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Companies turn outside for new ideas

Companies turn outside for new ideas

A novel collegiate program that combines students from multiple disciplines is seeing solid success, measured in part by corporate investments for the development work students to over the course of a full school year.

The interdisciplinary program at the University of Illinois at Chicago combines engineers, industrial designers and business majors, getting them to work together on projects that are set by corporate sponsors. Those sponsors provide overall goals and the support the university needs to run the class. Maytag and Cosco are among the firms that have paid $50,000 for the ideas that the students provide.

For that investment, the companies get as much as 4.5 man years of effort as the students work over the course of 30 weeks. The projects are normally designed to move the company into areas where it has minimal presence. "This year, we're working with an innovative toymaker that wants to bring its patented air motor to new markets," says Stephen Melamed, adjunct assistant professor at UIC.

During most of the first semester, 30-40 students identify the problems given them and start looking at opportunities for new products. The next step is to define traits for products. In the second semester, they do mock-ups of actual products and describe the required technologies while also suggesting marketing plans.

A key aspect of the effort is to make sure the interdisciplinary teams understand each other and work towards a common goal. "Team dynamics are the number one issue for any team's success," Michael Scott, another UIC professor who spoke during a Manufacturing Week technical conference. He notes that student feedback has been very positive to date, as has corporate response.

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