Automation / Innovation / Columns

Engineering R&D: Talent Pool Development

December 5, 2011
KEYWORDS PMMI / staffing / training
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Development of new systems and technology is essential for economic survival. Of equal or greater importance is cultivation of the human talent necessary to operate those systems and build the machinery that supports them. Higher education needs all the champions it can get. One of education’s biggest supporters from the packaging machinery industry is Nick L. Wilson, founder and president of Morrison Container Handling Solutions in suburban Chicago.

Wilson’s company produces changeover parts and systems for packaging machines and a variety of material-handling equipment, but its core product is part of its former name: Morrison Timing Screw, established in 1971. Feed and timing screws orient and position fast-moving packages entering filling machines and other equipment. They are ubiquitous in packaging halls, notably those of food and beverage companies.

An advocate for better training and education for the people who design and build packaging machinery, Wilson serves on the board of directors of the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) and is currently board chairman. Wilson also serves on the advisory council of the Purdue Technology Center of Northwest Indiana, a business incubator, and the Dean’s Technology Advisory Board at Purdue University Calumet, Hammond, IN, where he played a seminal role in the establishment of the nation’s first four-year degree program in electro-mechanical engineering for packaging, also known as mechatronics, in 2008.

A native of Edgewood, IA, Wilson earned a BS degree in chemical engineering from Iowa State University and an MBA in accounting from Chicago’s Loyola University.

FE: What are the most striking changes you’ve seen over 40 years?

Wilson: Tremendous consolidation and change have occurred. When we started, 120 bottles per minute was the typical infeed speed. Now, you’re looking at 300-500 containers in most industries and 800-2,000 in beverage. The issues change tremendously when you’re handling those speeds.

The transition from mechanical systems to servos was a huge change. It requires people with knowledge of electro-mechanical systems, and that kind of skill set wasn’t being taught 15 years ago. It’s hard to find hands-on people who understand electronic controls and the logic involved to use them in a machine.
When I started, the engineering groups in the liquor industry regularly shared knowledge on the production side. Companies fought on the marketing side and cooperated on the production side. All of them benefited, and cooperation allowed them to bring their line speeds up considerably. I don’t see that kind of collaboration anymore. The nearest thing is when engineers from multiple industries get together and share concerns. People like to know that others are dealing with the same problems and that their problems are not unique.


FE: Is it fair to characterize timing screws as niche products?

Wilson: Container handling often is seen as a minor component, but if you can’t get the containers in the machine, automation will fail. That’s why a lot of filler OEMs and others will outsource the design work.

FE: What types of projects do you get involved in?

Wilson: We did some work for a munitions company in Kansas City. There was equipment literally from the 1940s in the plant. They were moving bullets in totes from station to station, throughout the process. We came up with a number of solutions for them that made the process continuous.

FE: How did your education in chemical engineering prepare you for this work?

Wilson: I thought there was more opportunity in chemical when I went to college, but I ended up working in mechanical engineering. After graduating, I was a research engineer for Standard Oil in Whiting, IN, which is only 16 miles away. After five years in the corporate world, I decided to be an entrepreneur, like my father.

I grew up in a rural community in Northeast Iowa. My dad had an implement and propane business. We always built things and fixed things. Material handling is about solving problems, and solving problems tickles my mind. Personally, I’m not interested in cookie cutter solutions; once you get the cookie cut, there’s no challenge. My team comes to me when there are unique problems to solve.

FE: Your alma mater recently honored you with the Professional Achievement Citation in Engineering (PACE) award in recognition of your work. What accomplishments most appealed to the award committee?

Wilson: I’ve worked with Purdue University Calumet’s (PUC) School of Technology to establish the first four-year degree in mechatronics, which combines mechanical and electrical engineering disciplines necessary in the design and construction of today’s packaging machinery. This is a degree for people who get their hands on equipment and make it work.


Finding qualified people is one of the most challenging issues facing the packaging industry, and mechatronics is one of the most severely limited skill areas. You can’t survive and grow without educated workers. The PUC program is important, but we’re not even touching the demand.

FE: When did your involvement with PUC begin?

Wilson: Some of the engineering professors were looking for ways to adapt the curriculum to meet contemporary needs, and I suggested that the school get involved in packaging and take advantage of scholarships available from PMMI and others. It was hard to get traction, though, so I paid for two professors to visit PACK EXPO Las Vegas in 2007. They had no idea of the possibilities. They were like kids in a candy store when they walked the aisles. They wrote a first draft of the curriculum on the flight back.


I arranged for the professors to visit several OEMs so they could see firsthand the engineering and manufacturing process. When the OEMs saw how enthusiastic the professors were, they became excited, too, and the effort snowballed. OEMs have contributed almost $1 million worth of machinery and equipment to the school’s engineering lab.


I worked with the school on adjusting the curriculum and met with the state certification board to get mechatronics recognized. Approval was granted in a year, which was considered lightning speed.


Early in the process, Niaz Latif joined the school as the dean of technology. He saw the possibilities of this program and has been a major supporter. This is interesting work, and the jobs are not exportable; they stay here.


Thirty percent of PMMI’s membership is based within 100 miles of the school, which has helped in arranging internships for the students so they can gain hands-on experience. Since the degree program started, the Center for Packaging Machinery Industry has been established to bring the school and industry together to address needs. But the need for more training is global.


FE: Are you involved in other efforts to recruit and train young engineers and technicians?

Wilson: I’ve been active on PMMI’s education committee, where we’re developing mechanical certifications at multiple levels of skill competencies in PLC programming, mechanical drive components and other competencies. Training is done online. And PMMI supports student visits to PACK EXPO.


We have at least a dozen PMMI certified trainers on the Morrison staff. We use them both to train people inside our company and out, teaching end-users’ workers not only how to maintain the equipment but to continuously improve changeover performance. Education is critically important to our country, and we actively encourage and pay for our employees to pursue a course of study, regardless [of whether] it is related to their jobs. It changes the way they see things.

FE: Given your commitment to education, why didn’t you pursue an advanced engineering degree?

Wilson: I needed to go to work. Back then, you could earn as you go, and I could just keep ahead of the bill collector. 

While in school, I worked as a research assistant at the Iowa State atomic energy lab, now known as the US Department of Energy Ames Laboratory. Those kinds of jobs, as well as the lab itself, could likely go unfunded in the current federal debt-reduction climate. I think it’s a mistake. 

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