Let the Global Brain Do the Thinking: A New Approach to Making Things

April 15, 2014

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Hanging a picture in the living room can be a vexing experience involving just a hammer and a nail. Now imagine bolting a jet engine to the wing of a passenger plane. Maintenance crews use special metal brackets to safely mount and dismount the engines that weigh nearly 13,000 pounds. The brackets are reliable but they are also bulky, adding extra pounds for the plane to carry around.

Last year, GE invited members of the open engineering platform GrabCAD to redesign the 4.5-pound titanium alloy part and come up with a lighter bracket that could be 3D printed. The partners offered a $20,000 reward to the best designs.

It worked. The winner, an engineer from Indonesia, created a design for a bracket that weighed 84 percent less than the existing part and survived all mechanical tests. It took him just a few months.

Wired magazine recently explored the idea behind the challenge and GE’s new open innovation strategy: if humans and machines are ever more connected and smarter, let’s act like a startup and access this emerging global brain to solve our toughest problems. (See our next story about the latest challenge announced today.)

Hot off the 3-D printer is this jet engine bracket, which is one of the ten finalists in GE’s 3-D Printing Design Quest challenge. GE called on the maker community to design stronger but lighter brackets and received over 700 entries from all over the world. The ten finalists will undergo mechanical tests at GE Global Research in upstate New York.

These two jet engine brackets made from a titanium alloy were 3D printed at GE Global Research. They were among the 10 finalists in GE’s and grabCAD’s global challenge.

This “new way to make” things animates GE’s partnership with Local Motors, a design innovator that built the world’s first open-source car. GE is not getting in the car business, but it will work with Local Motors to bring co-creation and “microfactory” production to the appliances business.

Their platform, called FirstBuild, will prototype new ideas sell them in small quantities. “This is going to be a brand new community of engineers, fabricators, designers and enthusiasts,” says Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors. “GE is already full of experts and they will meet the community half way.”

GE is also working with Quirky, an online community of some 2,000 makers, to design and take to market internet-connected devices ranging from home sensors to smart air conditioners like Aros. Owners can control the 8,000 BTU AC with their smartphones. It is already available on Amazon.

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Owners can control their Aros ACs with their smartphones. Top image: The world’s first open-source car developed by Local Motors.

The Wired story also focused on changes in GE’s management style reflecting the new startup ethos – a no mean feat at a global company that employs 300,000 workers. For example, the company teamed up with Lean Startup guru Eric Ries to create a program called FastWorks. It encourages employees to change how they work, with an emphasis on speed to market.

“We’re saying to people it’s ok to try things earlier, it’s ok to bring customers in earlier,” says Beth Comstock, GE’s Chief Marketing Officer. “You’re giving people a lot more freedom to move faster to make more small mistakes.”

Moving faster, indeed. Only one of top ten brackets from last year’s GrabCAD challenge failed when subjected to mechanical tests. The aviation engineering experience of the Indonesian winner? Zero.

That’s the power of the crowd.