Open Engineering Ideas
Praise the Board, and Pass the Innovation!

Praise the Board, and Pass the Innovation!

To say there is something grossly deficient in the closed and inflexible way large companies design and develop products is hardly controversial. Corporate product development establishments are eerily like medieval monasteries. The lanyard-wearing monks sit in their cubicles, cloistered behind card-lock doors, adhering to a strict hierarchy and bound by a code of secrecy. Corporate monks work on three-dimensional computer-aided design with solitary intensity. Many enter the order as youngsters and do not leave until retirement.

The analogy may be exaggerated, but not by much. I ran up against this attitude in my first job working for a door maker in Estonia. When it was suggested we extend our product range to include a line of wooden doors, the answer from the old guys was, “We make metal doors, not wood.” End of discussion.

On the positive side, monasteries can be deep reservoirs of skill and craftsmanship handed down over generations—which is great if you’re making beer or cheese. But if you need a radically different and fresh approach, it is probably better to look beyond the people who developed the last 10 generations of whatever product you make.

In this new environment, the winners will be those who can draw and shoot quickly and accurately at targets that may be well over the horizon.

Here’s a prediction: As the global center of gravity shifts away from mature markets, the emerging-market middle classes are not going to accept hand-me-down solutions. They are going to want designs informed by their specific functional needs. Where are major corporations going to get that kind of eclectic and panoramic perspective?

There is no way around it. The monastery doors must swing open to admit a wider spectrum of input from colleagues and customers, as well as external design and engineering talent.

To those who have spent their entire careers behind the walls, all this is deeply disturbing. And the scariest prospect of all is the risk that outsiders will have access to the holiest of holy, the sacred intellectual property.

Who’s Taking the GrabCAD Challenge?

There are lots of ways to explore the potential of an open approach. To dip one toe in, you can explore models on our site and reach out to engineers whose work intrigues you. Conversely, you can dive in with a big splash and pose a GrabCAD Challenge to our community.

No surprise that supercar makers don’t go for the slow, gradual approach. Guys like Jerod Shelby of SSC don’t waste time when the light turns green. So just as Shelby challenged the community to do a comprehensive interior concept for his Tuatara (and found our man Sasank Gopinathan), Paolo Termini’s challenge was to do two complete exterior body designs for his new supercar.

Engineers in our community jumped at the chance to work on the challenge. Even the daydream of designing the exterior of a supercar is enough to make any good gearhead hyperventilate. So before you could say “supercar,” 200 of our engineers had put hundreds of hours into submissions that blew Paolo’s socks off.

As a result, 500 Group invited the top Challenge contenders to join a special project team that is working with the company on an ongoing basis via GrabCAD Workbench. That process led to another Challenge to the community, this time for an IP. No, not intellectual property; in the car biz, an IP is an instrument panel. And plans are afoot for more.

From our viewpoint, all of this is fantastic. Skeptics, however, have told me it’s much what they would expect: experimentation by new players who aspire to disrupt the established order. The heavy hitters, they say, are never going to embrace “this open thing.”

Oh, yeah? Tell that to GE.

General Openness

In electrical and mechanical engineering, enterprises don’t come bigger or broader than GE. From jet engines and locomotives to power generation and medical devices down to home appliances, GE is a giant with an enormous reach. And it is an unusually smart giant. “Imagination at work” is GE ’s brand statement—and from what I ’ve seen, GE means it. Since launching GrabCAD, we’ve had flickers of interest from a number of large companies, as well as some serious attention from a few. But ever since GE began to explore what they call “Open Innovation,” we have really felt the warmth of its attention. GE is the most sophisticated buyer of engineering in the business—and its management realizes something important is happening.

In June 2013, GE put some skin in our game: a Challenge to test the water. GE asked the GrabCAD community for suggestions on how to make a lighter, stronger version of an innocuous little part, a bracket that is used to lift jet engines for maintenance. They thought maybe they would get 100 submissions that would save perhaps 20% in weight. I think we kind of blew their minds.

In phase 1 of the Challenge, the GE team received 697 submissions from 56 countries, most from engineers outside the aerospace industry. That alone would have impressed them. Where we got to the mind-blowing stage was when they realized that not one but more than a dozen of the submissions achieved weight savings of 75% to 85%. Even better, they realized that by applying the same concepts to every component in the engine, they could reduce its overall weight by up to 20%. Consider this against what one GE employee told me: “We regularly spend billions of dollars to achieve single-digit reductions in engine weight.”

So a weight savings of 20% represents a quantum leap. In fact, weight is such an overriding concern that people at the airlines sit around thinking of ways to get the change out of your pocket before you board. Maybe that’s how they came up with all their innovative ways to nickel-and-dime us.

Our GE friends were so excited they took the news all the way up the very steep ladder to GE’s board of directors. And the board said, “Move forward with open innovation.” To that, I say, “Praise the board, and pass the innovation!” In fact, GE got so excited that shortly after the results came out, they boasted about it to Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, when he toured GE ’s research center.

The tour prompted Friedman to write a column “When Complexity Is Free” in which he wrote:

“There are parts of an aircraft engine—hangers, brackets, etc.—that are not key to the engine, but they keep it attached and add weight, which means higher fuel costs. So GE recently took one bracket—described the conditions under which it worked and the particular function it performed—and posted it online under the ‘The GE Engine Bracket Challenge.’ The company offered a reward to anyone in the world who could design that component with less weight, using 3-D printing. ‘We advertised it in June, [and] got 697 entries from companies, individuals, graduate students, and designers all over the world from,’ said GE’s Iorio. GE’s engineers culled out the top 10, and they are now being tested to determine which is the lightest that conforms to GE’s specs and can be built on its printers. I saw one prototype that was 80 percent lighter than the older version. The winning prize pool is $20,000, spread out across 8 finalists, with awards ranging from $1,000 to $7,000 each. A majority of entries came from people outside the aviation industry.”

The only problem with Friedman’s account is that GE did not issue the Challenge to “anyone in the world.” It went out to anyone in the GrabCAD community. But, hey, we are happy to get the word out about the power of open, so let’s not quibble.

The bottom line is that the leader of the pack has spoken. GE has validated open engineering, and that means it is no longer the preserve of disruptive upstarts. So not only are young Turks in the monasteries now free to advocate change, all megacorporate design establishments risk getting left behind if they don’t get on board. As Alex Tepper, GE’s former global director of innovation, points out:

“What used to cost start-ups $5 million in 1998, today costs $50,000, and the evolution continues exponentially faster. The writing is on the wall. Evolve quickly.”

The key here is not lower cost, though. GE can certainly cut costs on its own. The key is the benefits that flow from bringing more participants into the process—engineers from all over the world and from outside the aerospace industry who could not possibly afford the sophisticated tools that GE has. When you make it dramatically easier to play, you get a new set of players. Lower cost is just one aspect of the total benefit.


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