When you defrost a pizza and find the pepperoni and mozzarella flavorful, you can thank Dick Maskell for it—and Napoleon, too.
To prolong the life of military rations, Napoleon sponsored the development of vacuum-sealing foods in glass bottles in the early 1800s. Next came metal containers for canning, and by 1815 the troops that faced off at Waterloo had canned rations. A number of improvements followed and, by the mid 1800s canned foods were commonplace.
Today, alumnus Dick Maskell's M-Tek, Inc., and other vacuum packagers, usually put products in flexible containers. The produce is placed in a bag composed of an airtight material, typically a multilayered plastic film. A machine then sucks all the air out of the bag. If it's sealed with all the air removed, it's a vacuum package. Foods such as nuts, cheeses and coffee are all vacuum packaged.
If all the air is removed and then replaced with a gas, it's a "gas-flush" package. Gases used include carbon dioxide, which suppresses bacterial growth, and pure oxygen, which enhances the redness of meat. Red meat and poultry and lettuce are gas-flushed. Once sealed for protection and ease of transport, the packages are put into corrugated cardboard boxes.
Vacuum packaging ton-sized bins has changed how people distribute food. "Take lettuce for example," Maskell says. "Before our technology, you would take a one-ton cardboard bin, put in a thin ply liner, put lettuce in it and ship it. When it arrived, the cores would be cut out and the outer leaves that had spoiled as the lettuce traveled were thrown away. Companies were discarding close to 35 percent of what they had just paid to ship cross-country."
When he arrived at U-M as an undergraduate in 1956, Maskell planned to become an aeronautical engineer. But two semesters later, he discovered the School of Art. Since then he's been a fine art sculptor, a book illustrator, a drafting instructor, a designer of architectural interiors and creator of new packaging technologies.
"The Art School changed my life," Maskell says. "I came here from a little town in Montana with no background in art. When I found art and design, it completely altered my perspective. I felt unbound."
Maskell capitalized on that sense of freedom to combine majors in sculpture and industrial design. It proved an important career-building mix. The next opportunity to add to his creative toolkit came from an unlikely source—the military.
Just after graduation in 1960, Maskell enlisted in the US Air Force, rising to become the first second lieutenant ever assigned to the staff at the fledgling Air Force Academy in Colorado.
After his tour of duty Maskell returned to Michigan and got his MS in design in 1964. Then he entered the job market and made the rounds of potential industrial employers, but a series of hirers told him he was "too creative."
Finally, he caught the attention of the Container Corporation of America, where he established himself as an innovator in cardboard packaging, plastic film wrap and gas technologies. He moved to Weyerhauser, in 1975. Then, in 1982, in the town of Elgin just outside Chicago, he founded M-Tek.
"We started out with three employees," Maskell says. "I ran the company, sold all the machines and did all the installations. My wife, Odette, handled the administrative duties and wired the electrical panels in the machines. I installed every one of the first several hundred machines we sold. I'd finish the sale, then put on my mechanic's suit, pop up and say remember me? I'm here to start up your machine."
The technology at that time wasn't capable of vacuum-sealing packages that were larger than about one pound maximum. Maskell's innovations led the way to today's technologies that can wrap a ton of product.
M-Tek is credited with rescuing the brazil nut industry 25 years ago. The nuts had been spoiling in five-gallon metal tins, costing producers 10 percent of potential sales each year. Maskell journeyed to the headwaters of the tributaries feeding the Amazon, the only place the nuts grow, and devised a new packaging system that let growers vacuum-wrap about 45 pounds of nuts right there in the forests, giving them a shelf life of a year.
Today, M-Tek does about $5 million worth of business a year worldwide in a field that has expanded to a $100s-of-millions market led by European firms.
Maskell says his effective designs stem from working as a hybrid artist/engineer. "When I was in school," he says, "there were the techies and the artists, and each side saw the other as an inferior sub species. I strongly believe that those are artificial and really counterproductive distinctions. Technical people assume that I'm only an engineer, but I'm also an artist.
"The way I always describe it: when I look at a bird wing, I see the beauty of flight, the feeling of flight, I see the marvel of the structural engineering that can make that thing with hollow bones. I can't separate my sense of awe at its beauty as a piece of art from my sense of awe at the engineering that makes it work. And I don't see why that separation should be necessary, for anyone."
Maskell's belief in the power of an encompassing vision has brought him back to the School of Art & Design. He and Odette presented the school with a gift to support the next generation of artist/designers. "Where else in the academic universe," he says, "would it be better to start developing this holistic thinking than at the School of Art & Design, a place that changed my life?"