BLACKSBURG — Walk into a store and find something that isn’t in packaging.
It’s hard to do.
Packaging is all around us. And at Virginia Tech, a team of researchers and students are taking it to the next level in the university’s Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design.
The lab performs a litany of tests for companies local and international, said Laszlo Horvath, director of the center.
On any given weekday, students can be seen performing tests on a litany of items, such as for office furniture, Gatorade bottles and rabbit food.
“This is a place where students can get real experience,” Horvath said. “We’ve created an industrial environment for them.”
The center, located near the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center away from most of Tech’s Hokie Stone-clad campus, is a real-world packaging testing facility. The center employs dozens of students over the course of a year to do actual packaging testing for companies who pay for the tests, which in turn funds equipment maintenance and student employees.
“Not many companies have the capability to do this type of testing,” Horvath said.
As Blacksburg quiets down for the summer, labs inside the building are humming with activity as students test pallets, packaging strength and the tape used to seal boxes.
The packaging systems and design students are crushing and dropping items to test their packaging.
“It’s kind of fun to just come in to work and break things,” student Luke Guyre said with a smile. “You never have a typical day.”
The Tech facility has become an option as a third-party tester for vendors that want to sell with e-commerce giants Amazon and Ikea.
If vendors don’t certify their packaging to Amazon’s standards, Horvath said, they have to pay exorbitant fees to simply sell their products.
Last year, Tech’s Corrugated Packaging Lab became the first lab in North or South America to gain Ikea certification. The certification allows Tech to test fiberboard from would-be Ikea packaging suppliers .
It was more than a year-long process, said Eduardo Molina, a Tech instructor who was instrumental in applying for the certification.
“They have a huge amount of product that they ship,” Molina said.
And all that product, mostly furniture, is protected by corrugated fiber board packaging.
Students custom-cut pieces of the fiberboard, which is commonly called cardboard, and run a dozen tests on it to make sure the packaging material is up to Ikea’s standards.
Tech researchers, though, stress that they’re testing corrugated fiberboard here and that “cardboard” is a misnomer for the brown packaging material.
Those tests involve measuring things like flexibility, water absorbability and crush resistance.
“There’s a lot of cutting and a lot of testing,” student Jon Porter said.
Student Meredith Brooks said performing the tests is an important piece of helping students shape their careers. The point of their work is to make people trust that what they’re ordering online or purchasing in the store is what they expect and that it’s in good enough shape to use, she said.
She wants to help packaging, something that’s important but often forgotten, keep its anonymity.
“The only time you think about it [packaging] is when it doesn’t work,” Brooks said. “We’re making sure it works.”