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Crowdsourcing Hardware Innovation – 700 Designs in 7 Weeks

It’s been said over and over again that 3D printing will change the supply chain – for everyone. However, so much of what has been published focuses on the maker community – the small home applications and printers – that the noise crowds out the really important details.

The story goes that thousands of makers will supplant real design in the marketplace and a 3D printer will be in every house. This was the story when Nokia launched its foray into 3D printing for a 3D printed phone case in January. However, that hides the more important story – that the world’s top design and engineering talent can revolutionize how they can contribute to large and small business design and manufacturing. This leads us to our second and more important example, showing an impressive 40 months of design work compressed in 2 months – a meaningful improvement for any business.

In June 2013, GE announced two open innovation quests: The 3D printing design quest and the 3D printing production quest. The purpose of the first is to redesign the aircraft engine bracket, while the second one focuses on 3D printing of advanced materials with high precision. I will focus on the first design quest here.

The challenge given to the design contestants was to create a jet engine design solution that reduces the weight of the bracket while improving its strength and performance. This was, by any standard, not something the home audience could try. You needed a much deeper and better understanding of the total project. Of course, the bracket design must be manufacturable using an additive manufacturing technique (i.e. 3D printing). In the first phase of the contest, GE sought entries from any interested party, and chose ten finalists. Each finalist received a $1,000 reward and advanced to the second phase. In the second phase, the finalists’ designs will be additively manufactured and subjected to load testing by GE. The top eight finalist designs will then receive awards from a prize pool of $20,000.

Why is this important? Firstly, GE received 689 competition entries during the three-month duration of the quest. In a traditional product development setting, they would have generated at a maximum a handful of different designs to evaluate. Now they had almost 700 different designs from which to choose. Secondly, GE was able to tap into the creative minds of a vastly broader group of talent, both geographically and in terms of background, than they could ever hope to employ in-house. The ten finalists come from nine different countries all over the world and include, among others, a Hungarian third-year university student and an Indonesian entrepreneur. Lastly, GE got their almost 700 prototypes almost for free. They are handing out a grand total of $30,000 in prize money, which is orders of magnitude lower than the cost of any traditional development program.

Let’s say that each of these individuals put in a specific number of hours in their design process. At a highly conservative estimate, that’s 43 months of potential development thinking compressed into a much shorter cycle.

Will this approach completely disrupt traditional product development? No, it will not. To begin with, companies will not want to hand out the design specifications of their most business critical parts. They will also need to maintain the skills to evaluate the outcomes of crowdsourcing efforts, which will inevitably be of varying quality. However, if you can get even a small percentage of your development done significantly faster while producing superior results at a fraction of the cost, you have a significant competitive advantage.

The success of GE’s contest will no doubt trigger additional quests by GE as well as their competitors. Some will inevitably be less successful than the GE one, and as discussed above, there is a limit to what parts of your development you can crowdsource. In the larger scheme of things, however, this is just another example of how 3D printing is disrupting manufacturing industries. As the IBM Institute of Business Value study shows, 3D printing is causing dramatic changes in supply chains; As my colleague Leonard Lee discusses in his blog post, 3D printing is also changing how field support works. Combine all of the changes caused by 3D printing, and we are looking at a fundamental change in manufacturing industries.

Credits: Thanks to my colleague Cristene Gonzalez-Wertz for being our team’s foremost innovation and trend tracker. She’s been tracking 3D printing for 3 years and identified this example as a key first mover advantage. She wrote about 3D printing and other trends here.

Global Leader, Electronics Industry Center of Competence at IBM

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