FirstBuild opened in Louisville, Ky. in July 2014 and since then, about 6,500 people have visited the facility and two dozen products have been created as a result of its innovative bring-your-ideas-and-build-it-here mindset.
The innovation studio, kitchen, and lab that makes up FirstBuild is on the University of Louisville's campus, and it is a wholly owned subsidiary of GE Appliances. The exterior of the building is nondescript, but the interior has a cool, funky vibe that fits the creative mindset of FirstBuild. The main room has a seating area, which is often dotted with developers working on ideas on their laptops, and a large production kitchen where products can be tested. Appliances aren't just for show here—employees are bustling around, heating up a new pizza oven to make lunch, and dispensing ice from a nugget ice maker that sold more than 7,000 units in a crowdfunding campaign.
The next room is where much of the magic happens, with a working lab that houses an array of equipment and materials for developers seeking a haven to create a new product.
SEE: Gallery: Behind the scenes at FirstBuild (TechRepublic)
FirstBuild hosts two hackathons a year, with 50-200 people showing up to work on their ideas. If something is viable and goes into production through FirstBuild or GE Appliances, the designer can earn royalties for their work.
"We want to be nimble and act like a startup and really incubate some new concepts and ideas that we can scale up to production. We actually do low-volume production in house as well, and everything we do is open so anybody from the public is welcome to come into our facility, or they can go to firstbuild.com to see the projects we're working on," said Justin Berger, open innovation strategist for FirstBuild.
A hackathon last summer focusing on the Future of Cooking resulted in a cooktop being created for visually impaired individuals. The cooktop features braille, and ridges for each burner, so that pots and pans sit within a specific area, and the user can avoid burns. It is not yet in production, but a prototype has been created and is on display at FirstBuild.
Anyone who has an idea can take it to FirstBuild and use its lab, materials and equipment free of charge to design their idea if it's for an appliance. It's also acceptable to use the facilities for other projects, even furniture making, if you bring your own materials. If a developer isn't located in Louisville, they can submit their idea online, and work with FirstBuild's team to develop it.
The Louisville lab "is where we prototype our devices, the appliances that we want to make, but anyone is welcome to come in and can use all of the equipment that's here," Berger said.
At the Louisville facility, "they can utilize any of the equipment they want, or if it's an appliance idea that they need some help with, we're willing to support that with materials and with our team time, and figure out how, hopefully, we can get that closer to a product," Berger said.
The lab is stocked with power tools, hand tools, 3D printers, laser cutters, board fabrication equipment, a circuit board mill, a pick and place machine, a solder reflow oven, as well as a wiring station with extra wire and oscilloscopes.
"Raspberry Pi and Arduino are pretty popular because they're so easy to develop on. But all the shields, components, resistors, power supplies — all those things we stock here, and we'll help cover the costs for any appliances, or you can check out at our front desk if you want to buy those for a personal project," Berger explained.
SEE: The brains behind Geneva, GE Appliance's Alexa skill (TechRepublic)
FirstBuild allows developers to share each other's expertise, said Bill Gardner, advanced systems engineer at GE Appliances and part of the team of developers that created Geneva, GE's Alexa skill for connected appliances.
"The really nice thing about FirstBuild is allowing us to test ideas very quickly. We might have a voice experience possibility that they could bring out in a new product that is voice controlled that would take us longer term to do," Gardner said. "We go down there regularly, and you get to hear from their website ideas people have put on there, whether it's a new capability in voice or a new appliance type. It's a great source for ideas to flow back into the park [GE Appliance Park]."
FirstBuild has used crowdfunding to support several of the products developers have created in-house. A recent product developed at FirstBuild was featured at CES 2017. The product, part of the Paragon Induction System, is a derivative of the original Paragon precision control that FirstBuild previously offered, but this time in a silicon mat format. The mat is available for pre-order for $299 on Indiegogo and as of February 3, 2017, had already raised $164,924. The mat allows for precisely controlling pan temperature and automatically adjusting the output of the burner so that cooking will be consistent.
Another is the Opal Nugget Ice Maker, which produces nugget ice. The successful campaign raised $2,768,609 and drove 7,000 pre-orders in 2015, which shipped in 2016. It is available now for $499. It can be controlled via a mobile app to coordinate ice production.
A new product that went on sale in January 2017 is a Monogram pizza oven that retails for $9,900.
VIDEO: FirstBuild is an incubator for new concepts and ideas that can scale up to production (TechRepublic)
"This idea actually originated from a GE employee...he had met somebody who was cooking pizza at home had their own wood-fired oven and they were really looking for something that would make that process easier...make it easier to install and then cut down on the four-hour preheat time. So we actually invited that person to come to Louisville, and they taught us how to make good pizza," Berger said.
Next up is a hands-free vent hood that works in a smart home with Geneva, the Alexa skill that GE Appliances uses with its connected appliances. The vent hood can be turned on or off with voice commands. It will retail for $649 for a 36-inch version and $599 for a 30-inch version. There's also a vent hood under development that can be activated by waving a hand in front of a sensor.
"That was an internal personnel employee idea as we were looking at the smart home and particularly how we like to cook and what capabilities we have. The vent hood is something we're always reaching for when our hands are dirty, or we're cooking something else," Berger said.
Other products on display at FirstBuild include voice control for a traditional washer and dryer. There's also a wine cabinet that allows the user to monitor their wine inventory through an app.
The top 3 takeaways for TechRepublic readers
- The FirstBuild innovation studio, lab and kitchen opened in Louisville, Ky. in July 2014, and about 6,500 people have visited the facility and two dozen products have been created.
- Developers are welcome to bring their ideas to FirstBuild and work on them in their lab on the University of Louisville campus.
- FirstBuild has used crowdfunding to support several of the products developers have created in-house, including a nugget ice maker that raised more than $2.7 million.
- GE's FirstBuild: Can a big company harness startup mojo on the backs of upstart entrepreneurs? (TechRepublic)
- Appliance hackers at GE FirstBuild spur smart home innovation (ZDNet)
- Photos: GE's FirstBuild launches industrial makerspace to advance co-creation (TechRepublic)
- How to become an Alexa developer: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
- Here are all of the new Alexa devices and skills of CES (CNET)
- CNET Smart Home (CNET)
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.