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Packaging at Clemson poised to roar louder

Clemson University is poised for a major expansion with the Sonoco Institute.

Pw 8174 Clem Trio

There’s a growing roar of excitement on the campus of Clemson University, Clemson, SC, home of the Tigers. Rather than for athletics, it centers on the packaging science and graphic comunications programs. Clemson is planning for a major expansion as the direct beneficiaries of the Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics (see

Clemson University president James F. Barker has said that the institute will strengthen educational and economic opportunities in South Carolina. “This gift will allow us to create the nation’s first formal collaboration between the disciplines of packaging science and graphic communications.”

Now anchored by two major gifts from longtime Clemson supporters Sonoco Products Co. and Harris A. Smith, the institute will be one of Clemson’s Crown Jewels and be unequalled anywhere in North America, according to the university. The institute will foster and facilitate cross-disciplinary education, and stimulate research in packaging science, graphic communications, and other related areas.

“The new focus on Packaging Design and Graphics, when combined with Clemson’s existing core competencies, will provide the opportunity for the Sonoco Institute to provide global leadership in packaging and graphics innovation,” says Robert Kimmel, who earlier this year was named Packaging Science Department Chair in addition to remaining the director of Clemson’s Center for Flexible Packaging.

The institute will encompass a two-building complex. Ground-breaking for Phase I will take place in November and occupancy will occur in December 2008. The second building is currently being planned in terms of its size, design, funding and delivery.

According to Kimmel, the 30,000 sq-ft Phase I institute building (see illustration) will house three main laboratories: a state-of-the art computer-aided design lab; a package prototyping laboratory capable of using paperboard, corrugated board, plastics and other materials; and a printing laboratory that will house a wide variety of small-scale printing equipment.

Says Kimmel, “These laboratories will strengthen Clemson’s abilities for both teaching and research in areas such as: new printing technologies; RFID; sustainable packaging through source reduction; new materials from renewable sources and innovative biodegradable materials; innovative combinations of existing materials; and others.”

Kimmel emphasizes that although the expansion may allow small increases in undergraduate enrollment, the primary goal of the Institute will permit undergraduates a richer, more comprehensive experience, including training in package design and prototyping.

Adds Sam Ingram, chair of the Graphic Communications Dept., “the Institute will permit the university to address more formally the initiatives from its industry partners and enhance the student experience. We can offer a unique program that will take them far into their careers. There is nothing but a brighter future and opportunity for our graduates as we move forward. We have a lot of enthusiasm as we embark on this new journey of collaboration that is not typically found at a university, at least in a formal sense.”

Institute director Tonkin’s take

Over the summer, we caught up with some of the key university personnel involved in this major expansion. These included Chip Tonkin, who already had a close association personally and professionally with the university when he was named as the Sonoco Institute’s first director in July.

“I can’t hide the fact that I’m a Clemson Tiger fan, and I’m absolutely ecstatic about rejoining Clemson,” he tells Packaging World.

Tonkin graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in computer science from Clemson in 1992, earned his Master’s in 1994, and is currently working on his Ph.D. Since 1999, he has overseen International Paper’s prepress operations right across the street from the Clemson campus.

Tonkin outlines his goals as director:

First Goal: Leverage packaging and graphics synergies

The initial, short-term goal of the Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics is to take advantage of the synergies between those two departments, he says. “They’re in different colleges, and have not done nearly as much together as they could have. With a joint appointment, I’m part of both departments. My first goal is to facilitate more joint projects because the packaging and the printing side fit together so well. Both departments will benefit from this.”

Second Goal: Inter-departmental and industry familiarization

“A second goal as institute director is to become very familiar with what kind of research is going on in other parts of the campus,” says Tonkin. “I need to understand what industry wants now, what they want five years from now, and what they want 10 years from now, and then put those things together.”

Third Goal: Tie those two goals together.

“Our overall goal is to tie together industry’s current needs and what it wants in the future with what we can provide as an academic institution,” he says.

In addition to bringing exciting new initiatives and research under roof, he says the institute will boost current research efforts.

One of those is in printed electronics, a segment with tremendous potential that Tonkin says is projected for upwards of a $200 billion market in the next 20 years.

“This really builds on strengths that we have in graphics and in packaging and elsewhere here at Clemson,” Tonkin points out. “Researchers are developing the chemistry behind this in materials science. In electrical engineering, there are strengths in circuit design and that sort of thing. We can draw upon those strengths and uniquely position our studies—and do it soon. There is no other program doing that.” He estimates that they probably have about a two-year window to put together a one-of-a-kind printed electronics program and curriculum.

The institute sparks further opportunities, according to Tonkin. “Another focus is on sustainability and product lifecycles. As a land-grant institution, Clemson has a particular responsibility towards agriculture research and responsible land use. This gives us a unique vantage point and scope when addressing a sustainability project—thus truly having the ability to go cradle-to-cradle.”

For example, Clemson researchers are looking at the ability of planted tobacco to produce polymers instead of tobacco for traditional uses. Another potential research project is designing and optimizing the harvest, processing, and packaging of certain types of fruit products to insure that the nutraceutical value is maintained.

Clemson looks to strengthen industry ties that it has benefited from over the years, but it is also looking for increased interaction with consumer packaged goods companies, according to Tonkin. “Consumer product companies are going to be much more involved than they have been in the past because we’ve got to look beyond the printers, converters, and raw materials suppliers. I think we’ll have a lot of industry involvement, particularly in phase two, where we will depend on the support from these types of companies.”

Change is also ahead for some of Clemson’s current facilities. Phase II of the institute building will house both of the departments including all offices, laboratories, classrooms, as well as the industrial testing and training operations.

Thanks to the generosity of its benefactors, the Sonoco Institute will be a crowning achievement for the future of the packaging and graphics programs at Clemson University.


To hear more, listen to the accompanying audio interview with Clemson's Chip Tonkin, Podcast: Clemson University's Sonoco Institute.


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