The New Norm - Va Tech Pallet Lab Undergoes Changes
Virginia Tech's Center for Unit Load Design and Sardo Pallet Lab restructure as university launches major packaging program, hoping to build for the future.
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 9/6/2011
Amid all the economic chaos of the last few years it seems that things have reached what I call a new normal. Things are not as good as they used to be, but at least the doors are still open for many companies, institutions and industries. The pallet industry is no different in this regard. Pallet activity is generally down for most companies although some report decent business levels.
Times have even been tough for academic institutions as well. The Center for Unit Load Design (Center) and the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet Lab at Virginia Tech have suffered budgetary pressures over the last few years although it always seemed to keep going despite shortfalls resulting from the poor economy and the loss of Pallet Design System (PDS) revenue. The Center and the Pallet Lab are interconnected and are among the most important institutions in the industry given its research expertise and reputation through the years. While it doesn’t appear that either the Center or the Pallet Lab are going away, these institutions are undergoing changes, and there are a lot of unanswered questions about how things will shake out.
Dr. Barry Goodell, the head of the VT Wood Science and Forest Products department, said, “The Center and the Pallet Lab are continuing. We have every intent to make them grow.”
Goodell did admit that the Pallet Lab and Center has suffered just like every major institution during the recent recession. But he explained that the major drivers behind these changes are “staff alignment and the normal process of transitions.”
The Center had formerly been run by Ralph Rupert, who has always been supported on term contracts based on industry support, and he will continue full time on a contract basis as industry support permits. The Center’s former member service and marketing director, Bonnie Maccubbin, is no longer on contract although she may still be involved on a project basis, according to Goodell.
Without the presence of Rupert and Maccubbin as full-time staff, some have questioned if the Center and the Pallet Lab would be able to service members and testing/consulting clients. Dr. Paul Winistorfer, dean of the college of Natural Resources and Environment, stated, “The laboratory is open for business, and we welcome contractual testing projects to support the interests of the broad industry.”
Virginia Tech has suggested that it will divide Center and Pallet Lab responsibilities among existing faculty and part-time Center staff. But will that be enough to maintain the Virginia Tech’s reputation and place in the industry? It appears that only time will tell the whole story.
Goodell said, “We will lead with our strengths and the Center is one of those strengths. We value the legacy of the pallet program and don’t intend to diminish it.”
Virginia Tech sees the Center and the Pallet Lab as a critical part of its new packaging program according to Goodell. He added that the university was putting more staff resources behind these valued institutions. Previously, Virginia Tech had only offered a packaging emphasis instead of a complete packaging program for students. But this move still raises questions about the place for pallets in the new emphasis on total packaging. Packaging can mean everything from consumer packaging, such as a tube of toothpaste to bottles of product to complete unit loads. A move to a more universal packaging program could mean a de-emphasis of pallets if budgets get tight. It makes sense that there is more research dollars and jobs out there for a larger overall packaging program than just a unit load focus. At the same time, a stronger overall packaging program may provide the long-term stability necessary to keep the unit load and pallet specialty alive.
One way to ensure the viability of the Center and the Pallet Lab is for the industry to get behind these institutions in a bigger way, including improved relationship with the major trade association. Staff transitions could provide an opportunity for renewed interaction between Virginia Tech and the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA).
Ever since the NWPCA brought PDS management and development in house, the tie between the association and Virginia Tech has diminished. A greater relationship between the NWPCA and the Pallet Lab would be in the best interest of both major institutions as well as the pallet industry as a whole.
Although the Center and the Pallet Lab are losing some staff resources, Goodell said, “The bigger story is bringing in two new faculty members and realigning of the interests of existing faculty members.”
Last year, Virginia Tech brought on two new faculty members Dr. Young Teck Kim and Dr. Laszlo Horvath. In addition, Dr. Bob Bush, who had previously worked on forest products marketing realigned to focus on packaging. It does appear that both the Center and the Pallet Lab may experience some transition pains as new staff ease into their roles. But this is nothing new for these institutions which have experienced some transition challenges in the past. When Dr. Mark White took over the Pallet Lab from Dr. George Stern years ago, White didn’t know much about pallets although he had a degree in wood science, similar to the credentials of one of the new faculty.
Dr. Mark White, the former Center director and professor emeritus, said, “I continue to work closely with the Department of Wood Science and Forest Products, The Center for Unit Load Design, and the new faculty in the Packaging Science option at Virginia Tech. I am very excited about the future of the Center and the Packaging programs, which will continue to bring valuable service to stakeholders.”
White clarified that he is not returning to direct or run either the Center or the Pallet Lab although he will continue to serve in an advisory capacity. The Center may be in limbo for a period of time as responsibilities are distributed. But Goodell assured that members and industry stakeholders can be confident in the viability of the Center. He added that queries can be directed to himself, any of the above mentioned faculty or even Rupert.
Both the Center and the Pallet Lab are important institutions in the pallet industry, and are necessary for the long-term success of the industry. Given their reputations and the importance of having an independent testing facility backed by seasoned professionals, these two facilities are worth your support and consideration.
Although the new norm may be tougher times for many companies, it would be horrible if it meant the loss of either the Center or the Pallet Lab. Your support and the realignment plans being developed by Virginia Tech will hopefully make sure this never happens.
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