.
2. Why not let the engineering students have a crack at designing a shipping container so that the contents would survive a drop off a ten-story building...wait, that's the other school.
3. How much does FEDEX charge to ship that?

Nice job.


11 years ago on Introduction

Another interesting thing to watch is set-up or tear-down of a high-tech trade show floor. Picture 100+ vendors, each with some sort of fancy "booth" (some two stories tall) and all sorts of relatively delicate high-tech gadgetry (nothing quite so delicate or pricey as this telescope, of course.) And it all has to go up and come down in about 8 hours.


Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

Or professional theater troops with big traveling shows. If you've ever been to such a show you know that it seems as if that stage has been there forever. Little do most know but that stage was contructed from scratch using modular stage elements by techies like myself.

Time from the show coming in with the semi's full of stuff to the end of set-up including lights and sound checks, aprox 4 hours.

Tearing it down and packing it up again - aprox 2 or 3 hours.

Show itself - 90 minutes.


11 years ago on Introduction

Wait a, are you a post-doc in Harvard Astrophysics, or a member of ART?!? Either way, this is an absolutely awesome writeup, showing some of the "behind the scenes" (okay, should I really say "backstage"?) stuff that goes into making real science work. Rated and featured, because Science is Cool.