IFDA-Carnegie Mellon Project Culminates in Product Concept to Benefit Selectors

The International Foodservice Distributors Association worked with a team of graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University to produce a product concept that would help make foodservice distribution warehouse jobs easier. Drawing on the expertise of several IFDA members, including interviews with company leaders and on-the-job selectors and facility visits, the student team presented its final product concept on May 5, 2022: the Palletmate.

The Palletmate is a pallet jack add-on that fits standard-size pallets that the order selectors can adjust the height of via remote control as they go through the warehouse picking orders. It has adjustable guardrails to prevent stacked products from falling off, as well as a rotating base to facilitate wrapping the order when it’s complete.

At the beginning of the spring 2022 semester, the students were presented with a problem statement on how to make warehouse jobs easier. Foodservice distribution warehouse jobs are physically taxing and the industry’s labor shortage is projected to continue. The student team were asked to identify a specific area of focus and develop a product concept that would be ready to go to market.

The student team interviews foodservice distribution leaders to narrow down the scope, targeting order selectors and their specific job challenges. The students made multiple visits to a Performance Foodservice facility near Pittsburgh to observe the selectors on-the-job, as well as interview them about what they see as the most challenging aspects of the job and how to address those challenges.

“It was a pleasure to be part of the creative thinking process the students embarked on with this project,” said Jeff Williamson, Senior Vice President of Operations for Performance Food Group. “Regardless of whether this concept eventually makes it into production as a real-life product to be used in foodservice distribution warehouses, the exercise incorporated elements of necessary design thoughts by forward-thinking minds and fresh eyes to identify a solution with functionalities that address labor-related issues in our industry.”

The IFDA-assigned student team was comprised of Sumairha Mumtaz Choudhary, Jasveen Kaur, Tianyang Lei, Monica Louis, Sankar Varsha, and Weiyi Zhang.

The IFDA project was part of a select program with CMU’s Integrated Innovation Institute (iii) in Pittsburgh. In their studies to earn a Master of Integrated Innovation for Products and Services (MIIPS) degree, students complete a company-supported capstone project. Cross-disciplinary student teams (engineering, design, and business) are required to execute a semester-long project to solve a real-life business challenge. The students worked through various phases from market gaps and product opportunity exploration, to the development of viable concepts and a go-to-market strategy. The project does not include executing the strategy or physically producing the product, but should a manufacturer be interested, production may be pursued with the students’ permission.

IFDA previously worked with Carnegie Mellon University’s Master’s of Statistical Practice Program on a spring 2021 semester project to examine data-driven approaches to hiring top talent. 

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