Robert Meisner, associate professor
Robert Meisner, associate professor

In our latest interview, Ashley Joyce speaks with Associate Professor in the engineering and technology department in the STEM college, Robert Meisner. He is also the Program Director for the bachelor of science degree in packaging at University of Wisconsin-Stout (UW-Stout). Prior to becoming a professor, his professional career included roles within project management and corporate packaging engineering.

This discussion centered around technology’s role within the classroom, instant gratification for students and consumers, recent examples of poor packaging design communication and the impact e-commerce has on product packaging – how it may shape the future of packaging.

AJ: You personally have been a professor at UW-Stout for 11 years.  Is it safe to say you’ve seen lots of change within the program?

RM: Yes. Lots of change in technology, within the education and in the students, i.e. smartphones. Although it’s changing fast, the current generation of students take to these changes almost as if they’re expected, and they’re not afraid to try and learn a new software package.  For instance, I think we were one of the first universities to get the network licensing for ArtiosCAD. To have the students exposed to it and having the ability to use the tools that are prevalent in the industry, it’s the key to our program’s success.  The feedback from the employers is that students come ready to hit the ground running. They’re hands‑on. Students go in and turn on the machines, and they’re not afraid to figure it out – trial and error.  The employers like the idea that they don’t have to invest as much time and training in a new hire because they’ve received it at the university level. 

AJ: How is technology in the classroom impacting your students when they’re working on a project or a prototype?

RM: The benefit to technology in the classroom is that we look at the physical development of the prototype and if they can think that something might work, they can draw it on the software.  We download it to the Kongsberg table.  They cut the rapid prototype out and realize: “Oh, that angle is off a little bit.  It binds when I try and push it in.” 

Within minutes, they can make the change and cut a new prototype.  They see some instant gratification, which is very, very important for this generation that’s currently going through our program.  They want to see results right away.  They don’t want to struggle with changes.  They want to just do it. 

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UW-Stout student using Kongsberg table. Image credit: UW-Stout
UW-Stout student using Kongsberg table. Image credit: UW-Stout

AJ: Sure. And I think that that translates into how this young generation (I’m a Millennial by the way) feels when purchasing products. I could see instant gratification being a common difficulty for consumer packaged goods (CPG) players, trying to get products out quickly because this younger generation expects it. 

Do you refer to any case studies in your classroom setting?

RM: I do have an example of poor packaging. Recently, I had an issue with a company that sells broth.  Are you familiar with the 32-ounce aseptic brick style packaging?

AJ: Yes.

RM: Historically when you would open that style of package, there is a pull ring, and you pull the top off to get access to the broth.  Well, they recently changed, and now it’s a foil barrier underneath the cap.  But the problem is when you unscrew the cap, it cuts the foil barrier, so you open it up and you look and you think, “Oh my God, I can see the product.  It’s probably expired or contaminated,” because I’m used to the pull ring. 

I had pulled one out of the cupboard one day, and I opened it up and I said to my wife, I said, “You put this back in the cupboard.  Once it’s opened, it has to be refrigerated.”  And she said, “I didn’t touch it.”  So we went back to the store and returned it, and then we went to the store shelf to see if others were like that. We proceeded to open about two dozen packages, and when you would open them, there was no barrier.

AJ: Oh, my.

RM: When we talked to managers at the big box store, they said, “Yeah, we have had a lot of people return those.”  Then we went online, and there is a massive blog and tens of thousands of customer complaints and issues related to the packaging.  So referring back to your question, I would say that this would be an example of design failure. I mean, it works functionally, but if you don’t convey the benefits of the package or the function of the package to the consumer, it’s just bad.  

AJ: So benefits weren’t clearly defined on the package copy?

RM: Right. Since then the company has put some kind of disclaimer or a boldly‑noted piece of information that this style of package has a foil barrier that is actually cut and removed as a result of opening the cap, “so don’t be looking for that ring anymore.” 

AJ: Better late than never I suppose.  In terms of packaging strategies, what direction do you think you see brands moving towards in the future?

RM: I think that every company is trying to drive cost out of packaging, and they’re doing that by light-weighting using different materials. Brands are also trying provide some additional functionality or benefit to the consumer within packaging.  It’s a little bit more expensive, but it’s still a way they can drive market share.  But I think the biggest trend that I’ve really been interested in lately is this whole impact of e‑commerce and the fact that if you want to play in that market, the packaging requirements and expectations could be very different. 

If you use your traditional retail packaging, you might get a lot of hate mail, because the customer wants the product, and the package may not have any function or role of promoting or describing or selling the product.  The customer has already purchased the product online.  They have read the reviews, they’ve seen the photographs, and for them to then get sonic welded blisters and six different materials and layers like they would in the retail environment with Sensormatic chips and everything else, it’s just wasteful.  So this whole frustration‑free concept that Amazon started pushing, it’s going to force companies to basically have two distinct packaging methods and supplies, if you will, for the same finished good. 

For example, I’m selling a magic marker, and when I sell it at retail, I’m putting it in a highly visible package, flashy graphics, and it’s welded shut so that it can’t easily be pilfered.  But then when I sell it through e‑tail, the consumer already knows what they want.  They just want another pen, so I could take the pen and I could throw it into a mailer and I don’t have to spend that much money on packaging.  But consumers fail to realize is that is a huge expense for e-tailers to carry two inventories and two different packaging methods for the same finished good. 

AJ: Sure.  But when they see the photos online, they’re usually seeing the packaged good photo. Would they want to see a photo of the product without extra packaging?  Then there would be two sets of images, doubling the workload, which is kind of counterintuitive for the brands.

RM: Right. But when NPD says that 40 percent of all Christmas sales this year were e‑commerce, you can’t ignore it.  You’ve either got to jump in or not.  But what’s interesting with the two different packages, if I’m advertising on television, I’m trying to drive people to brick and mortars, so you always see the packaged product because you have to get in the customer’s mind what to look for.  So it has to be the packaged product.  But that doesn’t have to be the case with e-commerce products.

AJ: And what role will all of this digital technology play in packaging? 

RM: It’s all about the speed, but I think, more importantly, when I look back at how I had to sign-off on changes in the past—these new technologies take human error out of the equation. When you can send that file intact, have spell‑check and all of these other tools wrapped up into the software translation functions, everything is done right and quickly.  It’s amazing. There are so many new products being introduced all the time, and so much competition for the consumer, CPGs can’t afford to be slow, so they will rely on technologies to help them error-proof their packaging. 

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