ANN ARBOR—Daniel Williams leans over, putting his face within inches of a sheet of quarter-inch-thick glass and squeezes the glass cutter.
A soft plunk sounds in his corner of Cass Community Social Services' Green Industries building in Detroit as a small four-inch square of glass lands on a mat. The 28-year-old former homeless man has been cutting the recycled glass used to make coasters for two months.
The coaster mini business grew from a University of Michigan course that brings together students of business, engineering and art and design. Called Integrated Product Development (IPD), the class worked closely with Cass to brainstorm and set up the business.
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.
"I like it a lot because it gives us a clean and safe work environment," Williams said. "It's nice to have some work to help you get back on your feet. It makes me feel like at least we are doing something right."
IPD, in its 18th year, historically has been a product development course. But in the past two years, the course went a step further, said Bill Lovejoy, technology and operations professor in the U-M Stephen M. Ross School of Business. Lovejoy is also co-director of U-M's Master of Entrepreneurship program.
"In the past two years we have challenged the students to start mini businesses. That is in league with the entrepreneurial spirit that is sweeping the country and Michigan right now," he said.
The coasters emerged as the first product to be commercialized out of six mini-business ideas that University of Michigan students developed for Cass to consider adding to its Green Industries set of micro businesses. Green Industries also creates mudmats from abandoned tires and pays developmentally disabled adults to shred documents for recycling.
The Ross School also consulted with Cass on how to make the shredding business more efficient and profitable, said Wallace Hopp, associate dean.
In IPD the students were challenged 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. There was very little metal because that's being salvaged. Then they brainstormed what they could design with the materials.
Working under the direction of professors Lovejoy and the late Shaun Jackson, his Art & Design colleague, 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 homeless men how to use it to produce the herb gardens. But the glass took too long to fire in a kiln to produce them in great numbers and results varied. After the students left for summer jobs or graduated, Lovejoy kept at it.
Drinking coffee at home one morning, Lovejoy realized that the standard coaster size is 4-inches by 4-inches. Fusing a square of glass would be a lot simpler than slumping glass. He knew if he could design an attractive coaster product, Cass workers could manage the process after he stepped away.
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. The men have made more than 200 sets so far.
"There are currently eight people employed on this line who wouldn't otherwise have jobs," Lovejoy said. "What's necessary for modern manufacturing is creative problem solving skills. So we hope they can leverage this for a better future for themselves."
Lovejoy credits others around the university and in the community for making the project a reality including local glass artist Annette Baron, owner of Baron Glassworks in Ypsilanti and John Leyland, ceramics studio coordinator for U-M's School of Art & Design. IPD is offered by the Tauber Institute for Global Operations, a joint program of the Ross School and the College of Engineering.
Leyland said the students experimented with the glass in his studio's programmable electric kilns.
"We did a whole lot of experimenting, but not a lot came to fruition," Leyland said. "Bill had the foresight to pull back and come up with something that would work."
And, he said, it's an example of the university making a positive difference in the world without fanfare. It's about doing the smaller things that change people's lives.
"One thing that makes Michigan a very special place is exactly this kind of social consciousness," Lovejoy said. "There's no ivory tower here -- a wall where you are on campus and off campus. We merge with the community.Michigan faculty and students are out there in society all the time trying to make a difference."
And a difference they have made. The men now have a purpose to get up in the morning and go to work. They make a little money and can treat a friend to dinner or buy a birthday gift for someone close to them.
"Ultimately, it's made a huge difference. The guys who are working on the project are guys with 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."
And now, they are just trying to keep up with demand for the coasters, which sell for $20 for a set of four, said the Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director for Cass Community Social Services and an adjunct professor at U-M's Dearborn campus.
Finding jobs for homeless men has been difficult, she said, but making the coasters has given them a chance to be creative, make some money and be part of a group.
"The students, of course, want to change the world and through us they can," Fowler said.
- More about the Ross School of Business: bus.umich.edu