Overcoming Challenges When Faced With Limited Resources

Danèlle Cutting (2nd from right) alongside team member Minthie Harrison (2nd from left), project sponsor Manish (Manny) Koradia (far left) and Dr. Robert Handfield at the fall 2019 SCRC Gallery Walk.

Danèlle Cutting grew up on a century farm, meaning it has been in the family for over 100 years.

That’s why she came to NC State after graduating from high school — to earn a business degree and provide her family with some essential business acumen that would improve the farm’s profitability.

“There were droughts growing up which caused a lot of suffering for some of the growers, including my family. I always felt that they could use more business knowledge to make better financial decisions,” she said.

After graduating in 2008 with two bachelor’s degrees and a minor in Spanish, Cutting spent several years working as a horticulture extension agent before deciding to earn her MBA in 2017.

She recalls one of the highlights of her student experience being the supply chain practicum project she completed in 2019 — a project for which she and her team went above the call of duty to find answers for John Deere, despite being faced with limited data and having to explore a relatively unknown corner of the manufacturing world.

In over her head

I remember thinking, ‘Oh my. How are we going to do this? And in the time we have to do it?’

Danèlle Cutting, Jenkins MBA alumna

Cutting, now a Jenkins MBA alumna, remembers the SCRC’s Gallery Walk event from last fall vividly – perhaps because she and her team won second place for their “Thermoforming Cost Analysis” project.

“It was pretty exciting … We were blown away,” she said.

Before the semester started, though, Cutting said her and her teammates, Mahomet Acciilien and Minthie Harrison, didn’t know what they were getting into. She remembers thinking, “Oh my. How are we going to do this? And in the time we have to do it?”

She said, “None of us knew anything about plastics, so the first thing we did was research, ‘what in the world is thermoforming?’”

The process of thermoforming plastics, while originally developed in the 1870’s, is slowly becoming an appealing alternative to injection molding plastics for companies due to its cheaper production cost and allowing for more options, said Cutting.

Before the team started the project, John Deere was already using thermoforming for over 300 heavy gauge plastic pieces.

With plans to potentially expand and optimize its use of thermoforming, the company tasked the project team with performing a cost analysis of thermoformed plastics to ensure the company was leveraging the process as cost-efficiently as possible.

Overcoming challenges

Not long after starting on the project, Cutting and her team realized they were in trouble.

“Professors Tsai Lu Liu and Dana Gulling at NC State’s College of Design were able to help us identify some thermoforming companies, but there’s not many heavy-gauge thermoforming manufacturers. And most of them are privately held, so getting any information from them was difficult,” Cutting said.

Having also already received all of the information available from John Deere, Cutting said she and her team were left “scratching our heads.”

“We were trying to think outside the box – trying to think of every possible way we could get information so we could provide [John Deere] with a good plan of action.”

It was then that Cutting wondered if they might be able to use the fact that they were students to their advantage. “One of the things that I always preach about going to college is that it makes you resourceful,” she said.

Not long thereafter, the team came across Thermoforming Quarterly, a magazine with an apparent interest in helping students. “Technically it was more for thermoforming engineering students, but I gave it a shot anyways,” she said.

She reached out to the editor, Conor Carlin, who got back to her right away.

Unfortunately, Carlin told Cutting the information she was looking for essentially “did not exist,” partly because thermoforming was still such a new process.

Carlin was, however, able to provide her with contact information for two individuals who are reportedly “the top two thermoforming consultants in the world.”

Cutting and Harrison were able to get in touch with the experts, Robert Browning from McConnell Co. Consultants and Jay Waddell from Plastic Concepts and Innovations, who helped the team redefine the scope of its research.

“We were trying to do a cost analysis, but there are so many different plastics that you could use for thermoforming. We realized it would be almost impossible to do unless you decided to narrow down which plastics you want to use.”

According to Cutting, the list of the different types of plastics is over 100 pages long, and the cost dynamics surrounding thermoforming would vary for each one. Other factors like the color, mold shape and type of thermoforming process would also have a direct impact on the ability to do a cost analysis.

As a result, one of Cutting’s team’s primary recommendations for John Deere was to narrow down the types of plastics and the products for which they were interested in using thermoforming. This would hopefully allow them to get more accurate estimates from manufacturers and perform a thorough evaluation.

The team’s project poster, which includes an overview of the project and the team’s primary recommendations for John Deere. (Click to enlarge)

Delivering value

Despite the challenges, Cutting was pleased with what they were able to provide for John Deere, and is confident the sponsorship team was satisfied with the team’s work.

“From what I heard, it sounded like we were able to teach them some things about the world of thermoforming they might have thought they would have already known,” she said. “I think it really told them a lot about the industry.”

Cutting also said it was great getting an inside look at the operations of a major corporation’s supply chain unit. “We would meet with them every week to talk about our progress. It was really neat getting to talk to the ones that had been doing this kind of work for so long and getting to show them some things that we had found and hoping that they would be impressed,” she said.

Despite not being able to provide exactly what the sponsorship team was initially looking for, Cutting is thrilled with what they were able to accomplish last fall. She said, “Never in our wildest dreams did we think we were going to get second place. I mean, to us, that was first place. It didn’t matter. We had worked so hard on that project.”


“Working on this project with Danèlle and her team at NC State University was a great experience for everyone involved. Although the project presented a few challenges, the team worked hard to overcome both the lack of prior industry knowledge and the limited amount of data we were able to provide. It was exciting to see them in action while brainstorming different approaches to finding more data to close the gap. We were very impressed with the way they dove into researching the industry and the connections they formed during the project, both with the College of Engineering at NCSU and in industry, especially with the editor for Thermoforming Quarterly. Our team is very proud of everything they accomplished for the project, especially placing second in the competition and the hard effort they gave.”

— Kathy DeChristopher, Manish ‘Manny’ Koradia, and Jason Radziszewski
John Deere project sponsors

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