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Students Transform Recycled Car Parts into Jobs

12/14/2011 --

Ross students collaborate across campus to create eco-friendly mini-businesses for possible launch in Detroit.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Junkyard car seatbelts and abandoned tires have come together in a sustainable sandal that could one day put Detroit homeless people to work manufacturing them.

U-M students created Treads Motor City Sandals in a unique class that requires aspiring designers, engineers, and Ross business students to work together to make a marketable product. For the past 20 years, the Tauber Institute for Global Operations has offered the Integrated Product Development (IPD) course. This year, for the first time, a Detroit nonprofit is transforming the academic exercise into real jobs.

Cass Community Social Services (CCSS) is working to turn Treads Motor City Sandals into a small business that could employ some of its clients. In addition, CCSS may launch the IPD student business Glass Avenue Hope Garden, which turns discarded pallet wood and recycled glass into tabletop gardens.

"It's a triple win," says the Rev. Faith Fowler, CCSS executive director. "You have these smart young people who are working to make a difference in the community and on the planet, by using recycled materials. And we have the people here in Detroit who really want to work and just need that opportunity."

The IPD ventures are two of six eco-friendly mini-business ideas that students developed for CCSS to consider adding to its Green Industries set of micro enterprises. Today, the agency employs homeless people to turn abandoned tires into mudmats and to operate a One-Cup Car Wash. The organization also pays developmentally disabled adults to shred documents for recycling.

"A big portion of this assignment was making a product that could create jobs for CCSS,Ē says team Treads' Dave Turner, MBA/MPP '12. That was one of the most appealing aspects of the course for this dual-degree student. "We knew that if you buy a sandal once, you'll be more likely to buy it again, which means it's a sustainable job. I donít think I would've been able to think in that way without my public policy background."

The added element of designing products using recycled materials intensified the challenge and forced the students to maximize their creativity, says Bill Lovejoy, Raymond T. Perring Family Professor of Business Administration and professor of operations and management science at Ross. He teaches the IPD course with Shaun Jackson, a professor in the School of Art & Design.

"Think of what's on vacant lots," Lovejoy says. "There's glass, some aluminum, plastic, tires, wood pallets—those are your raw materials,"

This year, and every year, students in this class need to do more than just devise a good concept, a marketing strategy, and a viable business plan. They must actually make their product and determine how it could be manufactured, priced, and sold. This, Lovejoy says, always is an eye-opening experience.

"For a lot of these students, this is the first time they've ever made anything physical and real," he says. "They have these grandiose plans in the brainstorming phase but after the first week in the shop they realize they need to scale back significantly. They develop a respect for craft and the people that actually make things."

Kirk Goodman, an industrial and operations engineering student on team Treads, gained that respect.

"Itís rewarding to see all your work come together into a finished product, as opposed to writing a paper," Goodman says. "And to think that it might impact the lives of people in Detroit, that makes it even better."

Nicole Cassal Moore with Amy Spooner

For more information, contact:
Theresa Ceccarelli, (734) 647-0308,