When packing a box for shipping, some objects can stack perfectly with no wasted space.
However, some common shapes—for example, cylinders (e.g. toilet paper rolls) and spheres (e.g. oranges)—can’t be packed without wasted empty space in the box (Figure 1).
If someone orders a set of products that don’t pack together, a computer algorithm can automatically determine which additional items could be packed “for free” in the wasted space.
For example, if someone bought a box of 27 bowling balls, packed in a 3x3x3 cube, there would be remaining empty space in the middle for at least 8 caltrops to be packed.
Or, if someone orders 12 rolls of toilet paper AND 48 ninja stars, AND 6 candles, the orders can be perfectly combined into a single package with (almost) no wasted space: the candles go in the toilet paper roll tubes, and the ninja stars go between each roll (Figure 2). Additional packaging ideas shown in Figure 3.
When ordering products online, there could be a button on the checkout page with text like “add random things to my order so as to fill up 100% of the shipping box.” This would both drive additional product sales AND be more eco-friendly since less packaging would be wasted.
PROS: Allows web-based retailers to sell more products without incurring additional shipping costs by cleverly using 100% of the available packaging space.
CONS: This efficient-packaging technique may be difficult to apply beyond a relatively small subset of somewhat-regularly-shaped items.