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Tomorrow’s packaging pros meld engineering and art

Tomorrow’s packaging pros meld engineering and art
MSU School of Packaging students Hunter Gartner (left) and Kikyung Kim doing research.

Natives to technology, students at MSU’s School of Packaging can create in CAD, output to various prototype systems and have a finished package in your hands in no time. How will automated design change packaging departments in the near future?

Like most young adults these days, the students enrolled in the School of Packaging at Michigan State University exhibit savvy computer skills. In an exclusive interview with Packaging Digest, Joe Hotchkiss, director of MSU’s School of Packaging and Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability, explains the significance of how this will transform packaging development and engineering.

What’s happening that’s going to change packaging in the future?

Hotchkiss: I’ll tell you the thing that I’m absolutely convinced is going to happen relatively quickly and I’ll tell you why.

Our student body has changed substantially in the last two or three years. We now have 725 studying at the undergraduate level and about 100 graduate students. So our program has just exploded. We are graduating about 180 young people a year. That’s probably more than the rest of the packaging schools combined. So what we are teaching these young people will become, in my view, the standard of packaging simply, if for no other reason, by sheer force of numbers.

Also, the kind of student who has come to packaging has changed substantially. Almost all of our students usually transferred from places like engineering or biological sciences. For the 2013/2014 school year, we had 108 freshmen and something like 250 sophomores. These are people who came to Michigan State because they wanted to study packaging. They didn’t come and then transferred in—so they’re very enthusiastic about this as a career option.

And even though Michigan State has gotten more selective in its admissions in the last few years, our students are well above the average of the university-admitted students. So these are not only large numbers but extremely bright and energetic young people.

These people are going to march out into industry relatively shortly. I always tell people, particularly those who come to recruit, you have two choices: You can either join these people and try to keep up with them, or you better get out the way because they’re going to take over. They just don’t know the word “no.”

Why such an interest in the packaging program?

Hotchkiss: Part of the reason they are coming to us is that they are driven very much by creativity. They see packaging as an opportunity. They typically say, “You know what I like? Math and engineering and I like that kind of technical aspect. But I want to do something creative. I want to design the world’s best package and I want to take Mom and Dad to the grocery store and point to that package and say, ‘See. See that creative thing? That’s mine.’” So they’re really driven by the creative aspect.

Designing packaging by computer really hits home to them.

Not too many years ago if you were with, say, Kraft Foods or Nestlé or another consumer packaged goods company, and you wanted a prototype of a new package, your packaging group might take, oh, six or eight weeks and spend $20,000 or $25,000 or more per package to get a prototype in somebody’s hand for evaluation.

Our students can now design the prototype in an afternoon and print it up on a 3D printer. We teach all of our students to do 3D printing. We can make a complete label, including all of the graphics, all the information and brand stuff. Then we can heat-shrink that onto the container. So in, roughly, a 24-hour period, we can put a previously unseen container in your hand. And every one of our undergraduates now can do that.

What is that going to do to the accelerating changes and the creative parts of packaging? Last year, there were around 5,000 new consumer product packages introduced. In another few years, you’re going to see 10,000 a year. It’s just going to drive change in the industry very rapidly.

It’s quite interesting because there are students, all of a sudden, that are doing very creative things. I’ll give you an example. Several of them are developing dispensing packaging. That is something that would – for example, there was one where they developed a package that you dial in how much sugar you want. Do you want a cup of sugar or a half a cup of sugar, a quarter cup; you just rotate the cap, turn the thing upside down, turn it back over and that’s how much sugar it dispenses kind of thing. It particularly targeted that towards people who have trouble manipulating big 5-pound bags of sugar and those things. They’re really interested in those kind of creative and new ideas.

In previous years, a lot of packaging graduates enrolled because there was packaging in their family. How did these students find out about packaging?

Hotchkiss: Maybe three freshmen would come in a year and when you talked to them they said just what you said. My uncle, my aunt, some friend of my buddy’s mother or somebody like that worked in the industry and I heard about it and it sounded pretty cool.

In the 2013/2014 school year, we had more than 100 freshmen. It turns out that they hear about it from a whole variety of places.

One is environmental costs and the sustainability of packaging has spilled over into the lay press. Now, all of a sudden, the environmental aspects of packaging are on a lot of young peoples’ list.

Michigan State University offers a specialization in environmental and sustainable studies. The largest single source of students in that program is the School of Packaging. We have something like 35 or 40 students in that program.

The other thing that’s driven them to us is this idea of creating something in a combination of engineering and art, if you will.

We still get what we call the uncle factor, though.

How is this dynamic going to change the packaging department?

Hotchkiss: In a number of ways, not the least of which is who’s hiring our students. About 70 percent of our students are going to brand owners these days because the brand owner wants to develop creative packaging and then keep their competitors from having it. So they want to develop it in-house.

There was a time when converters would develop new packaging ideas and then sell that across a product category. It’s going the other way now. The brand owners want something exclusive.

So we’re putting out 180 people a year, all of whom have some degree of competency in using some of these new tools. Some of them have great competency. We send them out on internships and they come back and I ask them what they did on their internship. About half of them look at me and say, “Well, I started working on this project but then they found out what I knew about ArtiosCAD and stuff. So I ended up spending most of my time teaching other people.”

I remind people that there are no students at the School of Packaging that can ever remember when a computer was plugged into anything. They don’t understand why you plug a computer into anything. A lot of them have computers that don’t have anything to plug in.

So wireless is big?

Hotchkiss: Oh, yeah. When I came to the school, we didn’t have any wireless in it. I asked students about it and they were mad about it. We now have 11 wireless antennae. We haven’t got a huge building but we have wireless like crazy.

That’s the design side. What is going on in the operations, production or mechanical engineering side?

Hotchkiss: A couple of things. The first is that robotics have gotten so cheap and so sophisticated that if you really look at the heart of a lot of packaging machines now these days, they are a robot of some kind. Particularly some machinery manufacturers have picked up on this and are making machines that are essentially a big robot in a box. The speed has gotten very good, too.

We’re responding to that by teaching more robotics in our machinery classes.

We’re also acquiring a number of tools that allow for complex manufacturing processes to be prototyped and designed on a computer in a CAD system. So you can design that line on a computer and run a simulation to see how it’s going to operate. You can work out a lot of the problems so when you bolt it together in the plant, you already know what’s going to happen.

There are also some other things that we see happening. People are getting energy conscious and they are light-weighting parts that move in a machine because when you make the part lighter you reduce its energy footprint. There’s some really good work done in Dresden University to emphasize or sharpen the idea of using ultrasound to seal a package. That’s going to allow better speed and better seals.

So there are a number of technologies that are being applied to the packaging equipment, becoming more specialized. It’s going to take more specialized people to work on those machines. It’s going to take sophisticated people to design those machines. Speed and reliability are going up. Energy costs are going to go down.

The bad news is, product life cycles in a lot of companies are so short or at least anticipated to be short. So companies are reluctant to buy high-end equipment for a product that they’re unsure of what its lifecycle’s going to be.

Overall, though, we’re pretty sanguine about American industry despite what you read. Companies don’t hire packaging people if they are worried about their business. And the job market for our graduates is the strongest we have seen probably in a decade. We only count our employed students if they’re in some kind of packaging-related role. For the 2012 class, it was just under 90 percent hired. Depending on the industry, the starting salary will be something like $54,000 to $57,000. It’d be considerably more if you go to the food and pharmaceutical industry. They typically pay about 10K more.

People are always asking me about the future of packaging and I tell them I’m pretty sure what the future of packaging is because we’re building it. I’m not sure that we’re right and I’m not going to guarantee that it’s the best thing. But you put out 180 people every year who love automated design, for example, it’s going to have an impact.

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