By Victoria Chilinski (CLAS ’16)
If you’ve ever eaten a granola bar or driven a car with tinted windows, then you’ve unknowingly stumbled upon the work of UConn alumnus Ken Chang (M.S. Chemical Engineering, ’85).
This month marks Chang’s 17th year with Toray Plastics (America), Inc., where he started as a Senior Product Development Engineer, then moved up the ranks to the role of Research and Development manager for his site “several years later.” Today, he serves as Director of Film Research and Development.
“I’m now responsible for running a team of people who are developing new products, both with polypropylene and polyester-based films for a variety of industrial and packaging applications,” Chang says. About half of Toray’s researchers and product developers report to him.
“When you open up a potato chip bag or corn chip bag and you see the shiny metallic film inside, probably about 80% of the time, that film is a product that [Toray Plastics] has made,” says Chang. “We make those foil-like looking films that you see in the packaging of granola bars, candy bars, and snack foods.”
Chang is also involved with Toray’s production of tinted windows, more specifically the tinted polyester films applied to windows to create such an effect, which are commonly utilized by car companies and office buildings. These “solar-control films” are designed to block out ultraviolet (UV) rays as well as infrared radiation, so that they keep buildings and cars cooler while reducing glare. According to Chang, food packaging and tinted windows are Toray’s two main applications, but the company is also involved in the development of “a whole host of other types of films.”
Chang notes that throughout his 17 years with Toray Plastics, he’s noticed a shift in consumer attitudes – Americans are starting to look for products made with renewable materials while moving away from petroleum-based materials. Plastic has historically derived from petroleum, but recent scientific developments have made plastics from renewable sources like corn and sugar cane. Another option, according to Chang, is simply to “downsize” packaging – use the same packaging materials as before, just less of it, to do “the same job that thicker or more massive packaging has done in the past.”
Still, redeveloping an otherwise functional packaging system for the environment’s sake doesn’t come without problems. Chang mentions a 2010 marketing campaign by a large national snack food producer in which their chip products were packaged in new biodegradable packaging developed in part by Toray Plastics, with Chang as a member of the project’s development team. From an engineering and environmental standpoint, the bags were an award-winning success. Consumers, however, had a big issue with the bags: they couldn’t be opened without emitting a lot of noise.
“We’re a big supplier to this food company and they challenged us to develop packaging based on polylactic acid, or PLA, a polymer made from corn starch,” says Chang. “From a textbook viewpoint, it was a complete success. Everything about the packaging’s development was sustainable, it had the properties to maintain product freshness, and it was compostable. But, the bag is made out of much stiffer materials, and, as it turns out, consumers were put off by the noise level of the bag. In a way, it’s real shame – it was a huge technical achievement to get this bag’s technology commercialized and put on the market on such a large scale. I’m a little disappointed, but an important lesson was learned – the consumers’ convenience always has to be kept in mind.” Chang notes that he could see this project becoming a great case study in business school.
Toray Plastics puts out a large number of patent applications for novel technologies each year, many of which are granted. When asked how many of these technological developments Chang has been involved in, he replies modestly, saying that he doesn’t keep count, but “if [he] had to guess, maybe 20 or so patents and patents-pending right now.”
When asked about his UConn experience, Chang is quick to mention what he misses most about our Storrs Campus: “Some of those fall days were really gorgeous. I have great memories of walking around Mirror Lake as the leaves were changing color.” Chang also reflects on the closeness he felt with his fellow graduate students in the lab. “You cook meals together, you eat together, you work together, you suffer together,” Chang jokes. “We became a very tight-knit group. We’d have departmental softball games – Chemical Engineering vs. Material Sciences.”
As someone who has been both an interview candidate and an interviewer, Chang has a lot of tips for students for their future job interviews. “First impressions are really important. You might want to say, ‘hey, first impressions aren’t that important, you don’t know the real me,’ but unfortunately the first ten or fifteen minutes of an interview is going to establish a lot in the minds of your interview panel, so your demeanor during and preparation for interviews should be taken very seriously.”
Chang also stressed the importance of gathering some background information before an interview. “Research the company ahead of time,” he says, “There’s no excuse not to. You should know what the company does and what they’re looking for.”
“If you don’t like something about your resume, like your GPA is lower than you’d like it to be – be upfront about it,” Chang says. “They will appreciate honestly more than they’ll appreciate excuses. I remember one person that came in to be interviewed and she was very ashamed about getting a D in one of her courses. When we asked her about it, she was very upfront. She said, ‘you know what, I was really unfocused that [semester.] I was doing too much social stuff and trying too hard to get into a sorority, and I learned a big lesson from that.’ It was clear on her transcript that after that semester, she did much better in school. That kind of answer really impressed me. No excuses.”
Chang credits his persistence for getting him where he is today. “It’s like what Woody Allen said,” remarked Chang, “that ‘the hardest part of a job is showing up every day…’ and that’s true!”