An Ode to Packaging Engineers

Comic by Ed Himelblau.

In my second or third year as a graduate student, I had to ship some microfluidic masters to a collaborator in Kenya. The masters were extremely fragile and took me several days in a cleanroom gown to make. I was horrified at having to send them on a perilous journey overseas, and somewhat flabbergasted that they made it to Nairobi whole and well. And yet, every day thousands of delicate items zoom around the world and arrive at their destinations in one piece. How?

A couple months ago, I visited the lab where our packaging engineers (yes, that’s a thing) do their work. Here’s what I learned.

There’s A Test for Everything

Sometimes packages get dropped. It’s not ideal, but we can plan for it:

Maybe the box doesn’t get dropped, but even jostling around in the back of a plane or truck could disturb the contents. Using data from accelerometers placed on actual shipping trucks, we can reproduce the shaking and jerking that a package will experience over an 8 hour journey:

We also have ways to test if a seal will hold up in the low-pressure environment of a plane’s cargo hold:

It’s not just the integrity of the package’s contents we need to worry about–the recipient needs to be able to read the label when it arrives. The best way to test label durability is by aggressively rubbing it several thousand times. Thankfully, there’s an app for that (and it’s not an undergrad):

Prototyping is Fun

When we find ourselves needing to make something new, whether it be for a Custom project or redesigning our kit packaging to be more sustainable (and prettier), it’s helpful to be able to create a few test subjects before committing the resources to producing 10,000 of something. Our packaging engineers use a variety of tools, from 3D printers to high-tech cutting tables, to test out new designs and materials for containing things.

What is this???
Precious contents require skilled guardians.

To sum up, this little adventure gave me a new appreciation for the unsung heroes who ensure that all the stuff I order online arrives safely at my door.

Author’s Note: No packages were harmed (unless they deserved it) in the making of this blog post.

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Julia worked as Science Writer at Promega before returning to UW-Madison to go back to the lab bench. She earned a B.S. in biology and a B.A. in chemistry from University of North Carolina Wilmington, and a PhD from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her hobbies include reading fantasy novels, playing Magic: The Gathering, ultimate frisbee, Netflix, and long walks to the fridge.

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