60 seconds with Laszlo Horvath, Virginia Tech
September 01, 2013 - MMH Editorial
Virginia Tech University
Title: Assistant professor and director of the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design
Location: Blacksburg, Virginia
Experience: A professor at Virginia Tech since 2010, Horvath and his colleagues are in the process of developing new curriculum and state-of-the-art research programs that bring together education, research and solutions for industry.
Primary Focus: The program’s objective is to help industry save resources by focusing on the role of transport packaging and the unit load in the supply chain.
Modern: Laszlo, you’re the director of the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design. Not that long ago, the focus of the center was unit load design. Talk about that evolution.
Horvath: When the program was founded, we focused on the component parts of a unit load. We began with pallets. Later, we added unit load design. Today, our program encompasses the whole system, starting with the design of the unit load and packaging materials to the way that load moves through the supply chain. It’s the whole system and not just the component parts. We are working with primary and secondary packaging. Similarly, our students are learning everything from marketing to supply chain management. We don’t just train packaging engineers. Our goal is to train packaging managers who can tell the designer what the design should look like, work with materials handling engineers, and talk to logistics people about how the load will work in the trailer. We’re the link between these multiple disciplines.
Modern: Has packaging become a higher priority among end users, especially with the increasing number of packages shipped because of e-commerce?
Horvath: Yes it has and not just because of e-commerce. I recently talked to an engineer from a large electronics company at a transport conference. He talked about how packaging was always an afterthought. They designed great products, then they just threw them in a giant box with a lot of protective packaging and shipped it to the customer. Two years ago, they hired a packaging engineer who has found ways to shrink their packaging to a fourth of its previous size and still ship it safely to the customer. E-commerce is having an impact because you have to ship so many products. Companies are realizing that shipping a trailer load is relatively easy. LTL and parcel shipments are a whole different ball game. It’s forcing them to think about packaging.
Modern: What are the kinds of issues you’re researching at Virginia Tech?
Horvath: One area is how the orientation of a box interacts with a pallet. If you look at the literature, there are about three studies. One looked at one box size on one pallet and was considered the gold standard. But, what happens if the pallet is less stiff or if the box is oriented differently or if you use a different size box? We have been using standards for years that were developed when thick, stick deckboards were common on pallets. Today, we’re using thinner, flexible deckboards because companies have optimized their packaging. We want to know how boxes interact with those more flexible pallets. For instance, we did a study that found if you put an airbag on a load, you get a huge increase in load carrying capacity. We have found that stretch film allows you to carry 20% to 30% more load on a pallet without increasing the cost of the pallet. These are the types of topics we’re trying to dig into at the center and with our students.
Modern: Is the interest in packaging reaching out beyond the packaging engineers?
Horvath: Well, we’re trying to reach out to other company titles, and not just packaging or pallet designers. We want purchasing agents who make buy decisions around packaging or system engineers who design and operate materials handling and manufacturing lines to understand the role of packaging. System engineers do a great job of optimizing the process until an odd size package comes into the picture. Then, everything falls apart. We want to understand how pallets are interacting with the conveyor. I go into a lot of large warehouses and see how people pack boxes. The lines are great, but there’s a lot of room for improvement if they take the pallet and packaging into consideration. We try to involve everyone working with different elements of the supply chain.