Skills shortages targeted

3 August 2006

Academic director Professor Dr Ingo Büren explains the aims and aspirations of the International Packaging Institute to Pauline Covell

The European packaging industry has distinct geographical clusters. One is centred around the Schaffhausen – Lake Constance area. It was where the aluminium industry was founded, where the laminate tube was developed and where the blister pack for pharmaceuticals invented. Today it is home for SIG, Alcan and Bosch and packaging technology drivers from the food and pharmaceutical businesses such as Nestlé, Unilever Bestfoods, Cilag (Johnson & Johnson) and Altana. And now it is also home at Neuhaussen am Rheinfall to a specialist academic organization – the International Packaging Institute (IPI).

The concept of providing the skills needed through a Certificate (bachelor level) and Masters degree is the result of close co-operation between industry, state authorities of Switzerland and Germany, and the academic world. Reasoning behind the IPI is that “Europe’s packaging production and user sector has been struggling to meet the demand for highly trained and skilled staff for some time”.

Professor Büren explained: “Whenever I meet anyone from industry they say that there is a shortage of the people they need – from those at the top of the line, the highly trained, to the skilled – those with the knowledge to do a good job. And talking to students from packaging related courses elsewhere, despite difficulties in getting jobs in other areas, they tell me they have no problems in this field.”

“The sophistication of the industry is growing faster and faster,” he said. “Technology is changing at an amazing pace. Even in Europe packaging is growing, albeit at small rates. Packaging is the expression of civilization and the standard of living of a country. And in many other parts of the world we are seeing dramatic growth rates as that increases.”

“European packaging technology leads the world. Even the USA follows Europe in many aspects. It is a real chance for Europeans. Without skilled staff as that technology is developing, it is difficult to take advantage of this. “That is why there is a need for the IPI. “There is only a handful of universities or institutes that provide specific degrees for packaging from scratch. In Europe there is one in Germany, one in Italy, France and Sweden. In the USA there are five major universities offering packaging technology as a degree. Other universities in Europe, like Brunel and Lappenranta, offer ‘add-on’ Masters in packaging for students with bachelor degrees in another discipline, “he said.

IPI courses operate as a sort of “block release” from students’ employers. Now courses are in place how are companies responding? “We are at the pilot stage,” replied Professor Büren. “The first step will take about four to five years. Building an academic institute cannot be done in a piecemeal fashion. With machinery you can change things with just a simple tweak here and there. In education it is much slower. You have to analyse what is needed over time.” But companies are already taking advantage of the courses with 18 students so far at the IPI.

“We want to demonstrate that the Certificate is not quite the same as a bachelor degree at a public university. We are certain that industry will prefer the Certificate. Time is an investment that has to be discussed upfront. It is one of the reasons we have the pilot. We need to know what time companies can give and also how much the participant can absorb at any one time.”

It is also possible to study individual modules of the Certificate. “Say someone is very skilled in machinery and needs to add food technology or materials science, he or she could just take that. “Designed for flexibility, the course will appeal to industry round Europe, he believes. Although currently in German it is planned to run the courses in English from next year. The Masters is already taught in English.

Just what are the areas he believes will fuel the changes in technology. Buzzwords include nanotechnology, printed electronics, smart packaging and PLA. Not all will bear fruit. He expanded: ” Let’s take RFID, for example. It might have a strong influence in logistics, but don’t expect to see a transponder on every throwaway pack in the next decade. There is the question not only of materials garbage, but also data garbage. Imagine all that packaging emitting signals around us day and night! Also the classic bar code is a robust technology.

“Nanotechnology is not new – it’s been around a long time. It is only the word that is new. I believe we will just be sorting out what is good for packaging. It is difficult to add just ‘dust’ and expect the material to get better! It takes a lot of work, but changing the way materials react and behave is generally not new.

“Smart packaging is interesting. Anything that adds convenience to the packaging is OK. Even if there are instances I believe that will be rejected by the retail industry.”

Most interesting of all was his opinion on PLA and other renewable polymer alternatives to oil based materials.

“We are a long way from seeing ecological efficiency for renewable materials. If we were to change all the plastics to PLA, imagine all the fields you would need.” He believes it is fuel that will be the larger earlier adopter of corn based oil. “But even there you can hear people saying: ‘Why are some nations using corn to fuel their cars when other nations are starving?’ “ He added: “Imagine a polymer industry saying to the farmers ‘change everything to corn starch’. The developments in materials are good to see and valuable to introduce new thinking, but it is no revolution. The reasons for impact are more political and economical.”

At the heart of course content is the influence of industry. “We have some companies fully involved and several others who are sponsors. The participation of industry in our institution is of vital importance. A widespread scheme of courses will be revealed soon.”

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