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Virginia Tech Lab Undergoes Changes, Outlines a New Vision for the Future of Pallet and Packaging Design
The new director for the Center for Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech answers questions about the future of pallet and unit load design, recent changes at the institution and new short courses developed to serve the industry.
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 3/1/2012
††††††††††††††† When it comes to academic research of pallets and unit †††††††††††††† loads, the Sardo Pallet Lab and Center for Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech are the worldís leading authority. These two institutions have become synonymous with pallet testing and packaging design. Over the last year, the Sardo Pallet Lab (Sardo Lab) and the Center for Unit Load Design (the Center) have undergone significant changes as the university seeks to create a new packaging program and emphasize sustainability and other key trends.
††††††††††††††† Despite some new names and faces at Virginia Tech, these academic research facilities are as dedicated to the pallet industry as ever before and have more university financial support than in the past. To understand the new vision for the pallet programs at Virginia Tech, the Pallet Enterprise recently discussed the latest development with Dr. Laszlo Horvath, the new director of the Center and an assistant professor at Virginia Tech.
††††††††††††††† The Center has embraced the idea of systems-based unit load design, which was developed by its founder, Virginia Tech professor emeritus, Dr. Mark White. In conjunction with this new philosophy, the Center has launched new educational programs aimed at the pallet industry and pallet users. It is using a suite of multiple packaging programs to bring the systems-based unit load design into the 21st century and provide the best available knowledge to its students and the participants of the short courses.
†† More than just intellectual forecasting, the vision that the Center and the Sardo Lab hope to convey could have a major impact on the future of pallet and unit load design. Consider these insights as Dr. Horvath explains the current transition at Virginia Tech and what it could mean for the pallet industry.
Pallet Enterprise:† What changes have been taking place in the Wood Sciences Department at Virginia Tech over the last year?
Horvath: The whole Department of Wood Sciences and Forest Products at Virginia Tech is going through a name change. Itís kind of like a rebranding process.
††††††††††††††† One of the reasons is that the university wants to attract more students and grow the department. Research indicates that sustainable biomaterials could be an attractive new term that the students would like. We polled the students and realized that wood and forest products in general have a bad reputation in the mind of potential students. Unfortunately, the public perception is that we are either lumber jacks, carpenters or something similar.† They donít really understand how many exciting things we can do with wood. Thatís one of the reasons why we changed the name to the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials.†
††††††††††††††† The other main reason is that the new name better represents some of the innovative work that is conducted by our faculty related to cellulosic biomaterials such as the development of state-of-the-art drug delivery systems and nano-composites made of cellulosic materials. We want to make sure to present a brand that encompasses all these new interests of the department.
††††††††††††††† One thing that we continue to tell everybody, especially the traditional wood industry, is that we are doing exactly the same things we have always done from a research perspective. We are still serving the same industry. The only difference is an expanded focus. We are not leaving the wood industry alone and transferring to something else. We are just making sure that we are a little bit more ďsexyĒ in the eyes of the students.
Pallet Enterprise: Thereís a new packaging program there too. Can you explain its focus and mission?
Horvath: Leaders within the department had wanted to develop a separate packaging degree for some time. Then last April we actually had a chance to apply for a separate B.S. in Packaging Systems and Design. So this dream is becoming a reality. We are awaiting approval from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and we expect to launch the new degree program in 2012 fall semester.†
††††††††††††††† This new degree will provide greater flexibility to teach more packaging focused classes.† We will still build on the same strength that we had before, such as warehousing, pallet design and wood science classes. In addition, we will include other focuses, such as food and health packaging, packaging polymers and production, etc.† We plan to follow this new approach to assist us in teaching true systems-based design where students learn about all aspects of packaging and pallets not just part of the process. Each of the core classes is going to focus on different sections of the packaging industry.
Pallet Enterprise: Explain the previous degree programs and what has happened to those legacy programs. What did students used to get a degree in?
Horvath: Previously we had one big degree focus, which was the wood science and forest products. And we offered four degree options, and one of those options was packaging.† So students learned a lot about wood and then they had some knowledge on pallets and distribution. Or they could learn a lot about wood and specialize in marketing or wood structures or wood science. From 2012 forth hopefully we are going to have the following new programs: packaging system design, sustainable materials and innovation, and biomaterials and bioenergy. The biomaterials and bioenergy degree will cover topics like nanotechnology and cellulosic fuel.† Sustainable materials and innovation focus on residential structures, forest products business and process improvements.
Pallet Enterprise: I know in the last year the Center for Unit Load Design has undergone some transition and change.† Can you talk a little bit about whatís been going on there?
Horvath: Both Ralph Rupert and Bonnie Maccubbin left the Center amid restructuring plans, and I became the new director last year.† Since then we are in the middle of rebranding and restructuring the Center. In addition, I have brought a continuous improvement focus to standardize testing procedures and reporting format to ensure consistency.† Itís going to be easier than ever for clients to understand testing results or compare results in subsequent studies. We also have tried to make sure that we do everything as soon as possible. We are developing training videos for the student technicians which greatly improve the speed of the training process.†
Pallet Enterprise: Whoís doing the testing and consulting service now that Ralph and Bonnie are gone?
Horvath: Basically I took over the majority of the testing work and the management of the member services, although other faculty members also provide testing expertise when their help is needed. We have several faculty members who are interested the are involved in packaging and pallet testing. Dr. Mark White, Emeritus Professor still provides significant help to our program. He is currently teaching the Pallet Container and Unit Load Design course, advising grad students, and has ongoing research projects under his Emeritus Professor status. He is actively providing consultation for the Center using his 30 years of background knowledge to ensure a smooth transition.
Pallet Enterprise: There was some speculation that Virginia Tech was going to reduce its focus on pallets and its expertise. There was also concern that the program was short on funds. How have these recent changes actually made the program stronger?†
Horvath: Itís actually a really good thing for the Sardo Pallet Lab and our focus on pallets. We also heard the rumors that we were going to shut down the whole pallet and unit load program and focus purely on packaging. And that is absolutely not true.† Our focus is still on pallets and unit loads. Currently, the majority of our testing is basically coming from pallet and unit load customers.
††††††††††††††† The new arrangement with the university is a good thing. We now have a fixed funding source because Iím also a faculty member within the Wood Science department. The previous staff was supported solely on self-funding that required a lot of industry support. This created significant uncertainty about the future of these institutions when testing projects were scarce. So the department actually invested additional resources into the Center to make sure it continues to run without interruption.
Pallet Enterprise: Are there any new programs or things youíre launching?† I know youíre getting ready to do some new or revamped short courses.† Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Horvath: The short course is going to be really great because we had a chance to utilize Best Load pallet and unit load design software to provide better education for our participants. It is also important to mention that although this upcoming short course utilizes Best Load for pallet and unit load design, in general we include information in our short courses and also in our educational mission from all sources of the packaging field to the extent possible. We are focusing on Best Load for this one course, simply because it is new, and few people are aware of how it can be used and what its capabilities are. We hope that in the future we can get access to PDS or other packaging systems to help better educate the industry about its use and advantages as well. The last time we offered the pallet design short course was 2006. So the new program will include the latest in pallet/unit load design technology. If you want to keep up on the cutting edge of computer-aided design, you should consider attending this course. Dr. White uses his software to basically illustrate whatís happening if you make certain changes in the pallet and the entire unit load. Best Load provides immediate analysis and feedback if you change any aspect of the unit load, including the pallet or product packaging.
Pallet Enterprise: Whatís the difference between the unit load and the pallet design courses?
Horvath: The big difference is that the pallet design course focuses more on the details of pallets. It covers the different parts of the pallet, what difference it makes if you change the deck boards or stringers, and interactions with material handling systems, such as forklifts. Many people donít pay attention to the little details of pallet design. For example, there is a reason why the height of the pallet opening is set by the standard and itís not a ľ inch bigger or ľ inch smaller.†
††††††††††††††† The unit load design course covers how to stabilize unit loads, whatís happening if you put packages on the top of the unit load, the impact of different load stacking patterns.† For example if you use column stacking or interlock stacking, what impact does this have on the unit loadís stability and the design of the individual box.
Pallet Enterprise: Who are the ideal targets to attend either of these short courses?
Horvath: The ideal targets for the unit load design course are the pallet users, especially packaging engineers and others who need to make decisions on how to put boxes on a pallet. We take best practices based off our consulting work to come up with case studies that help short course attendees understand what are the most typical challenges and solutions. We will also work with attendees to analyze their own unique pallet and unit load problems. The short courses are a great way to network with others concerned with transport packaging and learn from other industry experts.
††††††††††††††† The unit load course is also useful for pallet designers to understand the interactions between the pallet and the loads that customers want to ship. For example, if a customer wants a pallet designed to ship copy paper, itís extremely useful for them to understand that thereís a huge amount of load bridging for rigid copy papers. This influences the strength requirements of the pallet and possibly the design of the deckboard. You want to design the deckboard to support the corners of the boxes.†
††††††††††††††† The pallet design short course is obviously good for pallet manufacturers and designers and everybody interacting with pallets. This includes pallet users, purchasing agents, pallet salesmen and others involved with specifying pallets. To find out more about the short courses, visit http://unitload.vt.edu.
Pallet Enterprise: A lot of the guys in the pallet industry are accustomed to using PDS, how different is this new Best Load software? Are you going to incorporate any PDS content at all in the class or is that still not allowed due to the previous legal showdown over PDS infringement?
Horvath: Thatís one of our problems.† Honestly, I would like to initiate some discussion with NWPCA again about using PDS. Currently, we are not allowed to use PDS in teaching, consulting or research. This is a huge problem for us too because we feel that the industry and Virginia Tech students should be familiar with PDS. We would like to incorporate PDS into our educational programs along with Best Load.† †††††
††††††††††††††† Best Load is similar to PDS in some ways. The big difference is that it has multiple options which show you the interaction between packages and pallets.† Some of the analysis is coming from our graduate research, and thatís what Dr. Mark White has incorporated into the software.
Pallet Enterprise: Can you be a novice or do you need any previous experience to attend these short courses?
Horvath: You absolutely donít need any previous pallet or unit load expertise. If you come to the pallet design course, for example, and you have never heard about pallets, we are going to start from the basics.
††††††††††††††† The big benefit of being here is that if somebody has certain issues that issue can be immediately asked in the course.† So if somebody has some previous knowledge, or previous problems with unit loads or pallets, that could be addressed. This is a very hands-on program where attendees are encouraged to participate and ask questions.
Pallet Enterprise: If some readers have come to a previous short course covering one of these topics, why might they want to come to this one now?
Horvath: Because we are using a computer-aided approach, utilizing Best Load to teach pallet and unit load design is very helpful, especially as we will also integrate its use with a suite of other tools that we use in the field.† Using this approach it should be easy for the participants to learn about the interaction between pallet and packaging solutions.† In addition, we have new examples based on the latest field work and user problems. This allows you to learn from the mistakes of others.† Itís good for networking because when package designers, pallet designers and so many other people come together in these short courses, itís an extremely good place to share experiences and insights.† We feel that there are so many problems arising from the fact that people donít talk to each other. One person designs pallets. Somebody else designs boxes. And they never talk to each other.
Pallet Enterprise: Is there anything else you would like to say about changes taking place at the Center and Sardo Pallet Lab or new programs in development?
Horvath: There are a few other things in development so I canít say so much about them yet. But we are starting to focus on research again after the reorganization, we are developing new services for the industry, and we are currently revising the membership levels. Hopefully we will finish the revision in a couple months and with the help of our current and future members we can begin to offer state-of-the-art research, testing, and consultation related to pallets, packaging, and unit load systems.
††††††††††††††† We will also launch a new website around May which will provide more detailed information about the new services.
††††††††††††††† Another important thing is that the Center is working with and researches every kind of pallet.† So we are currently testing aluminum pallets, plastic pallets, composite pallets, etc. Itís important for the industry to know that we donít favor one material over the other. What we are focusing on is the efficiency and sustainability of the whole packaging system.