Many consumer goods titans that battle each other every day share a common retreat for testing tomorrow's ideas: DuPont's Packaging Lab.
For some 50 years, the facility, located in the material giant's Chestnut Run complex in Wilmington, DE, has worked hand in hand with engineers and marketers of blue-chip companies to solve packaging challenges in industries ranging from food and consumer products to medical devices and pharmaceuticals.
Relying on a complete arsenal of test, processing, and packaging equipment, the lab helps scores of companies each year tackle problems that are difficult to address in the hectic, high-volume environment of their packaging plants.
"It's not always easy for brand owners to run packaging experiments at their own facilities," says Steve Ogle, director of customer services at the lab. "Their plants are geared for multiple shifts, flat-out production, and it's often hard for them to pull operators or equipment out of that mode to noodle with new ideas. That's where DuPont can help."
From Concept to Solution
Some companies that come to the lab are searching for ways to coax more speed out of their production lines, which sometimes is a matter of employing faster sealant resins. In other cases, packagers need improved methods for protecting products, preventing leaks, increasing shelf life, or even guarding brands from tampering and counterfeiting. Still others may want to pioneer a whole new concept in packaging to gain an edge in the marketplace.
"It often starts with someone who has come up with a packaging idea and approaches us in the development stage to see whether or not it will run on a machine," says Jim Marsh, the technical representative who oversees the lab's packaging machines.
The equipment that Marsh controls in testing these customer ideas spans the gamut of applications that packagers face today. These include:
Hayssen Ultima. A vertical form, fill, and seal packager for loose products, such as rice, cereal, potato chips, and candy. It can produce a variety of bag sizes and comes equipped with a volumetric filler unit.
Multivac R5200. This solid phase pressure-forming machine, used to package meat, cheese, and medical items, features a bottom formable web and a top web to create a unitized package. It also boasts vacuum, gas flush, and steam-shrink capabilities.
Doboy Super Mustang. Capable of extremely high speeds, this horizontal form, fill, and seal wrapper can package such items as candy bars, crackers, cookies, baseball cards, and medical products.
Klockner I.M. Designed especially for stand-up pouches, this form, fill, and seal machine handles a variety of dry and liquid products, such as juice pouches.
Rieser Dixie Pak 100. This automatic skin packager can produce both film-to-film and film-to-board packages. Typically used to package cheese, meat, and fish, this unit can accommodate many product geometries and draw depths.
Emzo EV124. Designed to handle a wide range of viscosities, this four-sided pouch machine includes a heated filler unit with gas flush capabilities. A common application: filling and sealing sachets containing condiments.
Labform. This one-up machine is used for research and patent development work at extreme depths of draw. The microprocessor-controlled equipment can define and measure forming parameters for materials as a key step in developing production tools for packaging.
The lab uses these machines to solve a steady stream of customer problems. "In the last 10 years, I can't think of anything that has come to us that we couldn't do," Marsh says.
For example, Ocean Spray approached the lab for help in designing a sealable-flange, breakable juice bag that could be used easily by children. The concept was to divide the pouch into two pieces. One side would be syrup; the other a liquid concentrate. When the consumer squeezed the bag, the two forms of liquid would mix together to form a combination flavor, such as cranberry-apple.
A lab technician runs off a sampling of packages on the Multivac pressure former, an end-use packaging machine in DuPont's lab.
In this instance, the lab first used its film processing equipment to determine the optimum material for the application. Technicians then tried out the material on the Klockner stand-up pouch packaging machine to prove out the concept, actually forming the pouch, filling it and sealing it. On the Klockner, the lab can remove and alter certain pieces of the forming die used to make the pouch. This allows the design of different types of removable flanges to make the pouches seal in various configurations, depending on the packager's preferences.
"Once we demonstrate on our line that customers can produce these new packaging concepts, they can then go back and apply the idea to their high-volume equipment," Marsh notes. "In many cases, this may involve modifications to their own machines, such as developing new dies."
Marsh explains that many customers are interested in how the packaging structure will perform under varying pressure, heat, and speed requirements. "We may put pressure gauges and thermocouples on equipment, for example, to find out what happens to a film between point A and point B," Marsh says. "Or we may take the machine up in speed and see how it will affect a seal." In other instances, the technicians will alter the vacuums on dies to see what effect the changes have on sealing parameters.
From Materials to Instruments
What makes the DuPont Lab unique is its full range of services, beginning with the machines to make the initial resins for the package itself. "We can start from scratch with the pellets and make it into blown film, cast film, or sheet film," explains Richard Marshall, the lab's technical director. "Or we can do injection or blow molding."
For example, using DuPont's Surlyn® resin, which yields a crystal-clear appearance similar to glass, the lab can blow-mold prototypes of distinctive bottles and caps for the cosmetic and perfume business. Other challenges include making a new multilayered portable fuel container to meet tough environmental standards in California. Many new medical applications feature DuPont's Tyvek®, a high-density polyethylene fiber that combines the properties of film, paper, and cloth. "We are working on something unusual here every day," Marshall comments.
The lab also features one of the world's most sophisticated barrier testing facilities, where films and packages are analyzed with sensitive oxygen barrier analyzers.
In addition, customers can tap into a whole range of equipment in the lab for testing the materials and packages they're considering: heat and humidity conditioning chambers, micro-thin film slicers, powerful microscopes, gas chromatography equipment, mass spectrometers, and much more. The barrier lab, for instance, can do permeation studies to determine how much oxygen or ultraviolet light is penetrating the protective film covering a product. In other instances, the DuPont technicians do troubleshooting of packaging headaches, such as testing the strength of heat seals to address leakage problems. That analysis, for instance, might indicate a problem with a heater band in the customer's packaging equipment.
The Wilmington lab can also share data and experiences with two similar facilities set up in Geneva, Switzerland, and Shanghai, China. "The food contents may be different in those regions—and so are the portion sizes and packaging forms," Ogle notes. "But the lidding is still expected to do its job and the consumer brand experience is just as important everywhere."
The customer team that works with the lab typically consists of packaging designers, marketing specialists, purchasing professionals, engineers from packaging operations, and chemists or other R&D personnel. Sometimes, companies will also enlist OEMs that supply their packaging equipment—or converters that make the film for the packaging application. "To speed the development process, especially in new packaging concepts, it's very beneficial at the brainstorming stage to involve as broad a range of specialties as possible," Ogle says.
As payment for these services, the lab charges on a project or hourly basis—or includes the lab work in the overall price of buying DuPont packaging materials.
Looking ahead, the experts at the DuPont lab see advances in materials moving in lockstep with improvements in packaging machinery. "It's a symbiotic relationship," Ogle says.