It’s more than a question of “paper or plastic.” Bagging, boxing, or wrapping products for transit as they speed from factory to consumers is the nation’s third-largest industry.
The College of Natural Resources and Environment is one of a handful of U.S. institutions preparing undergraduates for careers in packaging science. Classes are offered as a minor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, and plans are underway to offer a new bachelor’s degree in packaging systems and design as early as the spring 2014 semester.
“Virginia Tech’s packaging program is crucially important because the growth of packaging companies depends upon a continuous supply of highly trained young professionals,” said Laszlo Horvath, assistant professor of practice.
Packaging materials and new technologies inform customers and protect products from spoilage, damage, and tampering. Some “smart” technologies even interact with a product, signaling its freshness or integrity.
The packaging industry needs graduates with expertise in package engineering, design, marketing, warehousing, and distribution, and an understanding of issues involved in the recycling and re-use of packaging materials, Horvath said. Packaging materials make up almost a third of municipal trash, so sustainability is a key factor in packaging design.
Packaging professionals are in such demand that nearly every student graduating from Virginia Tech’s program has found a job, and the typical salary of those positions is $50,000 to $60,000, Horvath said. “Industry representatives come to us looking for qualified students almost every month,” he said.
Students take courses ranging from computer-aided design to the science of wood-based composites. The program has focuses on hands-on experience with laboratory time incorporated into most courses.
“Two things drew me into the packaging program,” said junior Richard Good of Dinwiddie, Va., who is majoring in wood science and forest products. “I wanted to be part of a smaller program with lots of faculty interaction in this large university. The second reason is the industry. There are so many job prospects and opportunities for growth.”
Students in the program benefit from Virginia Tech’s Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design, an industry outreach center in the Brooks Forest Products Center.
The center, which researches the design and performance of packaging systems, has meticulously standardized its testing process to a degree unmatched elsewhere, said Horvath, the center’s director. Packaging products are crushed, torn, dropped, bent, and subjected to vibration, temperature changes, humidity, and other external forces to pinpoint any weaknesses. Each step of the testing process is recorded electronically, generating a database of images, graphs, and numeric results.
“We take a lot of pictures of every tiny detail of the failure,” Horvath said. “Our results provide the information needed to redesign a better package.”
Good is one of five interns who spent summer 2013 performing packaging tests and other work at the center. The students are continuing specialized training and paid part-time work during the 2013-14 academic year as part of the new Sustainable Packaging Designer Trainee program.
Many students benefit from membership in the student chapter of the Institute of Packaging Professionals, participating in design competitions and gaining professional exposure. Virginia Tech students tied for second place in a recent package design competition.
“Participating in nationwide student packaging competitions, the students learn not only true collegiality through team work, but also some of the realities of creating workable solutions for industry,” said Young Kim, assistant professor of practice and the student chapter’s faculty advisor. “The experience dramatically helps students’ career development and often results in unique job offers, even months before graduation.”
The rapidly expanding packaging program has benefited from generous corporate donations, including several pieces of large equipment and design software from Esko Graphics, a global supplier of integrated solutions for printing, finishing, and publishing.
“Our relationship with industry is one of the strongest facets of the program,” said Robert Bush, professor of forest products marketing who teaches several packaging courses. “We are fortunate to have strong support from industry and trade associations in Virginia and nationwide. Donations of equipment and materials enable our students to work hands-on with the technologies prevalent in industry. Not only does this make their coursework more relevant, it makes them more appealing as potential employees.”
Design is the key to making products that are easily recycled and re-used to reduce waste for a greener planet.
Interns are gaining experience at the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design. The current cohort will continue training throughout the academic year as part of a new trainee program.
Three Virginia Tech teams entered the 48-Hour Repack Student Packaging Design Competition in 2013. One team tied for second place.
The Virginia Tech entries were the following:
The student chapter of the Institute of Packaging Professionals offers opportunities beyond the classroom, including the following:
Jason Hoepker, at back, and Zachary Shiner collect information on the moisture content of wooden pallets to assess the effectiveness of a new ventilated trailer design.