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Sunday, 19 February 2017 18:00

WMU innovation institute bolsters product design talent pool

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Western Michigan University’s new Richmond Product Design and Innovation Institute will fill two floors of Kohrman Hall on WMU’s main campus in Kalamazoo. The space was designed in collaboration with outside businesses, including Newell Brands and Stryker Corp. It will feature open, collaborative spaces similar to what students will be working in after graduation. Western Michigan University’s new Richmond Product Design and Innovation Institute will fill two floors of Kohrman Hall on WMU’s main campus in Kalamazoo. The space was designed in collaboration with outside businesses, including Newell Brands and Stryker Corp. It will feature open, collaborative spaces similar to what students will be working in after graduation. Courtesy Rendering

KALAMAZOO — Western Michigan University will launch a new product design institute to create a hub of designers in Southwest Michigan and supply local companies with talent. 

After four years in the making, WMU’s Richmond Product Design and Innovation Institute will combine faculty and resources from the colleges of fine arts, engineering and applied sciences and the Haworth College of Business to offer bachelor’s degrees in product design. 

“We said if we’re going to create one of the top programs, what’s out there and who does it the best and what is it that we need to work for,” said Dan Guyette, dean of WMU’s College of Fine Arts. “Our consultants said you want a balance between form, function and manufacturing — not only the shape of the thing, but the functionality of the thing and then how can you get it to be manufactured in a mass production way. We asked who does all three well, and they said, really, nobody. Then we said that’s what we need to do.”

The university leveraged coursework in each of the colleges “to create its own unique curriculum that meets national accrediting standards,” Guyette said, noting the process to develop the new program began four years ago, immediately after he was hired at WMU.

WMU previously offered an industrial design program, but it ended 10 years ago, Guyette said.

To help design the curriculum, WMU partnered with several large corporations in the region that have invested heavily in product design. They included Newell Brands, Whirlpool Corp., Stryker Corp., Eaton Corp., Landscape Forms Inc., Fabri-Kal Corp. and Tekna Inc.

For those companies, having an accessible pool of design talent will prove to be indispensable, Guyette said.  

“We looked at the demand in the community and among our eight partners, which had 56 design positions that they couldn’t fill,” Guyette said. “While there are some really outstanding and well-known product design programs nationally, Michigan has always been one of the centers in the country for industrial design. The original focus of our program that was eliminated 10 years ago was more furniture based. We really wanted to look at a more forward-looking product design rather than industrial design.” 

ESTABLISHING A DESIGN HUB

Guyette said the new program will focus largely on integrating the ways customers interact with products and new technologies, making the process more seamless.

“Leaders in that industry are really looking for future graduates who will be able to understand that and hit the ground running with their design teams,” he said. 

Nate Young, vice president of global innovation at Atlanta-based Newell Brands, which operates its design center in Kalamazoo near WMU’s campus, echoes the importance of creating a hub for design talent in the region. 

“It’s really good to have this sort of educational focus around design in West Michigan,” Young said. “We don’t have too much difficulty hiring graphic designers, but hiring industrial designers is more difficult. Having a resource like this — something that’s complete not only in the arts but handling the design disciplines ranging from graphic design to industrial design — is super helpful, obviously from a recruiting standpoint but also an awareness standpoint for the area.”

In addition to providing a pipeline of talent, the Richmond Product Design and Innovation Institute also gives partnering companies the opportunity to help guide students and collaborate on projects. 

For example, Newell Brands plans to offer its senior designers as instructors at the new institute. 

“We’ve talked to the school about working on real, live projects so that the students get practical experience on their way through their educational process, which is a huge advantage,” Young said. “When you make links like that, both parties win, and the biggest winner is the student.”

Moreover, Young notes the institute will serve as a common meeting ground for corporations to discuss design and potentially work on projects. 

“It’s a neutral place for companies to come and collaborate together on unlike projects. Things that are project neutral are good places for us to come together and talk about how design can influence those things,” Young said. “That’s a nice dimension as well.”

CREATING A SPACE FOR DESIGN 

With the curriculum established for the institute and new product design program, WMU is moving quickly to build a physical space. 

Just as the university’s corporate partners provided insight on developing the curriculum, they also will be instrumental in helping to design a space “that will be really reflective of the workplace that our students are going to go into,” Guyette said.  

The institute, which will be located on the first and third floors of WMU’s Kohrman Hall on the main campus in Kalamazoo, will have an open, collaborative interior that encourages teamwork on projects. It will feature a number of machines, including rapid-prototyping equipment, CNC machines, 3-D printers and other materials. 

Representatives from the university toured Newell Brand’s facility to better understand how to organize its space, Young said. 

Grand Rapids-based Progressive AE Inc. will serve as the architect on the project, which is slated to begin this summer and wrap up in a year, Guyette said.

WMU is recruiting its first class for the new product design program, which will start in the fall semester of 2017 prior to the institute being fully constructed, Guyette said. Each class will enroll 20 students. 

GROWING INNOVATION

All told, building out the institute and launching the curriculum will cost approximately $7.5 million, which WMU already has raised through current donations and commitments pledged for a later date, Guyette said. 

James and Lois Richmond donated $3 million to support renovations at the facility. James Richmond previously served as the vice president of global marketing and development at Stryker, while Lois Richmond worked as the assistant vice president of administration at Kalamazoo-based Bronson Methodist Hospital

The Portage-based Monroe-Brown Foundation and Southwest Michigan First, a regional economic development organization, also provided funding and support on the project, according to a WMU spokesperson.

Ultimately, growing the design community in West and Southwest Michigan could attract more entrepreneurs and businesses to the region, Young said.

“What you see in some of the more progressive cities is when you have the capability of progressive engineers, a healthy design community and a good business community, you start getting a lot of inventions, a lot of startups or incubators and more entrepreneurs who realize that all of these are important tools of starting their own companies,” Young said. 

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John Wiegand

Staff writer

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