Industry Giants Partner with Makers to Foster Innovation

Many new technologies and platforms are converging today to lay the groundwork for the next revolution in manufacturing. New additive manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing, are game changers, poised to put the power of innovation into the hands of small startups, part-time hobbyists and just plain-old tinkerers armed quite simply with new ideas, fresh approaches and raw, unbridled ambition.

The availability of open source hardware means the wheel doesn’t have to be invented over and over again and crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, are taking the funding issue out of the equation. If your idea is good enough; the funding will come.

So what do all of these things mean to larger, more established manufacturing companies? For one, watch your back; startups are now quite capable of challenging their bigger brethren as all of these aforementioned technologies level the playing field. Smaller companies and startups are more nimble and able to quickly adjust to changes in the market, often much faster than their larger competitors.


GE Opens Up its Innovation Pipeline to the “Crowd”

Other manufacturing giants are taking the “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach, partnering with these so-called makers, and the results thus far has been quite positive. In fact, for several of these companies, it’s made them completely re-evaluate their product development processes and might bring about monumental changes in how they set upon the task of innovation and design.

Early last year General Electric’s Appliances sponsored a hackathon, a local contest held for members of a local hacker collective made up of artists, mechanics, IT guys, retiree hobbyists, and a handful of GE engineers. For the contest, GE Appliances donated refrigerators, ranges, and other devices, and over 48 hours, teams of hackers raced to imbue them with elaborate new functions. Although the division spends plenty on R&D, Kevin Nolan and Venkat Venkatakrishnan, the heads of technology and R&D, wanted to see what out-of-the-box ideas the crowd might have.

The results were both silly and useful. One modified refrigerator dispensed soda cans from a chute, like a vending machine. Another used a nitrogen cylinder for home-style flash freezing.The winner, though, was an oven with a bar-code scanner capable of reading and perfectly executing cooking instructions encoded on packaged foods. To demo the product, the leader of the team, Chris Cprek, a University of Louisville staffer and one of the group’s founders, created a bar code with baking instructions for a raspberry pie and used his hacked-together oven to bake the dessert right on the workshop floor.

The results were a real wake-up call to GE execs. While the idea of a barcode-scanning oven had come up before internally, the juggernaut of corporate R&D meant the idea never made it past the brainstorm stage. The fact that among this group of makers, someone had created a working prototype that quickly made the execs wonder how much innovation they were letting slide by. How many great ideas were getting sidelined by the obstacle course of requisite departments (R&D, design, prototyping, market research, and manufacturing)?

FirstBuild will Bridge Maker Movement and Mass Market

Six months after the hackathon, GE launched FirstBuild with the help of some of the biggest names in the U.S. maker movement—primarily Local Motors, an open-source automotive manufacturer, but also the 3D printer company MakerBot and the TechShop, a chain of member-based maker workshops.

FirstBuild will serve as a bridge between the hacker movement and the mass market. The organization pairs a global online community with a 33,000-square-foot public hackerspace and small-scale factory. As ideas bubble up from the crowd, the creators can team up with GE designers and engineers to build prototypes. If enough interest for those prototypes develops online, FirstBuild will put them into a limited production run for sale under its brand. If those products do well, they could graduate to GE and go into mass production.

The upside to the project for GE is big. If a successful FirstBuild product makes it to a production line, the division will still have to spend millions to set up a supply chain, make molds and dies, and configure the heavy equipment, but that product will already have been market-tested and refined in a low-volume facility—a tremendous advantage.

Read more on GE’s crowdsourcing of innovation in the Popular Mechanics article “Welcome to the Maker-Industrial Revolution.”

SOLIDWORKS Ignites Innovation with MassChallenge Competition

Recognizing there are a lot of great ideas out there that just need a push to achieve reality, SOLIDWORKS created the MassChallenge’s global accelerator program and startup competition designed to give entrepreneurs the momentum needed to launch and succeed.

Each year, SOLIDWORKS through a partnership with FISHER/UNITECH, provides the MassChallenge teams with access to SOLIDWORKS 3D CAD software to help accelerate their design process. SOLIDWORKS suite of tools enable MassChallenge teams to virtually test their ideas against real-world conditions, eliminating costs traditionally associated with bringing a product to market. This partnership is just one way MassChallenge empowers a cross-collaborative environment to help entrepreneurs solve problems better and faster.

Aside from SOLIDWORKS software, MassChallenge also provides finalists with high-quality, personalized mentorship; access to office space and development resources; and connections to potential team members, advisors, customers, and sponsors. Read more about this independent, not-for-profit organization in this MassChallenge case study.



Barb Schmitz

Barb Schmitz

Senior Marketing Communications Manager at SolidWorks
Barb Schmitz is a Senior Manager in Marketing Communications with BA in Journalism and over 30 years of experience in the CAD software industry. She started her career as a journalist covering technology and served as an editor for several leading industry publications for over 20 years. Besides being a sleuth of tech, she is a loyal dog owner, travel bum, mom, lover of hoppy IPAs, red wine, and alternative music lover living in the great city of Chicago.