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Slaying the technology beast

Packaging engineers must grapple with increasingly complex packaging technologies while simultaneously mastering the science of line efficiency to squeeze out costs in an ultra-competitive future.
FILED IN:  Machinery  > Labeling

Titles don't mean the same thing at all companies as Packaging World editors quickly learned during the dozens of interviews conducted for Packaging 2000. But in our effort to delineate the skills attributes and experience that will be required in a packaging engineer this report has in mind the plant-level packaging engineer someone employed by a hypothetical mid-sized company large enough to support a separate packaging R&D staff. In this report we'll concentrate on an engineer whose function is to maintain improve alter integrate and specify packaging machinery for the packaging operations of a specific plant. One trend has become clear: Even in companies large enough to support a corporate R&D effort engineers are now expected to possess some of the same skills traditionally viewed as necessary primarily in the R&D department. Materials expertise is a good example. "Equipment engineers are being asked to know more about the runnability of materials on machines" says Jim Jeselnick president of Quality Search a head-hunter firm that specializes in packaging personnel. "That to me is the number one demand that plant-level engineers are being faced with." More than core Among the experts that PW interviewed for this report all agreed that the core knowledge areas will continue to be important in 2000. Theron Downes associate director at Michigan State University's school of packaging says the schools must continue to work to supply graduates that can hit the ground running. "Some companies would like graduates who come out and begin designing boxes in a couple of weeks" says Downes. "Similarly thermoformers would like grads to be able to develop parts quickly. And converters would like grads to be fluent in printing inks and compatibility. Everybody in a subset of packaging would likely tell you the knowledge base is not adequate for their particular corner of the business." However there's a sense that to be truly successful in the next millenium packaging engineers will have to bring much more than just the core knowledge to the table. "One of the most important skills that will be required in the future is the ability to analyze a situation by defining a problem and then having the ability to solve it" says Kenneth Neuburg packaging program director at University of Wisconson-Stout. MSU's Downes concurs: "Today no one is hiring college graduates for knowledge; analytical capability thinking creativity problem-solving yes." And the central problem to be solved by packaging engineers in 2000? Reducing costs. "In the future assignments to packaging engineers will be: 'Reduce the costs of this package by such and such'" predicts David Tressler plant superintendent Dakota Growers Pasta Co. Carrington ND. Engineers will be able to write their own tickets if they've mastered the science of removing unnecessary costs from the packaging operation with surgical precision and without compromising quality or productivity. It will require not only a highly developed technical understanding of materials and machines but a firm grasp of other factors including the characteristics of the product the skill level of the labor the particulars of the distribution system and the quality expectations of customers and the final consumer. Such broad-based thinking requires a shift in mindset says Kevin Howard a Hewlett-Packard packaging engineer who pioneered an unorthodox rapid prototyping process to develop foam end caps using half the material recommended by traditional cushion curves (see Packaging World Aug. '96 p. 26). "It was just a different mentality the difference between saying are you hired to design a package or are you being hired to get a product from point A to point B at the lowest cost possible with no damage?" In light of this different way of thinking Howard had his title changed from packaging engineer to packaging logistics engineer. "It's more encompassing of what I do. I don't just design the package; rather I'm designing whole ways of getting the lowest cost possible." Though companies demand packaging engineers with cost-cutting savvy engineers often don't have the time or resources to develop it. "Almost 99 out of 100 engineers that I talk to wish they could do more with cost savings because they get more job satisfaction out of it" says head-hunter Jim Jeselnick. "But they're so busy troubleshooting that many times cost savings gets pushed further and further down the list of priorities." Increasing line efficiency Akin to cutting costs is increasing line efficiency which encompasses everything from minimizing waste to increasing output to reducing fixed labor costs. But it all starts with knowing the product. "You really must understand your business and your product more than anything" says Greg Raco operations technical manager at an Ocean Spray juice plant in Henderson NV. "For example juice is different than water is different than soda. All have a whole different set of circumstances and issues that you've got to be familiar with when you design your equipment." Raco cautions against the over-reliance on packaging equipment vendors' experience in a given product area. "An equipment vendor can't learn everybody's business to the point where they can come in and build you the ideal system" he says. A system-wide perspective of the packaging line will be critical before an engineer will be able to zero in on a specific piece of equipment that needs improvement or replacement to boost efficiency according to Dakota Growers Tressler. Thinking big is important before thinking small. He says it will be important to consider the architecture capabilities and limitations of the line as a whole before focusing on a specific component. Applying technology Implicit in the twin notions of cutting costs and improving efficiency is the ability to understand new technology and how to apply it in the plant. Using such technology to detect a line's weak points will become more valuable in 2000 and beyond. Ocean Spray's Raco provides an example: "One of our goals is to drastically reduce material loss and product giveaway" he explains. By tying flow meters into machine PLCs that are integrated into a plant database Raco's staff is able to track product at several critical points along the line. "Now we can understand that if we're losing 1/4% at the filler and 2% at the labeler well let's go attack the labeler" he says. "The better the data you get the more aggressive you can be at eradicating problems." He emphasizes the value of using technology to supply information quickly. "We need to analyze our data not a month later but within a couple of days of the production run so we can go back out into the plant while the same product is running and determine whether the data really reflects what's going on in the environment." The engineer who can deploy technology to help generate required documentation of a production run such as batch records and quality data required in the pharmaceutical industry will be increasingly in demand. Rick O'Connell vp/general manager for pharmaceutical copacker CP Packaging in Jamesburg NJ describes the challenge: "We have to generate accountability documentation for a product packaging component or labels in a very short period of time after a production run. Now how are we going to do that? [The required skill] would be to engineer some sort of system that can work with the machine to help produce that paperwork." Bar coding is big The ability to understand bar coding and related automatic identification technologies will be another key area for the plant-level packaging engineer. This will become especially true as more industries begin to copy the initiative popularized in the grocery industry as efficient consumer response (ECR). ECR relies heavily on technology to allow consumer demand registered by the grocery industry to drive production scheduling at food processing plants as directly as possible. Such a streamlined approach starts with the scanning of a bar-coded package at the supermarket checkout counter. The ability to employ bar coding within a plant for inventory control purposes will also be coveted in tomorrow's packaging engineer. While ECR has the potential to benefit the overall company it cannot match the benefit of inventory control for directly affecting a plant's ability to control its bottom line. Bringing a knowledge of bar coding from past projects to a new job or plant is especially valuable because of the perceived amount of time it takes to learn the subject and implement the technology in a way that justifies its investment. "I would like to have more bar coding for inventory control" laments CP Packaging's Rick O'Connell. "But I think people are scared off because of the amount of time it might take to learn. [Someone with bar coding experience] would be a big benefit because then you don't have to go through such a terrible learning curve." Understanding PLC capabilities While understanding control technology will be important packaging engineers will not be expected to become programmers. "Packaging engineers must understand PLC systems more according to their capabilities the flexibility they provide and the things that they can do for you" says David Tressler. Greg Raco agrees: "A packaging engineer doesn't need to know how to write the ladder logic but he needs to be able to say to a programmer 'This is how I want my line to work.' Or 'These are the problems I have.' He needs to understand how the technology can be applied in his facility or in his company." PLCs are typically programmed by technical specialists from the equipment vendor. The ability to go in and correct a problem in the middle of a production run is more the responsibility of packaging mechanics (see PW Oct. '96 p. 64). "Mechanics must get into a system find out what the problem is and make the adjustments" says Rick O'Connell. "Sometimes the problem is something that's only inherent in the program. Now do packaging mechanics and engineers have to understand how to program these things? No I don't think that's the point" he says. Results of a research study into components conducted by Packaging World published last month (see PW Oct. '96 p. 76) bears out how packaging engineers view PLCs. While 40% of respondents specified PLCs for their equipment only 12.6% specified the control language suggesting that it's a decision that's typically left to suppliers or in large companies corporate-level engineers. Though packaging engineers won't have to learn the nitty gritty of programming PLCs they will be expected to come to the job with a full complement of computer skills. The packaging schools have all recognized this and are going out of their way to make sure graduates come out with a significant degree of computer literacy. For example a course at Rochester Institute of Technology covers packaging-specific software for optimum sizing of packages and pallets process control equipment and line simulation and specifications preparation. Computer-aided design (CAD) software has become increasingly important reflected by the fact that many schools have dedicated an entire course to it. While a knowledge of CAD software will likely be more valuable to packaging R&D personnel for package design packaging engineers can also benefit from CAD skills for line design. Packaging line simulation software will become an increasingly important tool in 2000 and beyond. "It permits an engineer to be able to play 'what if' games" explains Bob Testin associate professor of packaging science at Clemson University. "You'll be able to optimize the entire line graphically in three dimensions and play with it and break it. Because it's a lot cheaper to break it in a simulation than in real life." "Simulation software appears to answer questions before we get into building the actual hardware" agrees David Tressler. "My industrial engineering society is pushing it as a new area for industrial engineers to get into." He says that there are consultants that packaging engineers can bring in who specialize in simulation software. Keeping up with keeping up As the pace of innovation accelerates so must an engineer's ability to keep tabs on new developments in the field. Reading trade journals is a start but the sheer quantity of information requires a plan of attack to keep from being overwhelmed. "Knowledge is changing so quickly that engineers must develop a system for keeping up to date on machines and materials" suggests Owen Schweers director of packaging at Perdue Farms. Related to the ability to keep current is the ability to find information. In fact there are those who argue that keeping up with new developments becomes significantly less important than being able to find the right information-and the most current-at the right time. The most radical change in the way packaging engineers will obtain information will be by using the Internet. An entire landfill could be filled with all the hype that's been printed about the Internet but that doesn't deter Paul G. Russell corporate packaging program manager at Hewlett-Packard's Palo Alto CA headquarters. In fact he rates understanding information technology as the number one skill area that will be required for packaging personnel in 2000 and beyond. Specifically that means understanding and using electronic mail and Internet web sites to stay in touch and exchange information rapidly with suppliers and colleagues. "I've found that the packaging graduates that have come out with some computer background experience have accelerated much more in the company because they know how to search the web to get the latest information. They know how to electronically transfer drawings from R&D to suppliers and so forth." Schweers has a slightly different take on the ability to find information. For him it's not what you know it's who you know. He believes packaging engineers will need to become the general practitioners of the packaging field just as GPs function in the medical profession. They'll have to call in the expert just as a GP would call on an internist podiatrist or neurosurgeon when the need arises. And the experts engineers will call on will be increasingly machine and material suppliers. That puts the onus on packaging engineers to polish and refine the one skill that many packaging experts predict will be the most important skill at the start of the next century: the ability to communicate clearly in writing and in speech. "That's the first thing clients ask for" says head-hunter Jeselnick. In writing that might mean the ability to clearly articulate a justification of a capital equipment project. In speech it means communicating plant requirements objectives or limitations to packaging R&D personnel at the corporate level; listening to the needs of mechanics and operators on the plant floor; communicating with the plant manager about how packaging fits into th eplant's overall objectives; keeping the lines open among peers in departments ranging from purchasing to processing; and finally articulating the company's vision for packaging performance to suppliers. Implicit in all of this is the greatly coveted ability to work well in multi-disciplinary teams. MSU's Downes says recruiters put a heavy emphasis on this. "Where 30 years ago recruiters would assess the technical abilities of our graduates today they ask whether students have worked in teams." "Packaging is a real cross-functional platform" says HP's Paul Russell. "It means you've got to work with marketing manufacturing R&D process engineers and warehous-ing/logistics people. You have to be able to communicate with those organizations to be successful." Ocean Spray's Greg Raco summarizes: "As technology becomes more complicated the packaging engineer has to be able to work with the rest of the organization to be able to articulate what skills and systems are going to be required. The ability to communicate clearly becomes overlooked as you ratchet up and buy more expensive and more complicated pieces of equipment." Marketing smarts In the crush of trying to comprehend how new technology can be deployed for a plant- and product-specific application packaging engineers must not forget the consumer argues Mark Niemiec vp/director of packaging at Campbell Soup Co. "A greater awareness of how the package is going to be used by the ultimate consumer will be more important" he says. "Without this awareness the engineer of the future will be viewed less as a partner and more as a mere technocrat." Bruce Edwards a sales rep for CCL Label a materials supplier concludes with a starker view: "Often times I think [packaging engineers] would be much more valuable and more revered if they took a little bit of a marketing mindset and incorporated it with their technical expertise." He decries the packaging engineer's aversion to a wacky idea from marketing-ideas that have the potential to sell lots of product. "Let's face it there's no need for packaging engineers if nobody sells anything." c

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