The Intersection of Technology, Design and Packaging: What We Can Learn From a Rochester Institute of Technology Professor
Our Ashley Joyce had the opportunity to interview Rochester Institute of Technology’s Assistant Professor Packaging Science, Carlos Diaz about how technology impacts his packaging students, the role design plays in packaging and what he envisions as the future of packaging.
As students continue to enroll in RIT’s packaging program, Diaz has noticed changes not only in his student’s interests within the packaging realm but also the connection between designers and packaging engineers in terms of technology and software. This interview dives further into what students are currently learning, trends within packaging and what challenges consumer packaged goods companies are facing.
AJ: Out of curiosity, what are students’ expectations when they enter the program? Beyond packaging engineering, are there additional career paths in packaging?
CD: At the beginning, we had very few freshmen that came into college saying, “Okay, I'm going to be a packaging engineer.” The program grew from transfers – for example, a mechanical engineer that didn't like his major transferred into this program. Otherwise, the program traveled through word of mouth.
Nowadays, we have more true freshmen, and a lot of times it's somebody in their family that knew somebody in the packaging industry. And we even have kids visiting— juniors from high school, and they're talking about designing packaging and they know what they're talking about, so that's impressive. There seems to be more awareness regarding a career in packaging.
I teach a class about ArtiosCAD and Illustrator and I’ve noticed that we have more and more graphic designers and industrial designers taking the class. What happens is that a student participates in cooperative education (academic credit for structured job experience), or they take an internship, and they realize that they need the technology and skill to be more competitive. Many realize, “Hey, the packaging industry is really a big part of my work,” so they come back to school and they minor in packaging or gain skills like ArtiosCAD to be more competitive when they graduate.
AJ: It sounds like the need and desire to learn packaging technology is imperative for designers looking to succeed in today’s business world. Has this always been the case?
CD: So one thing that I used to hear before was that certain packaging software packages were not very common, especially in small companies or medium companies. So upon graduation, when students enter their careers they become messengers saying, “Oh, why don't we get this software package that is going to help us streamline certain things or do this easier?” I think that was the conversation before. But now I think these tools are already in place, and it's an expectation that you should come in, know them and be ready to use them. These software technologies are permeating into all industries, at all the different levels for small, medium and bigger companies.
AJ: Interesting. So can you give me a brief synopsis of what your packaging students are currently learning in class?
CD: Sure. To start, I teach a materials class that is polymer science oriented. For context, polymer science is a subfield of materials science – looking specifically at synthetic polymers such as plastics or elastomers. Polymers are materials used in packaging, so it’s important for students to better understand material selection process in packaging. In this particular class, students choose a material that they study in depth throughout the semester. Lately, students are very interested to see if bio‑based polymers will be the next trend for packaging materials.
Now, in our design classes, students participate in national competitions and design competitions; it's getting very competitive, very professional. If you see some of the student submissions, they have well put together prototypes. They have a marketing plan. They have videos now. The deliverables for those projects are changing; in the past, it was maybe a PowerPoint presentation, now it is a YouTube video.
For example, if you’re redesigning a package, you have to show that it has better cube utilization — less use of material, less energy. And you have to show all these things in a very innovative and modern way, so students are putting together something very visual, and in that case, they need to rely on new software and ways to deliver that high-impact prototype and presentation. So the new package they create is not only fancy, but the project is as well; the bar has been set, and they have to deliver at that level.
AJ: Wow. Presentations have changed a lot since I was in college then. (Laughs) With all these fancy presentation materials, it sounds like packaging students are practicing their marketing skills as well.
CD: Yes, you could say that. The way these projects are put together, students are acting like packaging engineers, marketers and graphic designers. They’re selling their package and presentation to the judges.
AJ: So you have students putting together prototypes and running iterations on packaging. How many times do they normally run through the process?
CD: It depends on the student. When they come to the end of their first iteration, and it falls apart, they obviously start over. But with the new virtual capabilities, we can see a nice 3D render of what's going on and put it on the shelf and it gives us the opportunity to iterate more even before we do a physical prototype. But there are definitely a number of iterations there, and when seniors are working on interdisciplinary projects where they compete or something, then there are even more iterations.
AJ: Where do you see the direction of packaging moving in the future? How about the Doritos bag you can blow in, that’s like a breathalyzer that tells you that you've had too much to drink? What do you think is the next packaging innovation?
CD: We talk about smart packaging, time and temperature indicators or these spoilage indicators, and we do test things from the industry. A lot of times it depends whether the cost goes down enough that we can implement the technology without a major investment.
So digital printing right now is a big thing, a big reality. You see it now — even soda bottles customized with different names; each bottle can be tailored to a specific event. For example, a major beverage company may create a special packaging design for the Super Bowl or something like that, right? That’s nothing too crazy, but what if you can implement that same concept for a high school event somewhere; you can just preorder your sodas with a unique design for a small group. In the past, that wouldn’t have been possible, but with digital printing, you could do that – tailor the colors and packaging.
AJ: So that's the future of packaging –
CD: I think that customization is going to keep growing and growing. And then we've got to keep working on universal access: childproofing and packaging for people with certain handicaps such as arthritis, or for the visually impaired, etc. I think that also is going to continue to move forward.
AJ: What about consumer packaged goods (CPG) players – what changes do you see for brands? I know you mentioned digital printing, but anything specific to CPGs?
CD: I think it's a lot about branding for CPGs. The big players are buying smaller players who are more socially conscious because customers are changing their buying preferences. And from a retail perspective, there’s a lot of changes. The big retail players want stuff now display-ready in the store.
AJ: Sure and what about speed to market?
CD: Oh, that's imperative. That's what everybody wants, speed to market, speed to market, how can we beat the competition and get something out there or how fast can we brainstorm an idea and put it on the shelf as quickly as possible. And that’s huge because everybody is getting good at it.
AJ: If they're all getting faster, what's going to help them differentiate themselves?
CD: There’s always trends within packaging. For instance, there was a time when packaging was shiny but now brands want everything to look artisan and have a different texture. The CPGs constantly play catch‑up with these trends to give a different look to their products. How can you communicate feelings within the packaging is always a question. Essentially, it goes hand in hand with technology, because this new technology gives you the opportunity to create a new look, a new feel, a new texture and helps you translate that to the consumer.