The realization that automation and efficiency were key for manufacturing success inspired Ward to create his own business, Packaging Films and Equipment Co., out of his home in 1981.
He designed automated packaging lines, installed and serviced equipment, and sold the materials that ran on the packaging machines.
In the mid-1980s, Ward invented the Arc-Tronic Hole Perforator, which employs an electric arc to produce clean vent holes in plastic film for all types of packages, including food products. He founded Packaging Progressions Inc. in Collegeville in 1989 to market the device.
A few years later, the company began designing and manufacturing interleaving and stacking machinery for the food packaging industry. The automated equipment accurately inserts paper between food items, such as sliced Philly steaks, hamburgers, pizza and bacon.
With Ward as maestro, Packaging Progressions became a hit, growing from $250,000 in first-year sales to a $30 million-a-year operation. In 2017, the company moved to Souderton and a 35,000-square-foot facility, mostly consumed by stainless steel machinery produced in-house. Today, it’s the world’s leading manufacturer and supplier of high-speed interleaving and stacking machines.
Ward sold Packaging Progressions to the Middleby Corp. in July 2019, and his son, Drew, assumed leadership of the company.
While increasing his workforce from five to about 70 employees, Ward actively recruited Penn College graduates, desiring their hands-on technical experience. In recent years, he donated materials and equipment for the machining and welding programs and began sponsoring a commencement award for mechatronics students.
“When we sat down and thought about this project, the immediate name that came to mind for us that we wanted to display on this building was Larry Ward,” Kline said. “He’s been supportive of Penn College in many ways over the years, and so what better way to engage someone so wonderful.”
“Throughout my career, I’ve always looked for a return on my investment,” Ward said moments after walking through the refurnished lab for the first time. “And when I see these kids here at Penn College, I just feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.”
Howard W. Troup, instructor of automated manufacturing and machining, likened Ward’s gift to winning the lottery with the mortgage due.
“It was just fantastic! That feeling was shared by all my coworkers,” he said. “The machines that we had were being overwhelmed by students. There weren’t enough workstations. The machinery was getting old. It just needed to be replaced.”
The responsibility for choosing replacements fell to Troup with input from Ward.
“Howard was instrumental for the vision of this space, thinking through all the equipment and necessary renovations,” Kline said. “And Larry had some great ideas. His recommendation to us was to get as much automation as possible, because that’s where we are in industry.”
Troup assembled a team consisting of Ron H. Beck, machine shop toolroom attendant; Bryan C. Schaefer, maintenance mechanic/millwright specialist; Allan M. Meck, electronics service specialist; and automation engineering technology students Brian J. Daniels, Conner J. Nickerson and Levi E. Pomeroy to lead the renovation throughout the summer.
The crew disconnected and removed about 100 pieces of instructional equipment – for the painting, flooring and LED lighting to be completed – before returning about 40 machines and installing nearly 50 new ones.
“We had to attach power to the machines. Most of the time that meant new wire and connectors,” Troup said. “We also had to connect compressed air lines to the new machines.”
In addition to that work, the students used a CNC router in The Dr. Welch Workshop: A Makerspace at Penn College to fabricate 200 tool holders – made of wood and foam – for the drawers of the lab’s new cabinets.
“If it wasn’t for those three students and our own staff, the lab would not have been ready for the start of the fall semester,” Webb said. “It was a feat. We were behind by at least a month because of the pandemic. There were long days and weeks.”
The college auctioned 44 old machines before purchasing the new equipment. The replacements include more than two dozen dual-purpose CNC mills and lathes that facilitate both manual and – adhering to Ward’s wishes – automated operations.
“While CNC is great, we have a fundamental belief that understanding the manual process makes you a better machinist. We start students there and move up into the CNC applications,” Webb explained. “The dual-purpose machines allow our students to get a much broader experience, beginning in their first semester.”
“There’s going to be a wide array of machines that I can say that I know how to use,” Harrison said. “When I show up for my first week of work and they are expecting to train a kid who doesn’t know how to do anything, I can show them that I actually know a thing or two.”
Ward appreciates the college’s approach, which has resulted in a near 100% placement rate for graduates of manufacturing-related programs.
“The students that come out of here are well-trained,” he said. “With manufacturing coming back, Penn College is giving America what we need. We don’t have enough people with technical skills. Penn College teaches them those skills.”
Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute estimate that more than half of the projected 4.6 million manufacturing job openings during the next decade won’t be filled because of the skills gap. The new lab full of drill presses, surface grinders, dual-purpose CNC lathes and mills, and electrical discharge machines will enhance Penn College’s pivotal role in shrinking that gap.
“The students now have access to the new technology on their own machine, learning and operating that machine during their class period,” Webb said. “They also still have access to the manual skills and to faculty who have worked in industry. Our students are ready when they leave here to really hit the ground running.”
Just like Ward was more than 50 years ago.
“They taught me here to do a good job, stand behind what you do and you’ll do well,” he said.
“I have done very well, so I want to give it back for the next generation.”
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