There are likely few packaging schools with a basketball hoop in the lab like at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, home of the Sycamores. Maybe it’s part of the lengthy shadow cast by one of the university’s most famous alumni, Hall of Famer Larry Bird.
The ISU staff acknowledges that it’s going to have to move the hoop, though, but not because it’s inappropriate. Rather, the hoop is mounted uncomfortably close to the packaging lab’s latest donation, a Kongsberg AutoCAD die cutter donated by the ICPF (see sidebar below) that precision-cuts paperboard and corrugated. Rare is the student who can shoot with Bird-like accuracy, especially when the hoop is “guarded” by large equipment.
With 10 graduates in 2004 and 30 graduates this year, the program—which has a strong emphasis in nonfood, transport, and distribution packaging—is gaining momentum.
Certainly, the scope of ISU’s packaging program pales against the likes of larger programs such as at Michigan State University. Yet, it appears that on a per-student basis, ISU may have one of the more successful contract R&D programs in packaging education.
The packaging curriculum, which can lead to a bachelor of science degree in packaging, boasts a high degree of personal attention. “All our students get to work on everything,” says department head Marion Schafer, PhD, gesturing to the well-equipped packaging lab that includes vibratory and compression testers, moisture-barrier analytical equipment for film, tensile-strength tester, and a host of other instruments large and small. It’s quite a lineup.
Schafer, who spent 19 years working for the local Pillsbury operation before leaving the Doughboy’s environs for the Sycamores’, has a game plan that uses the equipment to help bring real-world, hands-on research in-house—the Indiana Packaging Research & Development Center. Formed last year, the Center is managed by Alex Hagedorn, an International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) certified packaging laboratory professional technologist, one of only 75 CPLPs in the world. “It’s the only ISTA-certified packaging test lab in Indiana at a not-for-profit institution, and there are only a handful of private labs in the state,” adds Schafer. He says that the center has attracted business from companies outside Indiana, too.
The Center’s primary services include package testing (ISTA, TAPPI, and ASTM), package material testing, package design, and package troubleshooting. For the latter, research projects—some done for a fee, some for free, notes Schafer—have been undertaken by companies such as Pfizer, Rexam, and others (see sidebar). For example, some recent projects:
• developed consumer protection for products with sharp blades,
• discovered why lids on jars of powdered product were loosening in transit,
• redesigned threads on leaky shampoo bottles,
• investigated why ketchup bottle closures were loosening,
• developed packaging for the launch of wild salmon jerky by a company in Alaska.
The projects have proven beneficial not only for the students’ education and for the clients, but also for ISU coffers. The center has proven so successful that the packaging lab is already poised to become financially self-sufficient through fees for the industry-sponsored studies. It’s likely that not many university labs can make this claim.
To top things off, ISU no longer proactively solicits industry involvement; instead companies are approaching them, Schafer notes.
The research is not only mutually beneficial, it can be quite hip, too: ISU students have evaluated protective packaging for artificial hips. In a test conducted late last year, students determined that packaging they constructed for Frito-Lay Doritos tortilla chips provided longer shelf life than packaging for Fritos corn chips.
Other recent highlights include the following:
Internet classwork—In early 2005, Schafer established online coursework that makes possible a packaging degree earned over the Internet. Eight packaging courses are now available. Students enrolled in the courses are from all over the country, from California to Texas to Pennsylvania.
Packaging simulation—ISU has initiated software development that simulates packaging lines. “Do it on a computer rather than through trial and error,” Schafer suggests. A mechanical engineering professor is handling that effort.
Radio-frequency identification—ISU is leveraging interest in this hottest of all topics. This new course is being offered through ISU’s Electronics and Computer Technology Department.
Unlike most universities, ISU’s biggest challenge isn’t funding and support. Rather, it’s drawing students into the program, according to Schafer. “If we can get a student to try one packaging course, then we can hook him or her,” he claims. The program also boasts a job-placement rate that is “virtually 100 percent,” he adds.
One of those placements is Kyle Young, who earned a bachelor of science degree in Packaging Technology from ISU in 2001 and is now a packaging engineer with Grote Industries, Madison, IN. “When I graduated in 2001, there were more packaging jobs available than there were students,” says Young, who remains highly appreciative of his ISU education.
“The ISU packaging program provided a broad range of courses and hands-on lab work that reflected true industry situations and packaging solutions,” says Young. “ISU also provides excellent networking opportunities with various companies that allow students to take advantage of internships. I was able to intern with International Paper, Lear Corp., and Grote Industries prior to beginning my professional career.”
Schafer remains impressed by the level of support within the packaging community from companies such as Eli Lilly and others. Schafer, who handles contributions for four programs in ISU’s School of Industrial and Mechanical Technology, says the packaging community has been the most generous. “I commend all those companies who support packaging education,” he says. That’s a nice assist—something that Larry Bird would also appreciate.