Hardware

GE launches 'microfactory' to co-create the future of manufacturing

GE has launched FirstBuild, a microfactory and open community space in Louisville, Kentucky for students, makers, and engineers to co-create the smart appliances of the future.

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Venkat Venkatakrishnan, GE Appliances Innovation Leader, shows off the plans for FirstBuild.
 Image: Colin West McDonald/CNET

On Wednesday, General Electric announced the launch of FirstBuild, a "microfactory" and open community for students, engineers, and innovators on the University of Louisville campus in Louisville, Kentucky. The company wants to create a new business model for the manufacturing industry by harnessing open innovation, the maker movement, and community involvement to build a revolutionary new wave of smart appliances.

The project is a collaboration between GE, the University of Louisville, and Local Motors, an open source hardware platform.

"This is global co-creation paired with a microfactory on site," said Chip Blankenship, CEO of GE Appliances. "We will innovate and bring products to market faster than ever before."

Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers said, "We cannot be a nation that is focused on services and banking alone. This here is proof positive not only are we engaging everyone in this country who has an opportunity to contribute to making appliances, but we are engaging the youth."

GE's original idea for open innovation and a micro-manufacturing facility came from the company's first crowdsourcing project to create a better jet engine bracket. In June 2013, the company held a contest in partnership with GrabCAD, an open engineering community called "3D printing design quest." GE released their original design for the titanium jet engine bracket and invited the public to riff off of it to create a lighter version that would be 3D printed. Over six weeks, more than 700 entries from 57 countries came in. The winner was a 21-year-old PhD student in Indonesia, who reduced the weight of the bracket by 84 percent.

"What we learned was not only that open innovation can work, but part of the reason why it works is that you're tapping into a very different group of people from the people who are normally thinking about the engineering challenges," said Alex Tepper, global director of innovation for GE.

This paved the way for the partnership with Local Motors, which was originally created to crowdsource the manufacturing of vehicles. However, in the process of building the company, Local Motors realized the power of its web platform, which promotes the idea of co-creation in communities. Local Motors has since focused on the idea of harnessing the power of a community's ideas and inventions through these microfactories.

The company already has microfactories in Chandler, Arizona, Knoxville, Tennessee, Las Vegas, and Germany, and plans to open 100 microfactories around the world in the next 10 years.

"This is a trend, a genie thats jumped out of a bottle and you're never going to be able to put that back in," Rogers said.

Empowering the next generation of engineers

FirstBuild is located on the University of Louisville campus. The university and GE Appliances plan to create an advanced manufacturing hub for students to conduct research while getting practical training on the latest 3D printing technology. The university is already a worldwide leader in 3D printing technology, with a lab inside the Speed School of Engineering that recently build the first 3D printed human heart model, which allowed doctors in Louisville to save a young boy's life.

Currently, engineering students the have the opportunity to do co-ops at GE, and employees of GE work with students and faculty on the U of L campus for various projects. The new FirstBuild building will stand behind the Speed School of Engineering when it is finished in about three years. However, when GE finalized its agreement with the university earlier this year, it wanted to get started as soon as possible. So it located in an existing building on campus where GE, engineering students, and one of Local Motors' mobile manufacturing facilities will be able to start collaborating when they opens in May.

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 Image: Local Motors

"This partnership, for us to partner with a great company like GE, a company that is such an integral part of our community, is important to our faculty in their research initiatives, it's important to our students, and it's important to our vision for the Institute for Product Realization," said University of Louisville President James Ramsey.

The first few projects will focus on the future of cooking. Community members can work from GE iterations and original designs or create their own. FirstBuild is meant to be a community of engineers, designers, hardware hackers, and anyone who is passionate about innovation in the appliance space.

"It's about producing small batches of products and getting them into consumers' hands very fast," Tepper said. "We'll have rapid iterations on those products, by working with consumers, community engineers, and designers. Once we work on the project for a while, we can start mass producing."

The space will be open to the public to work on smart kitchen appliances, but also other ideas outside the appliance space.

The future of manufacturing

Last year, GE set up a similar partnership with Quirky, a New York City startup that crowdsources invention designs and manufactures the favorite ones. They recently released Aros, the first smart air conditioner.

This partnership with Local Motors and U of L takes the idea a step farther, meant to empower local entrepreneurs as well as the global maker community.

"I think the world's going to learn a lot from what we are doing here," said Mayor Greg Fischer at the launch. "We're going to learn a lot as well."

GE has a long standing history with the university and the city. Ramsey even said he grew up next to Appliance Park, and knew its importance in the community from an early age. GE employees more than 6,000 people in Louisville. The Appliance Park in Louisville, located about 10 miles from U of L, is 900 acres and has a new rapid prototyping center that was unveiled in July 2013.

"[We will be] letting consumers vote about what the winners are and then scaling those up in our factories over in appliance park," Blankenship said. "It will allow us to take bigger risks -- bigger market risks, design risks, and push the limits of innovation and design with less investment."

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.

3 comments
AtariBaby
AtariBaby

Louisville was a strange choice of venue. Gonna be hard to recreate the Ark in a micro factory!

AtariBaby
AtariBaby

Hah oh man, I would be so afraid of "making" in that place. I'm probably just being paranoid.

dogknees
dogknees

The future of manufacturing should be "make it individual, make it fast and make it locally". 

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