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U-M Students Go Green with Urban Shopping Carts

12/6/2007 --

Ross School and other IPD students create products to facilitate holding and transporting a collection of bulky, heavy objects long distances without a car.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—What's cooler than a shopping cart? How about an eco-friendly, urban transport pod on wheels?

Seven such carts were on display at the University of Michigan's Integrated Product Design (IPD) Trade Show held at the Duderstadt Center on Nov. 28. The event was the second leg of a competition that included an online trade show that garnered 1,882 votes from around the world.

The on-campus show, however, is where 385 customers vigorously tested each entry and where teams promoted their products through creative marketing strategies. According to William Lovejoy, the Raymond T. Perring Family Professor of Business at the Ross School of Business, this is where students really strengthened their positions and sold their carts.

Lovejoy and Shaun Jackson, associate professor at U-M's School of Art & Design and Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning, teach the course jointly and work through the summer months to come up with new product challenges each year. The 2007 course included an environmental element not present in previous IPD challenges.

"We try to make the course better every year, and make it as close an approximation to a real world model as possible," said Jackson, an award-winning inventor, designer and entrepreneur.

The IPD course is known for providing students with an authentic business experience, using a unique, action-based framework. The cross-disciplinary approach combines students from the Ross School of Business, College of Engineering and the School of Art & Design. Teams must work through market research, concept generation and selection, technical development, production process design, pricing, inventory stocking and advertising.

Rising to the Challenge

Students were required to conceptualize and create an urban shopping cart to facilitate transporting a collection of heavy objects long distances without the use of an automobile. After 14 weeks, the result was seven unique incarnations of fabric, metal and plastic on wheels, all with differing levels of sophistication and functionality, and all representing an amalgamation of effort from the cross-disciplinary teammates.

The cart had to be collapsible, lightweight, transport up to 30 pounds¿even up stairs¿and not rely on the use of non-sustainable materials. In order to create a useful, lightweight and "green" cart, students from engineering, marketing and business disciplines worked through many challenges.

From drawing board to marketplace, the process is demanding in many ways, as students who had never been in a metal shop were called into welding duty and those who had never so much as sewn on a button were suddenly stitching fabrics into the wee hours. Combined with financial and tactical elements, this makes for a complete microcosm of a small business.

The course, sponsored by the Tauber Institute for Global Operations, puts teammates in situations where they quickly discover that building consensus across disciplines can be as challenging as producing a working prototype on deadline.

The overall winner, Velocity, was promoted as being built to withstand extreme weather and carry heavy loads of groceries, and it was the only cart in the competition with the ability to be towed behind a bicycle¿a decidedly green feature.

"Our team was successful because we put in a lot of hours and worked through our differences. It was a high-stress environment, but we all still like each other," said Kristina Frost, a sophomore at the School of Art & Design and member of team Velocity.

MBA candidate Amar Ravi of the De Kar team echoed the sentiment. "There were some intense moments, but every single person on our team learned to do something they'd never done before. I believe that this experience is the best one I've had in terms of simulating the process of starting a business from the ground up. From the tactical, strategic process to the execution of the design, it was amazing," he said.

Lovejoy admits to having his doubts about the teams' progress every year usually about two weeks before the annual trade show.

"But they always pull it off and come up with great ideas and really interesting products," he said.

The things that make the class unique, according to Lovejoy, are the fully functional prototypes the students create and the real-world economic elements of the challenge.

"Students compete in a real market with real products, and the result is a course that has surprising chemistry, unleashing strong passions, allegiances and great energy among students and faculty alike," said Lovejoy.

"Every year, I am amazed at the creativity of the students and their incredible designs," said Larry Seiford, chair of U-M's Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering. "My wife came last year and was so impressed that she came back to see this year's trade show."

And the Winners Are:

Online voting results gave students valuable feedback that allowed them to re-evaluate their inventories and perfect their sales pitches for the on-campus trade show. The trade show gave potential consumers the opportunity to test and rank the carts by loading them with sacks of potatoes, stacks of canned goods and perishable items.

Market response was used to determine both the competition's winner and the students' final grades, which are based on hypothetical sales of their carts, both online and in person, with actual budgets and costs taken into account.

All of the urban shopping cart companies made money this year, but according to Lovejoy, market shares did not tell the entire story due to differences in costs and margins. The final profit rankings were determined by margin, strong design and communication, and some inventory stock-outs that benefited competitors.

The final results can be found at the IPD Web site: .

Lovejoy developed the IPD concept 17 years ago with colleagues from Stanford University. It made BusinessWeek's list of top design programs for the second year in a row and has been featured on CNN and in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Written by Nancy Davis

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,