LEADERSHIP VOICE: Student Project Turns Recycled Car Parts Into Sandals and Possibly Jobs

Nicole Cassal Moore, News Services
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Junkyard car seatbelts and abandoned tires 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 business professionals to work together to make a marketable product. For the past 20 years, the Tauber Institute for Global Operations has offered the Integrated Product Design class. This year, for the first time, an organization is taking the students’ ideas beyond the final project trade show.

Cass Community Social Services, a Detroit non-profit, is working to turn Treads into a small business that could employ some of its clients.

“It’s a triple win,” says the Rev. Faith Fowler, Cass 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.”

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

The students’ challenge this semester was to come up with products made from recycled materials that could be manufactured by someone with entry-level skills.

“Think of what’s on vacant lots: glass, some aluminum, plastic, tires, wood pallets — those are your raw materials,” says Bill Lovejoy, a professor at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business who teaches the course with Shaun Jackson, a professor in the School of Art & Design.

This year, and every year, students in this class need to do more than just devise a good concept and plan. They must actually make their product and determine how it could be manufactured and marketed. 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 said. "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, agrees.

“We built a couple ugly prototypes,” Goodman says.

His team decided on sandals early and set its sights on the extra tire treads they knew Cass had from its mudmat business. Cass already collected the tires, but the organization doesn’t have the means to separate the treads from the steel beltings, so right now, they can’t use that rubber.

The students turned to a Michigan company that pulverizes tires. They arranged to give the company Cass’s excess tire treads in exchange for a portion of the pellets they would become.

For the sandal strap, they figured seatbelt straps would keep with the recycled car part theme and, with a little sewing, could be quite comfortable, Goodman says. Then they went to junkyards and cut them out of cars.

To actually craft their footware, they got some help from Ann Arbor shoemaker Sally Mitani. And they spent many evenings in the lab learning by trial and error. They once made two right feet.

“We were cutting out the acrylic version of our shoe to make the molds,” Goodman says. “Being unfamiliar with the laser cutters, this process had taken us a few hours up to this point. We finally pulled the second foot out of the machine, held it up and realized it was an exact copy of what we had.”

Their end result is a proper pair that they’re very proud of.

“It’s rewarding when you hold it in your hand, to see all your work come into a finished product, as opposed to a paper,” Goodman says. “And to think that it might impact the lives of people in Detroit, that makes it even better.”

Cass has to spend some time making sure the sandals are a perfect fit, but Fowler is optimistic. She said the organization is also interested in pursuing several other student ideas down the road, including a version of the sandal with a blue jean strap and a planter made from recycled glass and wood pallets.

The Tauber Insitute for Global Operations is a joint program of the Ross School and the College of Engineering.