Behind nearly every gas stove is a small steel connector that makes the cooking and dining experience possible for millions of households. Dormont Manufacturing, located near the suburbs of the Carnegie Mellon campus, is the global leader in this small, but mighty category of industrial design and engineering. Facing the inevitable challenge of how to grow an already thriving business, this 30 year-old company invited Carnegie Mellon to assist with new product development for extending its business beyond its flagship gas supply connectors. Interdisciplinary student teams from the university's Tepper School of Business, School of Design and College of Engineerings were called in to answer the question of, "What do you make when you’ve always made pipes?"
The Tepper School's Management of Innovation and Product Development MBA Track has served as a B-school model of integrating multiple discipliines for the past four years. This product development track has attracted the attention of corporations like Ford Motor Company, New Balance and Respironics, which have brought their business challenges to a university renown for its emphasis on cross-campus collaboration. The MBA track groups students from the Tepper School and Carnegie Mellon who are studying business, industrial design and engineering in cross-disciplinary teams where they collectively design new product prototypes and market-entry plans for the course sponsor.
Dormont Manufacturing was so impressed with the product concepts the students created, the corporation is investigating the viability of all the plans presented. “Five teams began digging to find unique ways to leverage Dormont’s expertise in commercial kitchens,” said Associate Professor of Marketing Peter Boatwright. “Before brainstorming lists of possible products, the students began by carefully studying the needs that exist in commercial kitchens. By understanding what the [Dormont Manufacturing] products needed to do, the students were prepared to analyze and select the best ideas. The teams worked through the entire development process, and in just sixteen weeks, we had prototypes to test.”
One team focused on a solving a problem faced by mom-and-pop fast food restaurants—how to drain gallons of used oil from deep fryers without manually removing it by the bucketful, a dangerous and awkward process. The student team developed a system of containers that could be connected directly to the fryer with a flexible pipe, enabling hot oil to be safely pumped into the bins with no human interaction, and then transported outside for disposal.
Another Carnegie Mellon team addressed the issue of discomfort and excessive heat build-up, caused by constant opening and closing oven doors all day long in commercial kitchens. The students designed a heat blocker as an after-market accessory that can be bolted to the bottom panel of an oven so that when the door is opened, jets of room-temperature air blow upward, creating a curtain-like barrier that prevents heat from escaping.
“For the investment of sponsoring the spring course, we got 30 to 40 sharp minds thinking about product innovation versus just three or four engineers,” said Mike Angus, director of new product development at Dormont Manufacturing. “That was a huge benefit for a small company. It was amazing how fast the students were able to identify product opportunity gaps that exist in the current market and develop creative, thoughtful solutions.”
“This course teaches students to work in cross-functional teams just like they’ll experience in the real business world,” says Laurie Weingart, Professor of Organizational Behavior and co-instructor of the course. “Though each person brings a particular expertise to the team, each student rotates through the role of team leader to gain experience working on all aspects of the design process. As a result, they have a deep understanding of the interdisciplinary work process so they can go into a team-based organization and lead, not follow.”