Newswise — New technology in Meal, Ready to Eat (MRE) packaging, developed in part by researchers at Texas A&M University, is set to be adopted by the United States military, saving the government millions of dollars a year, according to the professor who had a leading role in the development of stronger and lighter packaging materials.
Hung-Jue Sue, professor of mechanical engineering at Texas A&M, participates with others in academia and industry in the Combat Rations Network (CORANET), a program organized by the Defense Logistics Agency with a goal of bringing modern manufacturing processes into the production of combat rations for soldiers.
“The mission is to address military ration needs in a faster, cheaper and more efficient fashion,” Sue explains.
The MRE packaging technology hasn’t changed much in the last 31 years, says Sue who is the director of the Polymer Technology Center at Texas A&M. “In the old days, they used metal cans and big boxes to carry the food for soldiers,” he notes. “With time, we gradually moved away from metal and replaced it with plastic packaging that is lighter, more compact and easier for soldiers to carry.”
The CORANET research program has resulted in the creation of new types of film, the plastic outer covering of MRE packages. “They are made of the same polymers (plastic) as grocery bags, but they are much stronger and designed to withstand wartime conditions.” Those conditions can include everything from extreme temperature variations and the threat of insects, to being thrown out of a plane, says Sue.
Researchers designed lighter MRE packages that are easier for soldiers to carry and less costly to produce, ship and store.
Sue and his team at Texas A&M developed a thin cardboard sleeve to replace some of the cardboard boxes that were used to store food. “This sleeve is much more compact and can be folded,” he says, “saving on material and space within the package; that is significant to save on production, shipping and storage costs.”
Researchers also made the packaging smaller. “If the package is smaller but can carry the same contents, then more of it can be shipped at one time, so it becomes cheaper to ship and store,” Sue points out. “Also, smaller packages make it easier for soldiers to put the meals in their pockets and carry them long distances.”
Researchers from a variety of disciplines at Texas A&M took part in the testing phase, says Sue. For example, researchers in the Department of Entomology tested the packaging to ensure it was as resistant as possible to bug infestation. “And in Agricultural Engineering, they looked at how the packaging impacts the food’s quality and safety,” Sue notes. “They made sure the plastic was safe and didn’t affect the taste of the food.”
Sue says the new technology developed by CORANET researchers has passed all the testing required by the military and may be in use as soon as early next year. “The military is known to be conservative regarding change,” Sue contends. “This is a very big change for them and it’s about cutting the budget – saving money step-by-step. But at the end of the day, the soldiers have to like it or it won’t work.”