GE’s FirstBuild Uses Crowdsourced Product Design to Spur Open Innovation

by Ken Micallef
- May 24 2016 - 5 min read
crowdsourced product design FirstBuild headquarters
FirstBuild is located in Louisville, Kentucky. Courtesy FirstBuild.

Any child of the 1980s can recall the jingle and tagline that accompanied General Electric’s homespun television commercials: “We bring good things to life.” With the emergence of the Internet and modern manufacturing, GE’s FirstBuild is fulfilling that marketing slogan in ways those TV-antenna-bound viewers could have never imagined.

FirstBuild is a co-creation community founded by GE Appliances with the goal of getting feedback from a large community of people on what innovations are needed in the marketplace,” says FirstBuild Product Manager Taylor Dawson. “It’s both a physical and online presence.”

The online piece is the FirstBuild website, which accepts crowdsourced product design ideas from community members. Once a worthy product concept is chosen, the physical aspect commences at FirstBuild’s Microfactory in Louisville, Kentucky.

crowdsourced product design FirstBuild Cold Brew Coffee Challenge
FirstBuild engineers Justin Brown (top) and Chris Naber work on the Cold Brew Coffee Challenge. Courtesy FirstBuild.

“People can post a new proposition for an appliance on our website,” Dawson explains. “We also engage people on the site with design challenges—most recently a Cold Brew Coffee Challenge to create a coffeemaker that cold-brews coffee in under 10 minutes. We explained what components should go into the coffeemaker and the basic form and functionality required. Then, we asked the community to come up with a beautiful industrial design that would be something people will purchase.”

Updating that old GE jingle sentiment with, “we are a place where ideas come to life,” Dawson and his 20-member FirstBuild team collaborate with designers on products as wide ranging as the GreenBean Maker Module, which lets you control appliances from your phone; the Opal Nugget Ice Maker; and the extremely popular ChillHub, a refrigerator with integrated USB hubs. FirstBuild’s Co-Create page is a Pandora’s box of kitchen-capable open innovation.

As for the Cold Brew Challenge, a specialized panel of judges recently chose three winners—Pique Cold Brew (first place), 1B Cube (second), and Cold Fusion (third)—who will take away $5,000, $3,000, and $2,000 prizes, as well as a percentage of sales once the product is commercially available at FirstBuild’s market. Each successful FirstBuild product begins with an idea, followed by crowdfunding.

crowdsourcing product design Opal Nugget Ice Maker
Engineers Ricky Aguiar (left), Tomas Garces, and Beau Muniz make adjustments to the Opal Nugget Ice Maker. Courtesy FirstBuild.

“With the Cold Brew Challenge, we believe that there is a real market for a cold brewer that can make coffee quickly,” Dawson says. “We had a plan, but why not get the input of the community as to how it should function and its look and usability? We explained to the community that we will take this to market on Indiegogo, and if your design wins, then you will get the money from the challenge and the opportunity to receive a percentage of the sales on Indiegogo as well. Within 10 months, they will see their idea materializing across the U.S. and the proceeds from the Indiegogo campaign. The first-place winner can receive 0.5 percent of the Indiegogo sales.”

In addition to its crowdsourced efforts, one primary benefit of the FirstBuild approach is its open-source community. If you’re a skilled designer and are trained to operate the equipment, you’re welcome at FirstBuild’s Louisville Microfactory.

“The Microfactory is an open-door R&D facility,” Dawson says. “If you walk in, you can see everything we are working on. We host hackathons and events for CAD workshops, and we do seminars. Anyone from the community can use our equipment with no fees. As long as you certify that you can use our laser machines and power tools, you only have to pay for materials. We’re like a maker space that also has the goal of taking things to market.

crowdsourced product design Pique Cold Brew
Pique Cold Brew won the Cold Brew Coffee Challenge. Courtesy FirstBuild.

“Any night of the week, you will find 10 or 15 community members, who are not employees, building things and collaborating at the Microfactory,” Dawson adds. “We hired one person who was passionate about making a nitro-brew coffeemaker built into a fridge, and he did it. We operate heavily in that space of people who are into making and creating new things. The Microfactory is a space where ideas marinate and members collaborate.”

Another unique aspect of the Microfactory is its all-in-one capability. The FirstBuild team develops the idea, designs the product, and manufactures the goods entirely in-house.

“The three pillars of the Microfactory are the ability to design, the build space with tools, and the selling portion where we have a showroom and e-commerce,” Dawson says. “We have a CNC machine, CNC lathe, CNC milling machine, 3D printers—all sorts of shaping and forming equipment and laser cutters. We don’t make a lot of errors or hold extra inventory. We make it all here at FirstBuild and ship it from our dock.”

crowdsourced product design FirstBuild Microfactory
An aerial view of the Microfactory lab space. Courtesy FirstBuild.

FirstBuild encourages the use of cloud-based design tool Autodesk Fusion 360, used by FirstBuild engineers and available as a free download at the Microfactory.

“Having that resource available as a free trial has been incredibly useful for people who are community members,” Dawson says.

“Made possible by fanatics like you” is a FirstBuild motto reflected not only in the ideas it receives but also in the products sold. Its Paragon Induction Cooktop has sold $350,000 worth of product. The Opal Nugget Icemaker has sold 7,000 units and made $3 million in Indiegogo sales—and that’s before GE adopts it within its global product line.

“Something becomes a project idea because it’s cool and unique—not through a complex business process,” Dawson says. “FirstBuild creates products through a random collision of ideas. That can happen in a place where people are free and open to share ideas, and they have the tools to make the stuff they need. That might not happen in a more closed space.”

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