Display Pack wins packaging award

May 11, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Last year a brainstorming creative group at Display Pack Inc. in Grand Rapids reeled in a number of potential problem-solving ideas for its client, the Wisconsin company that makes Minn Kota trolling motors for fishing boats. One of the ideas was not just a keeper — it was a prize winner.

The Institute of Packaging Professionals decided that Display Pack's clever design for the Minn Kota AutoPilot accessory merited one of its AmeriStar Awards for 2008. Representatives from Display Pack, a manufacturer of consumer packaging, will be at the IoPP annual awards ceremony in Chicago this month to accept the award.

The customer, Johnson Outdoors Inc., of Racine, Wis., approached Display Pack about a year ago, seeking help in the design of packaging for the new AutoPilot for its Minn Kota trolling motors. Minn Kota, which is made in Grand Forks, N.D., is the oldest line of electric trolling motors for sport fisherman.

The package designed by Display Pack is more than a storage element for the product: It also serves in installing the AutoPilot, a device that snaps onto a trolling motor to assist with GPS navigation. The packaging includes a thermoformed plastic tray that holds the AutoPilot. When installing the accessory, sensitive electronic parts are temporarily exposed, but must not be touched. The plastic tray becomes the applicator the user holds when installing the sensitive device. The tray then secures into the trolling motor and remains permanently in place to protect the accessory from the transfer of static charges to electrical components.

“What’s unique about this package is not only its dual purpose as package and applicator, but that the applicator actually fits inside the boat motor and it doesn’t end up in a landfill,” said Marty Tidball, Display Pack’s director of marketing and sales. “This package is just one example of the innovation and creativity typical of Display Pack’s in-house design team.”

That team includes packaging engineers, tool and die experts and packaging designers.

Kristie Vos, creative services manager at Display Pack, said the company has a well-established routine for responding to very challenging requests from customers. With all the product data and packaging requirements in hand, they often start by getting input from end users of the product. Then they bring together experts from throughout the various Display Pack departments, including the in-house die shop that provides tooling for the packaging.

"We also invited some of the guys (from Display Pack) who were really into fishing," said Lynn Hitchcock of Display Pack’s prepress and creative services department, who works with Vos.

Eventually, the creative team comes up with a wide variety of ideas.

"There's no such thing as a dumb idea. We just get them all out there," said Vos, adding that the group will "reel them all in." Then they go to work on the ideas, eventually boiling them down to ones that will work.

In this case, the primary need was packaging that would protect the sensitive electronic contacts in shipping and during the installation process. One of the team had the idea to use the package as a tool for the installation procedure, a tool that would remain with the AutoPilot inside the motor cover. That had a green advantage to it, because now the internal thermoformed clear plastic package wouldn't end up in a landfill.

Vos said challenges are nothing new to Display Pack. The company has designed packaging for many types of consumer products, including General Electric energy-saving light bulbs, DeWalt tools and for Hewlett Packard, among many others. Vos said, for instance, a lot of mobile phones come in packages designed or manufactured by Display Pack.

Display Pack has proved to be a valuable resource for start-ups in West Michigan. Recently, a new company called Plumstone received an Innovation Award from the Small Business Association of Michigan. Its first product, called SunStick, is a small tool to help garden enthusiasts measure sunlight in different areas of their gardens. It is packaged in clear material from Display Pack for high visibility in garden supply stores.

The AmeriStar Award will be presented to Display Pack at the AmeriStar Package Awards presentation during the IoPP Packaging Summit held May 19-20. This is Display Pack’s third AmeriStar Award since 2006.

Vos and the other Display Pack employees are particularly proud of the awards in view of the fact that it is competing against packaging design teams that sometimes are part of much larger corporations, such as Proctor & Gamble.

“We are honored to be recognized by the industry for innovative packaging design,” said Vic Hansen, president of Display Pack. “Display Pack is proud to employ an award-winning team that continually creates innovative consumer packaging for customers worldwide.”

Located on Monroe Avenue in northwest Grand Rapids, Display Pack was founded by Roger Hansen in his garage in 1967.

The company takes pride in being a "single source solution" — managing entire packaging projects from start to finish within its own facilities, including designing, prototyping, printing, die-cutting, thermoforming, contract packaging, and warehousing and logistics. Industries served include automotive, electronics, household products, bath and beauty, food and consumer goods.

Molded plastic parts for the auto industry, including dashboard components, had been a significant part of the company's business. That business suffered when the auto industry went into decline last year.

Although the privately held company is not releasing its sales numbers for 2008, executive vice president Jim Woodcock said it was "greatly affected by the automotive downturn," which forced it to downsize. About 18 months ago, company officials told the Business Journal that Display Pack had about 500 full-time employees, with revenue of about $80 million. Now its Web site reports a total of about 400 employees.

Woodcock said "cost-cutting measures continue today as the demand for automotive-related product has been further diminished." However, he added, "On a brighter note, our diversified company has greatly benefited from a strong packaging demand," with record sales in its new packaging business in the first quarter of 2009.

In fact, Display Pack established a small manufacturing operation last year in Southern California, its first facility outside of Grand Rapids. The California operation is close to where bulk shipments of many consumer products from Asia are brought into the U.S. Woodcock said the new facility will position the company to take advantage of new sales opportunities outside of the Midwest.

Vos said the economic downturn may be helping Display Pack because many downsized companies are forced to turn to external packaging designers.

"Today, companies are running so lean" that many employees "are wearing multiple hats," said Vos, and those are the individuals who frequently turn to Display Pack for help.

"The story is always the same from the customer," joked Vos. "They call us and say, 'We're in trouble and we don't have any time left. We need you to handle this problem and we need it in 48 hours.' Or something like that."

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