RIT is confronting the global challenges of sustainability through interdisciplinary programs that integrate engineering and science with economics and public policy.
RIT has a long history of expertise in an extremely important if little thought of component of product delivery: packaging.
From spaghetti sauce to televisions to medicine to nuclear materials, the packaging used to hold and transport items is nearly as important as the contents themselves. The university is currently partnering with American Packaging Corporation (APC), a longtime industrial leader in the field, to develop innovations in packaging science that can improve the overall quality of an innumerable variety of products.
"The physical failure of a package can destroy the value of an entire product," notes Dan Johnson, chair of Department of Packaging Science. "RIT and APC are combining their expertise in the field to develop novel materials, designs, and processes that will improve packaging quality and product delivery."
Thanks to an initial $1 million gift from APC, RIT established the Center for Packaging Innovation in 2007. Earlier this year, APC committed to an additional $1.2 million gift to upgrade equipment and facilities and enhance research and training programs being conducted through the center.
"The development and implementation of new materials and applications is critical to the continued success of both APC and the packaging industry as a whole," says Peter Schottland, CEO of American Packaging. "Our continued collaboration with RIT just makes good business sense."
The center conducts work in applied research, industrial training, and education with a particular focus on sustainability. This includes efforts to develop and test novel green materials such as biodegradable polymers and recyclable plastics. It has also partnered with other organizations to advance multiple aspects of packaging design, including a collaboration with NASA to develop flexible protective packaging for critical space hardware.
"Packaging design can be an extremely complex task because numerous factors play into how a package looks and the materials that must be enclosed," notes Changfeng Ge, professor of packaging science at RIT. "We are creating scientifically accurate and reliable methods for assessing the needs of a particular product and then designing a package that meets that need, sustainably and inexpensively."
The center also works closely with RIT's bachelor's and master's degree programs in packaging science to assist students in improving design thinking, analysis, and prototyping skills. For example, the center has partnered with RIT's Department of Industrial Design to host an annual student design competition that pairs student teams with corporate partners to improve the packaging for current products. Previous company participants for the competition include General Mills, Kraft, and Colgate-Palmolive. "One of our central goals is creating a new generation of packaging scientists and engineers who have the skills and expertise necessary to develop the next novel technology," adds Johnson. "Our students are one of the most important 'innovations' we produce."
Moving forward, RIT and APC hope to expand their research program with the development of a new center devoted to sustainable packaging. The effort will include multiple corporate sponsors and will focus on the implementation of materials and designs that specifically lower the overall environmental footprint of products.
"In many cases, the package contains the most waste of any portion of a product," Ge says. "We want to expand on our previous work in green materials and design to produce leaner, greener packaging designs that accomplish the same goal with less waste."
Johnson notes that the future direction of the center is in part based on the continued feedback on industry trends the partnership with APC provides.
"APC is on the front lines and understands the current needs of the industry," he adds. "Through our partnership we can take that knowledge and infuse it through the education and research we conduct on campus, providing innovative and timely solutions to the pressing problems the industry faces."