Olivia Leipnitz likes everything related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). When she started looking for a college to apply that passion to, she didn’t have to look far. The University of Wisconsin–Stout (UW-Stout) is about a mile from where she grew up, and she was intrigued by the engineering program’s packaging degree.
“No other engineering major piqued my interest as packaging did,” says Leipnitz, who intends to graduate in December 2024 with a Bachelor of Science degree in packaging and a minor in project management.
“I loved the versatility seen in job placements after graduation, as well as the wide range of companies that packaging touches. It’s amazing to know that with every product there is a package—or two or three—whether the end consumer knows it or not. It’s exciting to know that I’ll be a part of the process soon.”
Leipnitz and three classmates at Stout—Elaina Marxen, Annabelle Meyer, and Ella Stelter—have taken home a second-place award for a packaging prototype.
The annual Student Flexible Packaging Design Challenge’s awards usually include first-place and second-place honors. An entry from California Polytechnic State University took the top award in the 2023 challenge. An honorable mention went to another team from Stout. The winning entries of the Flexible Packaging Association’s (FPA’s) competition will be displayed September 11 to 13 during PACK EXPO Las Vegas.
About the Contest
The contest judges were members of the FPA’s Emerging Leadership Council (ELC): Evan Arnold, vice president business development at Glenroy, Inc.; Kasie Fairbarn, vice president of sales at Windmoeller & Hoelscher Corporation; Abbey Phillips, technical product manager at American Packaging Corporation; and Jonathan Quinn, vice president of marketing and sustainability at Accredo Packaging Inc. Fairbarn and Quinn are also co-chairs of ELC. During a May afternoon, the judges went through entries one by one and assessed them in four categories: innovation, operational feasibility, sustainability, and presentation, rating each category on a scale of 1 to 5.
The entries included a written summary and short videos, where students explain the prototypes they developed. Several videos stood out because the students created strong marketing campaigns for the products, while other videos were basic explanations from a student speaking into a camera without much of an effort to sell the packaging idea.
The judges note that they want to encourage students to create professional-level marketing presentations that could be viewed online. They particularly like a video done by Leipnitz and her teammates for a prototype called “Pepperoni Pouch Redesign” that runs for a little more than three minutes and that can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=5TXOwmNIK2I.
“That was the best video,” Quinn says. He adds that he will put the video in front of the company that makes the pepperoni product. “And I’ll try to get them to do something with it.”
Encouraging Recruitment and Retention
Those types of connections are one reason FPA holds the contest. Students collaborate with their professors throughout the school year to develop the contest entries, but they are encouraged to network with ELC members who will mentor them on what they should include in their entries. The ELC was created to foster such relationships and to improve recruitment and retention in the fl exible packaging industry, generally.
Students involved in the contest often point to numerous career opportunities as to why they are seeking packaging degrees. For Marxen, who was on the team with Leipnitz, the science, math, and engineering aspects of packaging appeal to her. But she is also intrigued by the marketing and art possibilities in her future career.
“I learned about the packaging world through a high school math teacher,” Marxen says. “She advocated for me to attend Stout and taught me about what the program is and the careers it can provide me after graduating college.”
The team members from Stout say they worked hard to earn the second-place award for the “Puppy Chow Kit.” “The Puppy Chow Kit—otherwise known as Muddy Buddies—is marketable, especially if marketed toward its convenience and the difference from the other forms of puppy chow being sold,” Marxen says after learning about winning the award. “This product provides the positive aspect of having freshly made muddy buddies. It also can be marketed as a baking kit, which is quite different than single serve.”
In their video entry, the students say the kit reduces food and packaging waste because the items inside the kit aren’t sold separately. The video then demonstrates how a consumer would make the treats in a microwavable package. The video can be found on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=sinzMhLFBM4.
“The biggest challenge during this process was designing the largest pouch that is used to contain all the contents,” says Stelter, a team member who says she is still exploring different career options in packaging. “This part was designed to function as a baking kit on a shelf at a grocery store, as well as fit comfortably in a cupboard at home.”
Like her teammates, Meyer says she is still deciding what career track to take after she graduates, but she sees herself at “a company with sustainability, positive work environment, and room for growth in mind.”
“I wanted to get my degree in packaging at UW–Stout because of the difficulties I experienced while working at Target in the food and beverage section,” Meyer also says. “I came across various broken and damaged packaging, which led to food waste weekly. After seeing all the waste that can be caused by insufficient packaging, I wanted to learn how to improve the packaging and reduce the amount of waste.”
Judging the Entries
During the judging process, the judges discuss when an idea sounds good but probably would not be operationally feasible. For example, one team developed a dissolvable tea bag, which would be similar to powdered lemonade that dissolves after water is added. However, the judges aren’t convinced that the tea prototype has sufficient barriers to protect the product during shipping or while it sits on a store shelf.
The judges see the potential—tea drinkers might use the product two or three times per day—but suggest more would need to be done to make it feasible.
The judges point out that they will work with students to help them with contest entries, but at times, their advice isn’t taken.
Fairbarn says she would like to see more entries take a “Shark Tank” approach, referring to the television series where various inventors pitch their ideas to a panel of venture capitalists in hopes of getting funding.
The judges discuss how some of the entries have generic-sounding names and suggest the students could get more creative.
Professional-looking videos can capture the attention of future employers, the judges also suggest, with some of the presentations staying on YouTube for years.
The entry that received an honorable mention—a prototype called “Double Guacamole Flexible Pack” from another team at Stout—receives kudos for the mock-up that the students created. “It looks real,” Fairbarn says. “It’s an excellent mock-up. It looks like it came from Costco.”
The first-place entry—“Sprout Ease” from a student at California Polytechnic State University—is recognized for its overall excellence and marketability. It is designed so it can stand up. After tearing off the top, the consumer pours water into the package filled with soil and seeds. Drainage holes on the bottom are covered with a tab that can be removed after the consumer gets the package home. The seeds then grow inside the package. “The Sprout Ease pouch is a revolutionary way to grow plants and protect the environment,” the entry says.
The judges were impressed with the thinking that went into the package, as well as the video that outlined the specifications and gave a demonstration of how the package would work from a consumer’s perspective.
“The presentation was phenomenal. It builds an experience into the package,” Arnold says as the judges agree to give the package first-place honors. “The package is extremely functional, it is feasible, and it could be on the store shelf today.”
Caroline Powell, the student at California Polytechnic State University who worked on the first-place winner, says one of the biggest challenges was figuring out the watering and drainage of the pouch. “Because the pouch was inspired by a classic plant pot, we needed to incorporate drainage features into the flexible pouch,” she says. “This was important to ensure the quality of the product and prevent waterlogging and root rot.”
But the design also needed to keep the package airtight and watertight during shipping. The problem was solved by adding adhesive pull tabs that the user removes.
“I believe that Sprout Ease could be a marketable product as it can replace the herb kits that are currently sold in grocery stores today,” Powell adds. “By partnering with both large and local grocery retailers, Sprout Ease provides consumers with an all-in-one grow kit—no replanting required.”
Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.