A new Detroit mini business, Cass Coasters, has grown from a U-M course that brings together students of business, engineering and art and design. Called Integrated Product Development (IPD), the class worked closely with Cass Community Social Services to brainstorm and set up the business. The glass coasters emerged as the first product to be commercialized out of six mini-business ideas that U-M students developed for Cass to consider adding to its Green Industries set of micro businesses.
In IPD the students were asked to use materials that would otherwise enter the waste stream. So they took tours of vacant lots in Detroit and found rubber, glass and wood in good quantities and brainstormed what they could design with the materials. One group of students started with a slumped glass planter for herbs that nestled in a wooden frame made from reclaimed pallet wood.
The students installed the production equipment at Cass in 2012 and set about teaching ex-homeless men how to use it to produce the herb gardens. But the glass took too long to fire in a kiln and results varied. After the students left for summer jobs or graduated, Bill Lovejoy, technology and operations professor in the Ross School of Business, eventually considered producing coasters instead. He knew if he could design an attractive coaster product, Cass workers could manage the process after he stepped away. The glass coasters feature murals from Detroit’s wailing wall near 8 Mile Road and Wyoming that was built in 1940 as a division between black and white neighborhoods. The images of brightly colored houses, factories and neighbors added years later gave the wall new meaning.
Workers can put 50 coasters in the kiln at a time. It takes 24 hours to fire them and then cool them down. As work progressed, the men started taking control of the process and suggesting ways to solve problems and make a better product. “Ultimately, it’s made a huge difference. The guys who are working on the project have had zero income,” said Stacy Leigh, the vocational training coordinator at Cass Community Social Services. “It’s amazing what a little money can do. It raises your self-esteem.”