Venkat and I sat on the concrete steps outside FirstBuild, surrounded by moving trucks and fresh cardboard boxes. It was during the heat of mid-day in Louisville, Kentucky in June, when the humidity combined with the beating sun is almost unbearable, and busy traffic around the University of Louisville campus loudly buzzed past.
He was relaxed, casually lounging in his corporate attire, seemingly enjoying the few moments of rest. It felt like we were sitting on the front porch, just missing a tall glass of an icy beverage. After a moment, I realized that we basically were. This is Venkat's home away from home, his pride and joy. The pinnacle of his time at General Electric, and his constant work in progress.
"This came because we failed in a number of things. It's not just about an idea or the engineering or the technology. Things that need to be manufactured, there's no better way than getting people involved," he said. "We open up how we design stuff. The maker movement has become big, 3D printing has become big, and a lot more people are jumping in on how to design and make stuff."
And that's exactly how he wants it to be. Natarajan Venkatakrishnan, who is known to everyone simply as Venkat, has been the director of research and development for GE Appliances since 2008. He is also the developer of GE's latest experiment, FirstBuild, which is a microfactory that was launched in partnership with the University of Louisville and the open source hardware platform Local Motors. The goal is to allow students, engineers, and the larger community to co-create the next generation of smart appliances.
"My main role is to work with engineers, commercial teams, anyone who has an idea, and see how to develop it, how to make it feasible, how to get it into the market," he said. "This comes to FirstBuild and what we're doing there."
When we talked, Venkat had just spent the day inside, waiting for the furniture to show up and monitoring progress of the facility. The 3D printers were on the way too, he told me excitedly. The demo kitchen for the next generation of smart appliances was almost finished, its stainless steel shining brightly from the reflection of GE's new LED lights above.
Venkat's idea for FirstBuild came after many journeys of trial and error in GE appliances. Failure, he said, is very important for both engineers and entrepreneurs.
"Over the years, one product after the other, there are hurdles to get through, think about. After 20 or 30 products, you realize, 'Does anyone else know all these questions in this business?' Somebody has to do it, take the plunge. So I said, 'Okay, I'll do it!'" he said with a smile. "It's high risk to do it, but is there anyone else?"
The warehouse FirstBuild is housed in looked much bigger than it had during the original press conference, which TechRepublic covered. I mentioned this to Venkat. He looked surprised, and said "Are you sure? It looks much smaller to me." He discussed the decisions to make all the manufacturing and design equipment to fit in the facility, which will eventually serve as a local microfactory. The building was designed so that anyone can see through the entire place by standing by the welcome desk, to view the entire micro-manufacturing process.
Venkat is constantly in search of a better way to develop and build products, so transparency and efficiency are extremely important to him. He said he's had a thirst for knowledge since he was a child. He grew up in India, where he earned a degree in aerospace engineering and then worked for Mitsubishi and Ford as an engineer. He came to GE in 1998 to work in the mergers and acquisitions department, then moved to roles in management and business development. In 2002, he moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where GE Appliances is headquartered.
Venkat has stayed at GE so long because he's always been able to try new things. As a curious engineer, there is nothing more important to him. It doesn't mean you get all the money, he said, but there is always an opportunity to step forward and experiment.
"If you let me try new things, I'm here. If you don't let me try new things, that's boring," he said. And FirstBuild, he said as he looked back towards the facility — his ultimate experiment — is "like an engine to do new things everyday."
Understanding new trends in technology is critical in his role at GE, so Venkat reads patent filings — yes, those legal documents full of business scenarios and design schematics — although, the habit is for both work and pleasure. Reading patents is important because, Venkat said, it is the best way to measure the output of an engineer. He has more than 25 patent filings himself.
"How many creative ideas came out of patents? That is the latest and greatest. If you see a patent today, you will see a product five, six years from now, so the best way to judge technology is to read patents," he said.
Developing things from the ground up is in his nature, Venkat said. It's the reason that in his spare time, he loves to garden, which he often compares to engineering. He said, "It takes a lot of effort and touch to grow something, it's very hard. Gardening is the natural side of that, right?"
His co-workers aren't sure how he has time to squeeze all that in already, but spending time in the garden doesn't even mark the end of Venkat's day. His favorite part is ending the night with his eight-year-old son. They watch Star Trek every night and discuss the technology, and when they reach the end of the seasons, they usually start over. He had this tradition with his elder son, too, who is now in high school.
Ask Venkat, and he'll tell you that the technology on the show, like the food replicator, isn't far-fetched. He said, "It sounds sci-fi, geekie, but shouldn't I have an appliance [like that] for myself? Can I enable that?"
If it's up to him, FirstBuild will make something like that possible. And if not, he's at least going to try.
In his own words...
How do you unplug?
"During the summer one of my passions is gardening. We have a garden in the backyard, and a community garden at Tom Sawyer [Park in Louisville]. Our household has 1200 sq ft of garden total. I run every day, 15 to 20 miles a week. When there's a mini [marathon] in Louisville, I do that. And keeping track of tech. I read a lot lot of news alerts, I read a lot of patents. Some people find it boring, but I read 25, 30, 40 patents of what is coming out of the industry every week."
What are some of your favorite tech tools?
"I'm a sucker for new technology. I've been like that since I was a kid, always looking at new things, what can you learn. And I'm not saying this because 3D printing is biggest thing, but I think the ability to give physical form to an idea, which is within your control, is a big thing. So I am trying to now figure out how to learn 3D printing and build stuff. I don't have [one] at home. I wanted to buy one but as FirstBuild was[being built], but with the amount of time ill spend here, I'm going to play here."
What advice would you give aspiring engineers and entrepreneurs?
"We should all try out one idea every week. If you want to be an inventor or try something new, you should try something new every week. Go find and do a design, download a CAD model every week. If you want to figure out 3D printing, print something every week. It will help you get to your goal."
What's the biggest trend in technology you are watching?
"I think the generation where we make millions of products and give the same thing to millions of people is gone. We are coming to a place where you could have the same product, but it's very customized. We go from making millions to making hundreds of thousands. That trend is going to spread to cars, appliances, the home, and why that is intriguing is that consumers will start to expect different packages, and that's a huge engineering and manufacturing challenge."
- GE's Christine Furstoss: Materials Engineer. 3D Innovator. Relentless Learner.
- GE's FirstBuild: Can a big company harness startup mojo on the backs of upstart entrepreneurs?
- Laura Weidman Powers: CODE2040 Founder. Minority Advocate. Discomforter.
- Scott Sandell: VC. NVCA Chairman. Rower. Always hungry.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.