'Practical' chemist hits upon packaging innovation

After earning a master’s degree in nuclear physics from Kyushu University, Masato Yuno was keen to move on from academia and try something different in the real world. This led to him joining Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. as a packaging technology researcher in 2002.

Though unaware of the gravity of his decision at the time, Yuno would subsequently experience a testing three and a half years in DNP Packaging Operations’ Basic Technology Development Department.

“I didn’t realize that packaging is basically about chemistry,” Yuno said. “I didn’t take any chemistry courses at university, as I wasn’t really a fan of the subject. Upon joining the company, I attended a meeting where I didn’t have the slightest idea what was being discussed because of the highly technical terms used. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, this is no good; I have to get to grips with this quickly.’”

Yuno subsequently tried to bone up on chemistry by reading specialist books recommended by his workplace mentor, but the information failed to sink in. As he struggled over the months, however, he discovered there were many “modes of learning” at his workplace: He was able to use a wide variety of resins to conduct numerous experiments under all sorts of temperatures, pressures and other conditions. “If I could touch an experimental product made from a certain type of resin, I was able to comprehend the nature of each variety and so could make a connection with the information in the chemistry books,” he explained. “So experimenting on various materials and handling them were really important for me.”

Yuno ended up working under his mentor for three and a half years—longer than many other DNP rookie researchers, who begin working independently after one or two years. But the self-trained “practical chemist,” albeit a late starter, shortly made a technological breakthrough that led to the creation of a ¥1 billion-a-year business for DNP through easy peelable products.

Easy peelable breakthrough

Yuno’s first assignment after becoming an independent researcher was to make an easy peelable lid material for a plastic cup used to package mozuku seaweed. At that time, DNP was making easy peelable lid materials (as a converter) by laminating several films bought from other companies. Yuno’s mission was to develop DNP’s own sealant—the innermost of the several layers that comprise the lid material—and customize it in accordance with clients’ various needs. Such sealants have to meet several important requirements: They must be easy to peel, yet strong enough to prevent leaks, while meeting hygiene requirements laid down by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as European Union and Japanese authorities. The sealants generally must be heat-resistant, as many food items require heat treatment for sterilization, though this was not the case for the mozuku product.

Yuno conducted numerous experiments using different types of resins that he subjected to various temperatures and pressures. He eventually hit upon a good proportion of resin materials that provided ideal peelability for the sealant—not too stiff or too loose—while also meeting all the other requirements.

“I finally realized that everything I’d done since entering the company was worthwhile,” Yuno said. “But, at the same time, I knew I still had a long way to go [before becoming a reliable researcher]”

Prime opportunity from overseas

A couple of years after the mozuku lid success, Yuno encountered a prime opportunity—this time on the global stage. When U.S. food makers switched their packaging from cans to plastic cups nearly a decade ago, there was a surge in demand for easy peelable lid materials.

As DNP succeeded in manufacturing its own sealants, its international competitive edge in lid materials became considerably sharpened, cost-wise. Yuno embarked on developing a lid material for cat food, which must include an aluminum layer and be resistant to heat treatment of up to 125 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes. Again, he employed a trial-and-error method in the DNP packaging laboratory, spending nearly two years— during which time he “left no stone unturned”—pursuing the successful development of the new lid material.

“It was the happiest moment of my life when I heard the client was satisfied with the lid material, saying the peelability was just right,” Yuno recalled. “Nothing can compare to the joy I felt at that time.”

Since then, fruit cups, pet food and various other global brand comestibles that use DNP lid materials have shipped from Southeast Asian factories to every corner of the globe.

Cooperation with salespeople, factory workers

Researchers are not the only players in DNP’s development of packaging technology: They necessarily work closely with salespeople, who provide detailed information about clients’ needs, and factory workers, who have extensive knowledge of mass-producing lid materials.

Cooperation from factory workers is indispensable, as lid materials successfully created in the laboratory often cannot be reproduced in the factory, which uses much larger machinery and a large quantity of resin—1 or 2 tons—for a single run.

“In most cases, we have to make adjustments at the plant when mass-producing items,” Yuno said. “We need the help of experienced factory workers to fill the gap between what is made in the laboratory and what is made in the plant. Their knowledge is truly remarkable.”

Yuno’s eyes remain set on the overseas market, saying, “We researchers must have the determination to win over the global market if we want to contribute to our company’s prosperity.”

With his mission in mind, Yuno plans to further hone his skills as a practical chemist by seizing every opportunity to visit the factories, which he finds is the most effective way to understand the differences in products made in the laboratory and factory, respectively. “By doing so, I can develop lid materials that precisely meet clients’ needs in the most efficient manner and in the shortest possible time.”

  • *Publication date: Jan.27,2017
  • *DNP department names, product specifications and other details are correct only at the time of writing. They are subject to change without prior notice.