So, with UPA being relatively new, tell us a little about it and what led to its formation.
UPA was started by a group of ordinary people who had a need to network in the packaging community and a desire to grow professionally in their careers. We needed an organization that would help us create relationships within our regional packaging community and at the same time provide us opportunities to broaden our knowledge base.
We could not find an organization that provided us that framework, so the genesis began after initiation of multiple brainstorming sessions which emboldened us to create one.
There are a lot of worthy packaging associations out there – and UPA is proud to have connectivity to many of these associations. What sets us apart though, is that UPA is about individual membership. We are the only US trade association for the overall packaging industry that a professional can belong to as an individual. We do have corporate sponsorships, but membership is exclusive to the individual. Our motto is: “UPA is about YOU” and we really mean that.
So why is individual membership important?
Well, the answer is, that individual membership puts the professional themselves personally in charge of their own career. For example, let’s say that your employer is a member of a large and prestigious packaging trade association. While that is fantastic for your company, unless your employer provides you specific direction and funding to participate in the meetings, events and committees of that association, you simply don’t get to participate. You’re not in control. UPA is different. Because you belong to UPA as an individual, you are in the driver’s seat with regards to your professional development in the industry.
We encourage our members to leverage the benefits of being a member by letting us know what they need and how we can help them. If there’s a topic that you need to learn more about – perhaps we can find a speaker. Is there an end use application you need to understand – we’ll look for a tour opportunity. We find that generally, when someone comes to us with an idea for an event, there will be several other people that will be interested as well.
What’s your core mission?
Our stated mission is: “Helping YOU realize your potential in the packaging community through strategic connections and shared learning events that deliver value to a continuously evolving industry.”
What we are doing boils down to two objectives. One, to provide opportunities for packaging professionals to strategically network and two, to provide opportunities for packaging professionals to learn.
I’d like to elaborate a bit on what we mean by strategic networking. For many of us, the world of packaging is a collaborative, regionalized industry. No one company produces all packaging solutions from soup to nuts, so it is important to know who your regional players are and to have a relationship with them. For example, if you are marketing corrugated products, it’s helpful to know your regional providers of case-erecting equipment, because your product is used on their equipment to serve your common customers. Your customers might also have some unique needs and it might be important for you to know what testing services are in your area as well, or who offers automation services, or who services conveyors, etc. etc. Your connectivity to your packaging community, makes you more valuable to your customer. The best place for you to form those relationships is a non-commercial environment and UPA provides that environment.
General Chamber of Commerce type networking is great. But for UPA, our goal is to provide our members the opportunity to meet and form relationships with people specific to the packaging industry that will help them in their profession.
The second, and equally important objective that I mentioned, is to provide packaging professionals an opportunity to learn. There was a time, not too long ago, when most companies had fairly significant training budgets. For most of us, that time has passed, and we have come to realize that large training budgets are unlikely to be part of our business environment again. At the same time, employers expectations for their employees to remain apprised of trends and knowledgeable of emerging technology has not been modified. So, if you are in the packaging industry, which is an ongoing whirlwind of changing trends and technologies, how on earth do you remain professionally relevant? That is a question that UPA supports to answer. We strive diligently to hold events and tours that are impactful and complimentary to the learning needs of our members and expose them to technologies and processes that would otherwise not be accessible.
Can you tell me about the culture of UPA?
Oh I love to talk about our culture! When we first sat around a table and talked about forming UPA, the one thing we wanted was to make sure was that we had a warm and welcoming culture, where people could have fun. We have to do a lot of things (meetings, expense reports, etc) in our professional lives, that quite honestly aren’t very enjoyable – so why join an association and go to events, if you can’t have fun?
UPA events are a place, where you always know that you will be welcomed and it will be a fun, meaningful experience. Our Board, as well as many of our members, act as ambassadors at our events. We always make sure people truly feel included and we make it a priority to introduce everyone and lastly we keep our meetings relaxed and informal. We post a code of conduct at our meetings (it’s on our website too), and the number one thing on our conduct list it to “have fun.” Also as part of our culture we utilized cutting edge communication technology that encourages members to become engage by actively participating in the day to day process of creating UPA.
Would you say the help and support you can offer is more practical than advisory?
Practical. There are two statements that we hear a lot from our members and from people who attend our events. The first is, “Wow, I didn’t know about that process/technology/material/business opportunity” and the second is “I met someone who can help me solve…” Something else worth noting is the feedback we hear regarding how our events help our members and attendees learn more about their customers.
Time after time we have members formulate connections which benefit them commercially – and these connections transpired only because of a UPA event.
What are the main challenges and drivers you see affecting the industry?
Oh my! There are so many things happening and the pace of change only seems to be getting more intense. Here are my thoughts on what I believe to be the main challenges and drivers. I have a lot of conversations around these topics so I am also speaking on behalf of a number of our members.
Sustainability and China’s stance on recycling
As we all know by now, China has stopped accepting recyclables from the rest of the world, now we must do something different with our municipal waste streams. This issue is dramatically impacting the recycling industry, and it is only a matter of time before it will impact the packaging industry. Packaging manufacturers produce most of the products that go in curbside recycling bins, and undoubtedly they will be impacted. The questions now are – “how” and “when”? This situation has also brought to light that there is a need for education around plastics - particularly around recyclability.
Labor and Automation
We are operating in an economy that is pretty much at or close to full employment. Many businesses that we talk to, are struggling to fill positions. For many packaging applications, a lot of labor is still manual (picking, packaging, sorting, etc). For many businesses that have these manual operations, the answer to this dilemma is automation. We believe we will see growing demand for cobotics and robotics for packaging applications.
While ecommerce is hardly a new trend, there are still a lot of new things happening. For example, the food segment of ecommerce appears to be going gangbusters, and packaging is a huge enabler of the meal kit/fresh/frozen food supply chain. Additionally, the customer unboxing experience is becoming more of a marketing tool, and this has a lot of interesting packaging implications.
The situation with the US vs Rest-of-world regarding tariffs has been turbulent and not crystal clear. There is no doubt however, that the packaging industry – on both the side of equipment and as well as materials, will be impacted.
What innovations do you see having particular impact?
I personally think we are going to see more and more phone based technologies that interact with packaging or packaging equipment. People are universally comfortable using their smart phones – from the age of 1 to 100. When you have a technology that is so generationally accepted, more innovations will spring from it.
One of these phone based emerging innovations that we are trying to learn more about is Augmented Reality. We do have a scheduled event on July 18th (check out our website) to discuss this emerging technology. There are a lot of applications that impact packaging – not only the fantastic marketing messages, but also supply chain applications, as well as training and repair of packaging equipment. Who needs a manual if your augmented reality app can step you through troubleshooting and repair.
Where do you hope the organization will be in five years’ time?
The vision is simple - Expecting more people having fun at engaging and relevant UPA events with more people participating who want to come and grow with us. There is a need for professional growth and development in our industry – and our objective is to strive to facilitate expanding this need in other areas. We have recently begun the process of setting up UPA branches in other regions. In five years, these branches and others will be instrumental in perpetuating the UPA culture by helping packaging professionals grow and thrive in this ever-changing industry.