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Cross-Disciplinary Teams Get Real at U-M

11/16/2005 --

Innovative, multi-faceted course gives students real business world experience.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—The University of Michigan's Integrated Product Development (IPD) course churns out students with authentic experience in taking an idea from drawing board to marketplace using a unique, action-based framework—in 12-weeks time. That's less time than "The Donald" spends selecting an apprentice.

Supported by U-M's Tauber Manufacturing Institute (TMI), IPD is a cross-disciplinary course offered by the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, College of Engineering and School of Art and Design. Teams or "firms" of three to five students representing each of the disciplines are given a product class challenge in order to work through an intensive exercise of market research, concept generation and selection, technical development, production process design, pricing, inventory stocking and advertising. The teams need to get along and get things done in order to make the grade.

"Two things make this class unique. First, the students are creating a fully functional prototype that is customer-ready. Second, they are competing with each other along economic lines. They are competing in a real market with real products," said William Lovejoy, professor of operations and management science at the Ross School. "The result is a course that has surprising chemistry, unleashing strong passions, allegiances and great energy among students and faculty alike."

Step One: Get A Plan

Student teams brainstorm for potential concept ideas, choose which market segment they wish to appeal to, choose their feature set and price point, and design and manufacture their prototype. Teams also must source their own materials and document the manufacturing process in detail.

Before launching their products, students estimate the fixed and variable costs of production for their product. These calculations influence the price they declare prior to competition.

In the manufacturing arena, students use state-of-the-art 3D design software and a rapid prototype machine to create intricate mockups of their products. Professor Sebastian Fixson of the College of Engineering said that the machine does not, however, replace traditional machine shops when it comes to crafting a prototype. Allowing students to get their hands dirty, actually learning to use the machinery and seeing their vision take physical form is a vital part of the course, he said. All the products are customer-ready prototypes, not simply appearance models.

Selling It Online and On the Road

Once the product is a reality, the teams design a Web page to display their products in an online trade show, hosted by TMI. Current students, affiliates and alumni from around the country log into the IPD trade show to vote for their preferences. A team's market share and sales revenue are computed from the share of total votes it gets nationally.

Once the online trade show closes, students re-evaluate their inventory and price and compete in the on-campus trade show, also hosted by TMI, where visitors test the products and again rank each according to preference. Market results are calculated and students are graded based on the overall results.

"Anything can look good on the Web and the teams realize that it is harder to impress in person," Lovejoy said. "That's why the on-campus trade show rounds out the evaluations. The market decides which product is the best."

Measuring Success

According to Lovejoy, teams can succeed only by performing well in each of the marketing, design, engineering, manufacturing, pricing and communication dimensions. Originally, the course relied on panels of designers and retailers to judge the products. The idiosyncratic nature of a judging panel led Lovejoy to consider other evaluation methods. Thus, the on-campus trade show idea was born to expose the products to a wider audience. Now, students fail or succeed based on the mass appeal (or lack thereof) of their product.

A major challenge facing the faculty is getting students to move beyond the disappointment that comes with potential failure to actually learn from the experience.

Unlike traditional courses where students are graded by their professors, IPD students succeed or fail based on the opinions of people in the marketplace. Votes from the general public clearly define who passes and who goes back to the drawing board.

And, unlike traditional courses that focus on one specific discipline, IPD exposes students to the entire spectrum of disciplines that come into play when launching a new product—not the least of which is team dynamics and how to work together to get the job done when time is of the essence.

2005 Product Class

The theme of the 2005 IPD course is "Physical Products That Support the Use of Mobile Technology in Student Life"—in other words, the items that make it easier for people to use their cell phones, laptops, iPods and other electronic devices on campus. This year, Herman Miller Inc., an office-furniture design and manufacture firm, is working with the class, sharing market research data and attending design reviews.

The on-campus trade show is set for 6-8 p.m. Nov. 30. Here, members of the community are invited to view the products and listen to teams' promotions and vote for their favorites. Again, market shares and revenues are computed based on these votes.


  • Lovejoy originated the IPD class at Stanford University nearly 15 years ago and brought the concept with him to U-M , where the course was launched in 1995 with the support of TMI. He has nurtured it through many evolutions over the years.
  • Technology took the IPD to new levels:
    —The addition of an online trade show required the addition of Web site design and online product marketing to the requirements of the course.
    —The addition of 3D modeling and rapid prototyping enlarged the students' toolbox and enabled novel design solutions.
  • The customer base for Web site voting includes students, affiliates and alumni of TMI.
  • Web links:

Written by Nancy Davis

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