Wrapping up at school Packaging: New graduates of an Aberdeen Proving Ground course now can safely ship everything from computer chips to battle tanks.

May 24, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Graduates of an Aberdeen school of packaging won't be in your local department store next Christmas wrapping presents in gaily colored paper, bright ribbon and fancy bows.

But they might be anywhere else across the country -- or overseas -- packaging everything from delicate electronic components to jet engines, even a huge battle tank for safe shipment to military units somewhere on the globe.

"To Preserve and Protect" is the motto of the School of Military Packaging Technology at Aberdeen Proving Ground -- one that its dean, Larry J. Franks, said is taken very seriously because the lives of soldiers, sailors and airmen depend on the school's success.

There can be no shortcuts, because improper packaging could result in a vital spare part or some piece of equipment arriving damaged or inoperable -- and mean casualties for a field unit, said Franks, a Navy veteran. "Materiel readiness is what we're all about."

Most classes have a few corner-cutters -- but their tricks always backfire and cost more than the time they tried to save, said Richard S. Cunningham, a 20-year Army and Air Force veteran who is chief of the packaging sciences department.

The class that graduated May 17 followed the familiar trail of errors, until the students learned the cost in time -- and teasing from classmates.

One group hammered and screwed together a plywood crate that didn't make the grade, and had to start again. "They wanted to hurry but it came out the wrong design," said instructor John A. Antal Jr.

"We fought like dogs. We had five generals and no privates," said Tim Jones, who works for Hughes Missiles System in California. He has taken company packaging courses, but wanted the cachet of a certified Defense Department course.

J. R. Mitchell, who grew up in Linthicum Heights but works at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, blamed his group's mistake on "the box-cutting machine." It had been set for the previous exercise "and we forgot to move it," he admitted, reluctantly.

A ruined wristwatch is inevitable in the course. "Everyone wants to clean his jewelry in the ultrasonic cleaning machine," Cunningham said. "The watch comes out nice and clean, but it doesn't work anymore. They forget it's water-resistant, not waterproof."

Military supplies have been packaged for transport since armies began, but that task started to become a specialty after World War II. The school, which began as a single course in 1950 during the Korean War, has been based at Aberdeen since 1963.

The school's mission is to graduate certified military packaging professionals, with tasks far removed from Christmas gift-wrapping.

Courses run from basic introduction to preservation and packaging to the handling and packaging of electrostatic discharge items such as computer boards, and of hazardous materials for transportation and storage.

The most recent course did not include specialized "haz-mat" packing, but the subject was mentioned because of speculation that oxygen canisters in the cargo hold might have been involved in the Everglades crash of ValuJet Flight 592, killing the 110 people aboard.

"Nothing has been proven," Cunningham said, "but the bottom line is that the discussion gives more credence to the value of 'haz-mat' packaging."

Packaging is the seventh-largest industry in the United States, Cunningham said. "So much of the cost of any item is in the packaging, that's why packaging contracts are such big business."

Franks and Cunningham said they saw plenty of equipment lost or damaged during their service careers because of faulty packaging and are determined that their students receive the best possible training.

During the Persian Gulf war, Cunningham set up the operations depot at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, as civilian deputy director of logistics. Packaging skills were vital not only in getting materiel to the depot, but in cleaning and repackaging what had to be returned to the United States after the war, he said.

The school holds courses year-round for members of the armed forces who deal with packaging and transportation of military goods at the hands-on and administrative levels, for members of other federal agencies, for state and local agencies and for packagers employed by private-sector defense contractors.

Modern technology has produced a wide range of packaging materials such as treated paper, plastics and foam squirted into a box that hardens to form a plastic shell around the contents.

Students are taught how to choose the proper protective material for each item, the proper material for the inner wrapping, the cushioning and the outer package. Boxes are tested for their capacity to survive heavy weights when stacked in transport.

There is plenty of equipment to learn about -- box cutters, heat sealers and a table where the operator must be attached to a ground wire when packing electronic components to prevent damaging electrostatic discharge.

But some things seem eternal, as any former GI will recall who ever had to clean the thick protective gunk off his newly issued rifle. They still use the stuff.

In some courses, the final exam includes a competition to construct the best package. Students do it from scratch, deciding how an item should be wrapped, protected and boxed.

The packages are lab tested with electronic sensors inside. Each is dropped 30 inches and an oscilloscope measures the impact. The lowest impact effect wins; losers go back to the drawing board.

Because packaging is so expensive, Cunningham said, the school teaches the most efficient methods known to ensure that equipment will arrive at its destination in usable condition.

"Overpacking only builds up cost, while underpacking costs in damage and replacements, so the idea is to get it right the first time," Cunningham said.

Pub Date: 5/24/96

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