Students Give Kimberly-Clark a Lesson in Design Thinking

A hospital may throw away every month 2,500 pounds of a soft blue papery material used to protect sterilized surgical equipment. That ubiquitous blue wrap usually ends up in landfills.

The world's largest manufacturer of the polypropeline plastic-based product has been looking for a way to change that, even turning to the inquisitive minds of design students to find a solution to this perennial problem.

Kimberly-Clark Health Care hosted a class at the Rhode Island School of Design last fall where students were charged with a simple goal: identify sustainable new concepts and scalable designs for a second life for Kimguard, the most widely used sterilization wrap on the market.

In response, they re-imagined the blue wrap in wonderfully imaginative ways. Children's furniture. Pipe insulation. Disaster relief tents. A year later, the company is still trying to match some of those student ideas with other market players.

I first heard about the class in the spring, and spent the last few months touching base with all the major players in the partnership. The material could simply be re-processed into plastic pellets and sold on the secondary market, the company told me, but this only makes sense when the cost of virgin polymer and demand for plastic pellets is high. The company wanted to understand how broad the possibilities might be for a second life for Kimguard and look for ways to generate more demand for this material.

"This marks a very large effort on our part externally to try to go out and create more demand than even the secondary market has currently, so it's a big change for us in trying to create more demand that isn't there today," said Judson Boothe, Kimberly-Clark Health Care's marketing director.

The Value of Private-Academic Partnerships

The idea for the partnership originated with Jane Hart, a senior creative director at the company and a RISD alumna. She immediately saw the parallel between the Kimguard design challenge and the school's prominent past work with bamboo. RISD partnered with the Environmental Bamboo Foundation to find innovative uses for bamboo, a renewable resource, and "to get this material in the public eye," back in the late 1990s, according to its website.

RISD has also partnered with a range of companies on their unique challenges, including work with ESPN to explore the concept of "fandom" and a project with JCPenney to create a new logo, said Helen Koh, RISD's assistant director of corporate and foundation relations.

The partnerships don't necessarily lead to new products, Koh said, but must lend themselves to research or investigation that enhances the student learning process. Students also get the opportunity to work with a corporation, meet their clients' demands and get a sense of what it is like to work for a real-life client.

The design studios are very useful pedagogically for students to have a mix of between regular professor- or topic-driven instruction with the partnered studios, which add a layer of professionalism, said Beth Mosher, the industrial design professor who led the Kimberly-Clark design studio.

"The students are learning so many things, even how to work with a client, the systems, how they come up with ideas, the process, how they do research, how they interview people, how they work as a team," Mosher said. "Those are all skills that are very important for designers to know how to do professionally."

For companies, Koh said, it helps employees think about design challenges outside their usual modes and processes.

"They get to see what students are doing and possibly recruit," she said. "And in some ways, it becomes a form of continuous education for employees at the company. They get to interact with students, and often studied design themselves."

That Pesky Blue Wrap

The U.S. spends roughly $147.6 million on disposable sterilization wrap every year, Boothe said. The material is classified as a #5 plastic, which is often not collected by local recyclers and can't be reused for its original purpose. It is typically removed from sterilized surgical instruments before the patient enters the room, so it stays essentially unsoiled. However, it is often not separated from other medical waste, which is more costly to dispose of.