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Forming Medtech’s Next Generation of Packaging Engineers

Forming Medtech’s Next Generation of Packaging Engineers
Clemson University Associate Professor Robert M. Kimmel, Director, Packaging Science Program; and Director, Center for Flexible Packaging, in the Department of Food, Nutrition, and Packaging Sciences
Orthopedic implant packaging was one of the latest projects for Clemson University’s industry-sponsored packaging program.

The Packaging Science program at Clemson University often works with packaging industry partners on coursework, presenting real-world challenges to students. “Collaboration, outreach, and service to the packaging industry is a cornerstone of our educational philosophy and takes many forms,” Clemson Associate Professor Robert M. Kimmel told MD+DI. Kimmel serves as director, Packaging Science Program; and director, Center for Flexible Packaging, in the Department of Food, Nutrition, and Packaging Sciences. “Courses in our design curriculum often rely on industry-sponsored projects as vehicles to teach advanced design concepts. Company and trade association representatives give guest lectures every semester.”

Sponsors make a presentation to the entire class at the beginning of the semester, Kimmel explains. “Contacts between the sponsors and the student team then are ongoing throughout the semester to answer questions, make suggestions, ‘approve’ design concepts, arrange for materials, etc. These interactions and the step-by-step progression through ideation, design, prototyping, and testing are where the real learning takes place,” he said.

Clemson’s Package Design and Development course is the capstone course of its undergraduate Packaging Science curriculum. “The course provides our students the opportunity to work in a small (4-5 students) team with an industry sponsor on a specific project within the context of learning a systematic approach to managing and documenting a packaging system development project,” Kimmel said. “All Packaging Science undergraduates take at least three design courses: the first covers design software, including both 2D and 3D design, rendering, etc., as well as specialized software for packaging, such as carton, pallet and truck loading optimization. All of that training gets used in the capstone course.”

Medical device packaging hasn’t been a huge part of the program—but that’s changing. Historically, of the more than 150 projects Kimmel has mentored over the past 15 years, only five have involved medical devices or hospital disposables. But Kimmel and his colleagues recently set out to expand the program’s healthcare focus. “A significant number of our students were expressing an interest in healthcare packaging, and some were finding both co-op and permanent employment opportunities in that industry,” he said.

An opportunity for a new healthcare project arose last fall. Aneta Clark, global market segment leader for Eastman Chemical Co., had heard about Clemson’s program and contacted Kimmel to explore collaboration opportunities. “I was eager to work with Aneta, because we had recently articulated a goal to expand our educational focus and outreach to the general health care industry,” Kimmel said. “At the same time, another R&D group within Eastman had contacted one of my colleagues to solicit help with evaluating a new polymer application.”

Guided by Eastman’s technical expert Gary Hawkins, the students were instructed to design and prototype rigid packaging for various sizes of orthopedic hip implants. Students were able to hear directly from a key end-user during the project and apply that feedback to their designs. “The student team was able to interview the head orthopedic surgery nurse at one of the local hospitals,’ Kimmel said. “She was able to provide the team many details about how implants are handled from the time they enter the hospital until they are handed to the surgeon. She conveyed many small but critical details that in her experience ensured proper maintenance of sterility, ease of handling, and avoidance of errors. The students incorporated all of these requirements into their designs.”

Eastman will partner with Clemson for the Fall 2018 program with a new group of students. “Aneta and I have discussed continuing the implant packaging project next semester,” Kimmel said. “We are working to solve the equipment and materials size constraints that prevented the last student team from building prototype packages that could be tested.”

Kimmel is hoping for additional support, too. “We need 6-7 sponsors every semester in order to have new projects for the students’ work,” he said. And for future projects, “we are actively seeking collaboration with medical device industries to provide student projects, to support research and service projects, and to help us expand our facilities and educational opportunities in medical device packaging and other areas of healthcare packaging by providing support for equipment and new faculty,” he added.

In addition to education, Clemson’s program also provides research support. “Using our extensive laboratory facilities and the expertise of our faculty, graduate students, and research associates, we not only carry out research for industry, but have a well-established program of providing confidential testing and development services to global companies to support their product and process development and help them grow their businesses,” he says. “The income from these activities helps us acquire and maintain equipment and personnel to support our educational missions, including supporting graduate students and employing undergraduates.”

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