Tired of the design of your home appliances? Think your washing machine is missing features? You may soon have the opportunity to change the status quo and design and make your own appliances.
GE Appliances announced plans to build its first "micro-factory" where a global community of consumers will co-create and co-make the next generation of innovative appliances.
The brand new facility is set to open this summer in Louisville, Kentucky. Interested parties can get involved in all aspects of product creation from prototyping to manufacturing and sales. The micro-factory will provide facilities from CAD stations to 3D printers and support the community in selling their products. The facility will be jointly managed with Local Motors, a co-creation and micro-factory organisation.
Getting back to the cottage industry?
Are we returning to the age of the cottage industry? Is this the end of corporate innovation, mega factories and supply chains? I don't think so. The "maker movement," a next-generation extension of DIY culture, is gaining traction and headlines, but my guess is that most consumers – including myself – are not born makers and are not willing to make their own dishwashers.
Manufacturing corporations are here to stay. We all have strong ideas and preferences about appliances, though, and this is what is needed to reinvigorate corporate innovation.
In his 2012 book Makers, Chris Anderson wrote that "transformative change happens when industries democratise, when they're ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks." I fully agree. And this is what GE wants to do: harness the collective creativity of the crowd (or "crowdsource") for a change in their home appliance innovation process.
SCM World research shows that "collaborating with the customer base" is a popular strategy for manufacturers to drive innovation, with more than half of companies reporting that they do so. A substantial proportion of companies are also using social media to source real-time feedback from customers (56%), inform new product development processes (45%), and improve demand sensing and forecasting (46%).
Productive innovation, not just product innovation
The challenge for complex multinational companies like GE is that they can't sustain today's pace of innovation. Many companies feel that innovation is too expensive as risks of failure in new product design and introduction are substantial. Harnessing the creative power of the crowd sounds like a clever idea, but how does one make sure all this creativity is driven towards profit?
In this respect, what I find interesting about GE's approach is the direct involvement of the company's design and engineering teams in the micro-factory. GE's teams will work with the community by not only gathering ideas but also challenging makers with design and engineering issues. I think their years of domain knowledge in the appliance industry will make the difference here.
GE Appliances' design and engineering teams will also work along with makers as small batch production of community designs transitions into larger-scale production. The micro-factory strategy will allow GE Appliances to move select products to larger-scale factories with more confidence, because they will have been vetted by the community first. Low-volume product will never make it to traditional factories, saving the company from sure losses.
I believe that GE's micro-factory strategy is a great opportunity and example for many other companies willing to move away from mere product innovation – an approach that is prone to failure – and towards "productive innovation" – an approach that is open to crowdsourcing and creates flexibility to scale production from micro- to macro-factories.
This, I think, will be the key to secure success in future manufacturing.
This blog is reprinted with permission from SCM World. "Harnessing the Creativity of the Crowd for Productive Innovation" by Pierfrancesco Manenti was originally published May 14, 2014.