Students Give Kimberly-Clark a Lesson in Design Thinking

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.

Some regions across the country have taken a lead in recycling the sterilization wrap. Legacy Health in Oregon, for example, began recycling blue wrap 18 years ago, and now takes in the material from facilities across the state and in Southwest Washington. The nonprofit, comprised of six hospitals, has diverted more than 10,000 tons of blue wrap from landfills, Legacy Health said on its website.

Meanwhile, a Northern California operating nurse started a recycling program in 2009 after finding a local company that can recycle the material. Her hospital, Kaiser Roseville Medical Center, which has six operating rooms, collects 2,500 pounds of blue wrap each month on average --  15 tons per year.

"In its first life, of course, Kimguard was working quite well," Hart said, "but could it be something else, other than re-pelletizing it?"

Kimberly-Clark provided sponsorship funding for the 12-week program, worked with RISD to develop the curriculum, offered feedback and answers for student questions throughout the class, and gave input on students' final grades.

Students began by taking a field trip to a local hospital to see Kimguard in action during its first use. A little fluffy to the touch, the strong, durable material has tight layers that allow for the penetration of steam and other gases to sterilize surgical equipment, but doesn't let in liquids or bacteria. They spent the first part of the semester exploring what the material could do using it in different applications.

"They tried ironing it, there were different ways to seal it and connect it," Mosher said. "Students tried cutting and weaving and looping it. They welded it with hot glue gun, but with no glue. They did all sorts of interlocking and folding techniques. They rolled it and then constrained the roll, sort of like skin, so they could get even more structure that way."

Stephanie Delvecchio presents her final project.Students also experimented with heat, even employing an iron and commercial taco press. "The material is kind of interesting because it's fluffy, but if you applied heat, you could sort of shrink it; it's a little bit like a shrinky dink."

From there, students came up with applications that both honored and strayed from the product's medical roots, including furniture for children's playrooms in hospitals and piping insulation.

Kimguard Reconstructed

Boothe and Hart pointed to several student ideas that appeared to be promising right out of the gate:

• Disaster relief tents: This application was geared toward people in need following a natural disaster or other crisis. "That's one idea that we really liked, but the material itself was not conducive to being out in the elements for any extended period of time. It was made to be used internally in a hospital, it wasn't made to be out in the sun," Hart said. This idea, however, isn't completely off the table, the company said, adding that modifications may be possible to accommodate a longer "shelf-life."

• Children's playscapes: The idea was to use the wrap for children's playroom in hospitals so children would become familiar with the material in a non-threatening way. "She really did an amazing job, and thought about how it could be produced, in terms of creating strength in a way that no one had really thought of," Hart said of student Emily Robbins below. "Our engineers were just blown away by her solution and ability to think through that high level."

Emily Robbins

• Pipe insulation: Many students tried using Kimguard as structural components. "One student had crafted a way to make pipe insulation out of recycled materials, which was rather interesting," Boothe said, adding that Kimberly-Clark was still looking for a partner to explore the idea. More business development will probably be needed to make the ideas viable to market, the company said, but there is hope this could happen.

The class hasn't led to a product idea that would be produced by Kimberly-Clark, but that wasn't entirely the goal, Hart said. "It is about finding a solution that would be a match for the marketplace for someone."

She said that one of the biggest surprises of the partnership was the students' ability to think about sustainability on a deeper level than perhaps even Kimberly-Clark had.

"They were thinking that this is a sustainable project, I want to use this material in a sustainable way, but I want to think about sustaining life though tragedy," Hart said. "To think about it and add on so many layers of ways to address that problem as an issue and as a way to help the community, that was just beautiful. That thinking was really great."

For more on the many ways companies are making sustainable innovation happen, check out our upcoming GreenBiz Innovation Forum, October 11-13 in San Francisco.

Images courtesy of Flavia Gnecco.