“About 10 percent of the packaging in stores serves no useful purpose,” Tom Lange says. “It doesn’t protect the product. It doesn’t improve the customer experience. It doesn’t do anything. It’s only in there because no one engineered it out.”
As senior director of modelling and simulation at P&G, it’s Lange’s job to reduce waste not only of finished products but also in the process of designing, testing and creating finished products. Lange is also chief technologist for reliability engineering at P&G, and head of computer-aided engineering.
Lange says the traditional paradigm of focusing solely on physical prototypes no longer makes sense. It’s a very expensive and time-consuming process and isn’t the best way to determine if a product is fit for use.”
One of the big virtual success stories at P&G was the development of the first plastic coffee canister.
The AromaSeal canister is a high-density polyethylene coffee container that replaced metal cans in use for 150 years. The new design is blow-moulded with a proprietary co-extruded six-layer barrier that provides 12-month shelf life. The new plastic container is dent-resistant, lightweight and stackable. A built-in handle makes the can easier to hold.
The peelable seal includes a patented, one-way valve in the centre, allowing freshly roasted coffee to off-gas in the container, eliminating back pressure and the potential for package explosion. Because of the seal, the canister can be filled and sealed immediately after it’s roasted, instead of having to cool and naturally off-gas prior to being packaged. The seal also helps to preserve freshness, to keep air out and to equalize pressure during shipping, which is important because the coffee is made in New Orleans and then shipped over the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast.
“Without Finite Element Analysis, we would not have been able to develop this canister,” says Lange.
P&G also does significant virtual testing of bottle strength when stacked on pallets during warehouse storage. “The bottle is a structural element in the warehouse,” says Lange. Various load cases in bottles are tested. And that’s increasingly important as P&G engineers take thickness and weight out of bottles to reduce solid waste, and cut resin costs.
Engineers also virtually simulate tendencies of metallised labels to peel. “It’s all about materials’ properties,” says Lange. “You can answer those types of questions virtually. If you go ahead and make the stuff, it’s an expensive proposition.”
“In a physical experiment, the test includes everything, even the things you don’t know about” says Lange. “In the virtual mode, you know everything that’s included in the test. But you don’t know what you don’t know. Is one risk better than the other?”
He points out that virtual modelling, however, is based on testing conducted on real materials. P&G’s simulation groups include scientists who conduct tests to build databases for the simulations. In an example outside of P&G, Moldflow introduced simulation of plastic flows inside mould cavities in 1974. Today, simulations by Moldflow (now part of Autodesk) are based on tests performed on more than 8,000 standard plastics compounds, and more than 4,000 proprietary compounds developed for specific customers, such as General Motors.
Lange is quick to point out that the trend to virtual simulation is being driven in part by rapidly dropping costs for super computing. In 2001, a unit of computing power cost USD 1.50 in his estimation. Today, that same unit costs 15 cents. Within five years, he feels it will drop as low as one cent.
P&G’s work in simulation dates to the 1980s when the company began work on reliability engineering – which is basically the study of why systems fail. Lange calls that “pathology work” and it’s the low end of potential for virtual study. Reliability engineering makes broken systems work faster, rather than designing optimal systems from the beginning, in Lange’s view.
Lange is careful to distinguish simulation work from the work done by product design teams. “They’re worried about, shape, equity and artwork. Lange defines equity as locomotion that gets people excited. We work on the simple things: Can we pack it? Will it break? Does the lid fit? Are we making the most economical use of materials?”
As the power of simulation has grown, it has evolved beyond product development into process development. In what Lange describes as a virtual race track, engineers start with a CAD file and simulate the progression of a bottle on a packaging line. Simulations show the tendency of some bottle designs to bump and fall, clogging the line. Expensive work-arounds are avoided by the line simulation. Sometimes a simple change in container design can solve the problem.
Role of pathology
Lange says many organizations use their modelling simulation groups to perform design pathology work. That is, to determine why designs did not work after the fact. It’s a virtual trial-and-error system,” says Lange. “I only use pathology work to build the credibility of our organization. The real goal is to conduct analysis-led discovery. I want to develop 128 different versions to make sure that we are optimal when we first go into production.”
As a final step, Lange says it’s important that engineers involved in virtual simulation formally quantify their savings with involvement of financial staff for credibility. Savings at P&G are broken into four buckets: capital avoidance, materials savings, innovation savings, and new business creation, such as the Folgers can. Lange says his group saves about five times its costs on average based on data confirmed by P&G finance officers.
This is an extract of an article written by Doug Smock, Contributing Editor of Design News, July 30, 2009 – titled: “Virtual Design Takes off at P&G”. Tom Lange is nominated for the Design News’ ”2009 Engineer of the Year” Award. Cast your vote!