Think of it as the packaging equivalent of the Motion Picture Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Award for Lifetime Achievement: When selecting inductees, the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute’s Hall of Fame panelists consider each nominee’s entire body of work. The yardstick for engineers includes not only inventions and technical achievements but also their contributions to the industry and their community. By those criteria, only one engineer made the cut in 2010: Robert K. Dodrill, chairman of Rollprint Packaging Products Inc. in suburban Chicago.
A native of West Virginia, Bob Dodrill graduated from West Virginia University in 1962 with a degree in chemical engineering. He joined DuPont Corp., working primarily with food companies and their packaging suppliers. Rollprint’s roots were in printing, but Dodrill guided its conversion to a supplier of flexible packaging for the then-nascent medical packaging field. His first innovation was the foil header pouch, an enclosure with a breathable panel to allow sterilization with ethylene oxide prior to venting and sealing. A clear version followed, enabling surgeons to gauge the size of human bones and tissues for transplantation before opening the pouch and breaking sterility. Hall of Fame judges also were impressed with Dodrill’s contributions to food retorting, with one suggesting the military’s lightweight, zero-defect pouches for ready-to-eat meals would not have been possible without them.
Dodrill is winding down his professional career, though he continues to work 12-hour days and attests to the enthusiasm he retains. His daughter (a chemical engineer) and son (a mechanical engineer) are assuming day-to-day responsibilities at Rollprint.
Dodrill: After graduating from college, I went to work for DuPont, consulting with converters of packaging materials. Cellophane was king and had been since the 1920s, but cellophane is a very fuel-intensive material. When polyethylene and OPP became available, I knew those materials would take over because of their cost advantages. One of the companies I consulted with was Rollprint. In the 1970s, 70 percent of Rollprint’s business was the cellophane used to wrap single-serve packages of Keebler crackers.
The market for disposable medical devices started to develop in the early 1970s. I told several of my converter clients, “You might be interested in developing sterile packages for these devices.” They all said the market was too small, and I was out of my mind to think there was a future in flexible packaging for medical. Rollprint was still primarily printing on rollstock and wasn’t doing any laminating and coating. I saw the opportunity to add those capabilities and bought into the company. Today, we only print to sell our lamination and sealant technology.
FE: Why was the foil header pouch so successful?
Dodrill: Ethylene oxide (ETO) is the only acceptable way to sterilize sutures, and that presented a problem when absorbable autosutures were introduced. The package needs to provide a high moisture barrier, but it also has to be completely vented after treatment because ETO is a strong poison to humans. Our solution entailed two strips of film, with the sides joined by a peelable sealant and forming a chevron at one end. A breathable Tyvek panel is affixed to one strip at the other end. The panel allows ETO to enter the pouch and then be evacuated before the pouch is sealed and pinched off below it.
The peelable sealant is critical in validating pouch integrity. It cohesively splits when opened. If a hair were present, a clear line would be visible on the film’s surface. That’s the final proof that a nurse looks for before handing surgical gloves, operating instruments and other materials to the surgeon.
FE: How did you safeguard that intellectual property?
Dodrill: We received a patent for the header pouch, and we were five years into it when Continental Can came out with a similar package. Our lawyers sent them a cease-and-desist letter, and they said, “Sue us.” They had a lot of money and we didn’t, so we abandoned the patent.
Since then, we’ve relied on proprietary processes and trade secrets. It’s been effective. We introduced our sealant technology for coated Tyvek at least 10 years ago, and no one else has figured out how to do it yet.
FE: You still hold a 1994 patent for a process for retort sterilization using flexible packaging.
Dodrill: We patented the technology with the intent of giving it away to customers. It was related to our work with Hisaka, a Japanese manufacturer of advanced retorts. We started Advanced Retort Systems with the intention of supplying Hisaka’s equipment to North American firms, but we were 20 years too soon.
Major food manufacturers introduced shelf-stable entrées in flexible packaging in the early ‘90s, and they were disasters. The problem was that they simply were canned goods in lidded trays. They used steam or air–over-steam retorts, which produce stratified layers of air, a poor heat conductor and steam, which is a great conductor. That’s a problem for sealed pouches because of the lack of pressure equilibrium between the retort and the pouch, which can rupture or deform.
We knew the problem could be overcome because I had seen Japanese technicians using Hisaka equipment do it. They put sensors inside the pouches and closely monitored pressure during come up and cool down. While they controlled pressure empirically, we did it scientifically by using the laws of thermodynamics.
FE: What was the most complex equipment project you attempted?
Dodrill: In 1995, we began concept design and engineering work on a five-layer coextrusion laminator/coater. It was commissioned in 1998 and may still be the only machine of its kind in the world. Besides extrusion coating and laminating conventional polyolefins and polyolefin copolymers, it can extrusion-coat polyester and copolyester resins. These coatings can be used as high-temperature sealants for retort, ovenable and microwave applications, providing both weld and peelable heat seals. They provide excellent chemical resistance and antiscalping properties. The equipment can mix up to 21 resins and hold a tolerance of 0.25 percent variation in the resin blend.
When we approached bankers for a $10 million development loan, they asked how large the market was for this capability. We couldn’t answer because the capability didn’t exist. It was an interesting negotiation. Only after demonstrating the company wouldn’t go under if the project failed did we get the loan.
FE: You served five years on the Flexible Packaging Association’s board and were a founder of the Sterilization Packaging Manufacturers Council. What prompted the council’s creation?
Dodrill: Eight firms representing about 80 percent of the medical packaging business in the US and 70 percent of the worldwide market are on the council. Testing requirements for seal integrity and other performance indicators are very stringent, and in the early 1990s, medical-supply customers were demanding different tests for the same attributes. Finally, we got together to establish standardized testing. That work has since been turned over to the American Society for Testing Materials. The eight founding members are well represented on the ASTM committee that focuses on flexible package converting.
FE: Do you see much potential for high-performance sealants and laminates in food and beverage?
Dodrill: There are thousands of food applications in Japan for our products, though relatively few here. Part of the problem is that people look at the individual components of flexible packaging, which makes our films look much more expensive than foil. But with the exception of Hershey Kisses, foil is always laminated onto another material and requires adhesives, in which case our low-end solutions often are cheaper.
We developed stick packaging for inhalation therapy, and that technology is beginning to transfer to foods requiring a strong moisture and oxygen barrier. So I started in food, went to medical, and now I’m coming back to food.