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Not Your Average Internship


Packaging Students Internship Interns Jason Hoepker (standing) and Zachary Shiner test pallets outside the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design

March 18, 2013 –  

4Through its research, Virginia Tech’s Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design makes packaging systems as safe and efficient as possible. What would you say if you were offered an internship working for the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design? Think it sounds boring? Think again. “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” Zachary Shiner, a junior from Exton, Pennsylvania said of his internship. “Every package is different.” 

Last summer, Dr. Laszlo Horvath, director of the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design, hired one freshman, one sophomore, and one junior as interns at the center. Dr. Horvath’s strategy was to hire young students who could gain as much experience as possible. The summer internship transformed the students from packaging novices to packaging know-it-alls. 

Students Jason Hoepker and Zachary Shiner essentially knew nothing about packaging and unit load design before beginning the internship. “I had no idea what was going to come of it,” said Hoepker, a sophomore from Haymarket, Virginia. 

Dr. Marshall White, founder of the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design and professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, gave the students a crash course in pallet design. After an exhausting two days, the students had learned an entire semester’s worth of knowledge. “I was afraid he would expect me to know more, but I just kept an open mind and learned a lot, and it ended up not being a problem at all,” Shiner said. “It was really exciting to see their transformation over the summer,” Horvath said. 

Rosemary Masser, a senior from Frederick, Maryland, was hired as a junior and had taken most of the packaging courses before beginning the internship. Although Masser knew the basics, she gained practical knowledge through her experience as an intern. Masser came to Tech studying engineering, but was always interested in design. “It [Packaging and Unit Load Design] combined the engineering principles I wanted and the design aspect,” Masser said. “I can tailor my [packaging] projects to marketing and design.” Every product produced in the world will be packaged somewhere along the supply chain. “The world is so global now. We buy a lot of products far away from our home, and somehow those products need to get where we are,” Masser said. 

The three interns gained a variety of experience during their summer internship. While interns at other companies grabbed coffee and made copies, the Packaging and Unit Load Design interns conducted research, took field trips, and gave the lab its very own makeover. 

One of the best parts of the job for Shiner is that it’s hands-on. “The things you get to do are exciting. It’s not just any old job,” Shiner said. Hoepker agrees. “I enjoy doing testing way more than sitting at a desk,” he said. 

If you’re wondering why you should care about the interns’ research, let’s just say that without these students, your food would be quite moldy and your brand new laptop might arrive with a broken screen. For a large part of the summer, Hoepker, Shiner, and Masser tested the mold on pallets for a pallet manufacturer located in Wisconsin.

 “If you have mold on a pallet, it can easily spread onto the product,” said Hoepker. 

Students have been involved with every part of the research, including development of a testing procedure for mold. They ranked the pallets on how moldy they were and then measured the moisture content for each pallet. 

“The pallets get shipped in trailers…if someone is driving across the country…it can be a long time before anyone opens that trailer,” Shiner said. 

A company can lose time and money if it turns out that the pallets or products have grown mold during the journey from point A to point B. The students found that trailers with good ventilation systems can effectively prevent growth on pallets. 


Student Intern -Packaging Student intern Rosemary Masser (standing) and Dr. Laszlo Horvath run tests in the lab at the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design

The interns travelled from Blacksburg to Richmond for the East Coast Sawmill and Logging Equipment Exposition (EXPO), America’s leading trade show for the forest products industry. At the EXPO, the interns explained what the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech is all about. They also answered questions about packaging science for curious attendees. In Richmond, the three students learned about how a tree becomes a pallet as well as how pallets are built and recycled. 

“We learned a lot, and it helped get the name of the program out there,” Hoepker said of the EXPO. 

Target wouldn’t be the bargain shopper’s paradise it is without its massive warehouses to package and organize merchandise. Hoepker, Shiner, and Masser toured Target’s 1.5 million square-foot warehouse in Stuarts Draft, VA. The warehouse is one of the largest buildings in Virginia. By touring the warehouse, the interns learned about Target’s racking systems, package tracking process, and overall operating procedure. “I was able to apply the knowledge I learned in classes and see it actually being used,” Hoepker said of touring the Target warehouse. 

During the tour, the students saw furniture that they had previously tested and found problems with. “We were able to see the tests [that] we did during the summer impacting the real world,” Masser said. The tour of the Target warehouse also gave students a chance to network. During an engineering EXPO at Virginia Tech, Masser saw the tour guide from the Target warehouse field trip. 

The tour guide told Masser there was no need to wait in a long line of hopeful employees. She automatically gave Masser an interview.

 “The man who interviewed me was the manager from the Target warehouse we toured and knew Dr. Horvath by name when I mentioned him. It was nice to have that connection,” Masser said.

If the students learned one real-life skill during their internship, it was organization. With a little push from Dr. Horvath, students completely revamped the lab at the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design.

“When we first got there this summer, some of the rooms were completely filled with boxes and you could barely open the door,” Hoepker said of the lab.

The students transformed the lab into a neat freak’s heaven.

The team adopted the principles of Lean Manufacturing, which target every type of waste in an organization, including excess materials and wasted time. First, they used the 5S principles to removed broken and unnecessary items from the lab and categorize equipment into tools they used daily and tools only used occasionally. They installed new shelf systems and painted all the machines. Masser drew out a map of the new lab for the team to reference while reorganizing.

Students taped off sections in the lab for each machine, labeling specific sections with different colors of tape. They drew shadows around all the tools hanging on the wall. With the shadowing system, it is obvious which tool has been removed, and it is easy to it put back in the correct place. The three interns even wrote detailed instructions for running tests so that they get done quickly.

The interns also created task boards. “We have a task board that shows which tasks need to get done on the particular day. You put your initials if you finish or start it,” Shiner said.

Overall, students found the internship helpful for future jobs. Masser had no trouble answering even the toughest questions in job interviews. When asked in an interview to talk about a task she had to immediately implement, she jumped right into talking about having to find quick solutions to problems during her internship. Students developed time-management skills while on the job.

“Everything was scheduled. We would have one week to complete tests…and we had to think ahead of time,” said Masser.

Shiner says he learned how to think in a new way. “Most of the problems we get…don’t have a clearly defined solution,” Shiner said. “You [have to] come up with original ideas.” Their ideas, like their internship, are certainly original, and you can expect more from these three.

Shiner continues to work about five to six hours per week at the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design during the school year. This summer, he hopes to work for a packaging company and has already had an interview with Packaging Corporation of America. Masser will move to Atlanta in June to begin working at Manhattan Associates, a company that builds custom software for stores like Walmart and Target. Hoepker took a break from school this semester to work at the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design 40 hours per week and will be hiking the Appalachian Trail from March until August.

Dr. Horvath has faith in the students as well. “They already have knowledge to go out to companies and start producing value for them,” Horvath said of the interns.

The internship program will be further expanded in the summer of 2013 to provide experience to five students at the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials. The summer interns will have an opportunity to gain additional experience related to continuous improvement, standards, management, and leadership as part of the Sustainable Packaging Designer Trainee program starting from Fall 2013.



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