EAST LANSING — The only conscious thoughts most people have about packaging come in flurries when they have a devil of a time opening one.
But packaging is a meticulously researched, highly specialized field thanks to the world’s largest and best-known packaging school at Michigan State University, which invented packaging as an academic discipline in 1952.
MSU’s School of Packaging has graduated more than 7,000 students — more than half of the trained packaging professionals in the U.S.
“Not long ago I was visiting Del Monte, a consumer brand most people are familiar with, and they brought all 16 of their mid- to high-level packaging execs into one room,” said Joe Hotchkiss, director of the School of Packaging. “I asked how many people graduated from MSU. Fourteen people raised their hands, and two apologized.”
“That’s how it always goes,” Hotchkiss added with a chuckle. “When it comes to packaging, we are the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
And the gorilla grabs the limelight. The school’s annual egg drop competition always gets headlines. School lab tests have been featured on segments of the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels.”
Despite the no-growth economy, 84 percent of the School of Packaging’s 100 graduates in 2011 had job offers before commencement. Major consumer goods companies typically journey to East Lansing each January to recruit at the school’s career fair.
New packaging grads’ average starting wage is $51,500, compared to the university average of $42,500.
Packaging professionals can command high salaries because — with the notable exception of iTunes — consumer products produced in one area cannot be sold in another area without packaging, Hotchkiss said.
Packaging and distributing beer costs about 50 times more than the ingredients necessary to brew it, Hotchkiss said. However, without packaging, beer would be a puddle on the floor.
Hotchkiss was brought in 2 1/2 years ago from Cornell University, where he chaired the Department of Food Science, to “re-energize” the School of Packaging and fortify its commitment to research.
The school recently obtained a grant from the National Institutes of Health to find ways to improve packaging of medical supplies. It got a Food and Drug Administration grant to develop packaging that more clearly communicates nutritional information and better protects food.
The packaging that nobody thinks about is at the interface of a lot of hot-button issues including public health, criminal justice, consumer behavior, intellectual property law and economics.
“We want to continue driving market-disrupting innovations in packaging,” Hotchkiss said. “We want to show industry the things they could be doing in five years. Our job isn’t to decide which way the world should go because that’s a business decision. But it’s up to us to develop the stuff that changes the landscape.”
In 2009, the School of Packaging received a $400,000 grant from Coca-Cola to help establish the Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability to serve as a think tank, research and education hub to reduce packaging’s environmental impact.
Research areas include nanocomposites, radio frequency identification, pharmaceutical packaging and packaging automotive parts for dealerships and repair shops.
The hottest new research involves bio-based polymers. A promising new material is polylactic acid, a product of fermentation, but there are cost and performance hurdles.
Satisfactorily incorporating cellulose fibers to reduce the amount of petrochemical used in packaging by as little as 20 percent would have a tremendous impact the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, Hotchkiss said.
“When people first started talking in terms of sustainability, packaging people kind of shrugged their shoulders and rolled their eyes,” said Suzanne Fisher, a 1983 School of Packaging graduate and past chair of the alumni association. “We thought we’d been doing that since the beginning of time.”
Conscious of the bottom line, packaging professionals have always used the least amount of material needed to protect a product, Fisher said. They always refrain from mixing plastics, foams and papers to facilitate recycling.
Even before sustainability became a buzzword, Fisher says her commitment to conserving resources deepened while working at Herman Miller in Zeeland. She is now director of sustainable packaging business development for Pratt Industries in Grand Rapids. The company manufactures paper products from recycled corrugated boxes and office paper.
When Fisher started at Pratt three years ago, 40 percent of bid requests asked questions about the company’s commitment to sustainability. Now it’s 100 percent, some going so far as to ask the company the size of its carbon footprint, Fisher said.
The school’s faculty is regularly sought out by for-profit local, national and international companies of all sizes to find packaging and distribution solutions for tough problems. Faculty address many of those challenges as senior design projects, giving students real-world experience and saving companies big bucks for consulting.
Chevrolet was so excited about the quality of work students produced on projects associated with its Camaro that it brought students to Detroit and allowed them to drive Camaros on a test track.
The school does a considerable amount of economic outreach, but has no formal commitment to do so, Hotchkiss said.
If he was granted one wish, he says it might be having a faculty member designated for helping business and industry.
The reality, he said, is that the school has only 16 faculty members, giving it one of the highest student-to-instructor ratios in the university. Many faculty already advise foreign and domestic companies on tough packaging issues like fragility assessment, permeability, shelf life, tamper evidence, biomedical equipment, and food quality and safety.
The school just doesn’t have the person power or lab space to catch every ball tossed its way, Hotchkiss said.
Through MSU’s Study Abroad program, many packaging majors spend time at linked partners in Japan, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom, among other countries.
Hotchkiss made four trips to China in 2010 to explore opening a School of Packaging in Shanghai, but MSU has not yet moved forward.
Hotchkiss defines packaging as a technical system for distributing and marketing products.
Notice that he doesn’t talk in terms of cardboard boxes, plastic, glass, metal or cartons.
Yes, packaging is important to prepare products for storage and shipment, but it’s also essential for communicating product information and reinforcing branding, he said.
People used to view packaging in terms of “what consumers see first,” but today, consumers are apt to have a stronger reaction to the packaging left behind when the product is used up, Hotchkiss said. If products are similar in quality and price, consumers buy the one in the eco-friendly package.
“We’re trying to educate the world that the package should be conceptualized from the very moment the product is,” Hotchkiss said. “There’s really no separating the two.”
The School of Packaging’s 530 undergraduate students and 100 graduate students take courses in chemistry, calculus, biology and business.
They need an academic background similar to an engineer’s because packaging solutions that seem simple can actually be complex. How do you melt a plastic bag just enough to seal it shut without damaging the pretzels inside, and without making it difficult for consumers to open the bag during a snack attack?
Last fall, 50 freshmen had already declared a packaging major, bucking the historical trend of trying packaging after deciding against another major.
Fisher’s first major was accounting, but it did not come easy, despite considerable effort. Her son Matthew, in contrast, declared a packaging major when he entered MSU. He graduated in May and began work in August as a packaging engineer at Smuckers’ Jif peanut butter plant in Kentucky.
To stay on the cutting edge, the School of Packaging is hiking its math requirement. Students will take more math classes and have to achieve higher grades in those classes to be packaging majors, Hotchkiss said.
It’s also requiring students to take more computer-assisted design. Esko Artwork, a global package design company, donated $2.1 million in equipment and software so students can better learn to develop packaging in a virtual environment.
The school is also weighing feedback from its active alumni group to decide whether students would be better served by taking more or different business courses. Alumni say they find themselves functioning broadly, with engineers and marketing directors reporting to them. Students may benefit from having to manage a multi-layered project, Hotchkiss said.
Fisher says she got a “fantastic” education in the School of Packaging, and has had many opportunities to support and enhance that education through the alumni association.
Class sizes have grown since her years on campus, but the school remains small by university standards.
“My only concern is that they’re now teaching the introductory class online,” Fisher said. “Online courses are popular with students, but I think it’s different with packaging. You have to get to know the materials.”
Breaking Out of the Box
Building a better box inspires the cutting edge of packaging science, and Michigan State University School of Packaging Professor Rafael Auras is there.
Auras and MSU graduate students are working with research partners around the globe to create polymeric structures from renewable resources that can be used for packaging.
The goal is to create bio-based new materials that perform as well as the petroleum-based plastics to which consumers are accustomed, but negate or at least reduce the carbon footprint.
But there’s more to it than that.Auras’ group seeks to produce packaging that is truly affordable, recyclable, and actually enhances products.
“We are reaching a point where new technologies are cost-competitive,” said Auras, who is among the half of School of Packaging faculty who are foreign-born. “There is momentum to start using new materials.”
Much of the research focuses on the synthesis, properties and processing methods of polylactic acid, a promising family of degradable plastics. PLA is a polymer derived from starch and extracted from corn.
PLA shows some beneficial applications for packaging of fresh produce and ready-to-eat meals, but there are drawbacks, including brittleness.
Auras’ group is improving PLA’s properties by blending it with other bio-based materials like thermoplastic cassava starch. Modifying the materials is improving its functionality, Auras said.
They are also experimenting with functional membranes that trigger the release of antioxidants or antimicrobials to extend the shelf life of products.
Assessing and quantifying the life cycle of packaging materials and their environmental footprint are essential before pilot programs are planned and packaging processes are commercialized, Auras said.
School of Packaging faculty work with commodities groups and companies to design better packaging with a focus on sustainability. Groups can license the use of innovations evolving out of research they sponsored. If they pass on licensing, the new ideas can be licensed by others.
The professor currently holds six patents. Many others are in process in the U.S. Patent Office, he said.
“Problems today are so complex that it would be very difficult for one researcher, or one institution, to address everything,” Auras said. “Collaboration with people in different parts of the world, who have different strengths and expertise, always helps. It’s the way to get better science out there.”
— Kym Reinstadler, MiBiz