At Chicago’s mHub, entrepreneurs, investors, engineers, and designers sit side-by-side. Nearby, 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC machines work to crank out quick prototypes, while the in-house microfactory handles small production runs.
This is home to GE Fuse, a new innovation platform and community focused on speeding up the development of new products for GE customers. Fuse is one of GE’s many new approaches — from GE Ventures to GENIUSLINK to FastWorks, the company’s internal lean startup initiative. GE’s GENIUSLINK team, the company’s open innovation and crowdsourcing experts, launched the Fuse business model.
“The concept [of Fuse] is around sourcing different problems from GE customers and then working with an online community to solve those problems,” says Amelia Gandara, the Community Leader for GE Fuse. “Once we have a potential solution, that’s where I hand over these potential solutions to Deborah [Brown, Fuse’s Rapid Prototype Leader,] and her team, and they make those solutions a reality.” Brown’s role is to take potential solutions, prototype them, and then work toward getting a final product to the customer.
Gandara works to engage and build Fuse’s online community of problem solvers who ultimately help to address GE customer pain points via “projects” on fuse.ge.com. Within these “projects,” there are different opportunities for community members, including brainstorm sessions, discussions, and challenges. Individuals or teams who submit a solution to a challenge have a chance to win cash prizes, have their solution prototyped and produced, and sometimes work alongside GE as their solution gets implemented.
We spoke with Granada and Brown about the GE Fuse community, and the right and wrong ways to source solutions from an external community.
Building the Community
“[Fuse is a] small team of four that operates out of a manufacturing co-working space,” says Gandara. “That’s part of the essence of what we want to do — bring the technical knowledge of GE and be surrounded by a community of other smart people, both physically and digitally.”
When it comes to finding new community members to participate, Gandara says Fuse is still testing out different strategies. They’ve tried digital advertising, speaking at universities, and hitting the road to meet with possible community members face-to-face.
“We’re reaching out and finding that our most engaged community members are engineers,” Gandara says. “They’re hungry for the context for the problems…They want to know what [a solution will be] used for, and they’re asking for a ton of background information. They want to know that they’re spending their time on something meaningful. And that’s part of what we’re doing by building this community.”
Projects, Brainstorms, Discussions and Challenges
The problems that are presented to the Fuse community come directly from GE divisions and their customers.
“The first group that’s really investing in testing this out is within GE Oil & Gas — specifically, GE Inspection Technologies,” says Gandara. “The first challenges we’re focused on are around different inspection techniques, so even though the division is under GE Oil & Gas, we’re inspecting everything from an oil pipeline that’s in the field, to a pipe that’s getting manufactured, all the way to jet engines that are taken out of service and have to be inspected.”
When Fuse first launched, they published four “projects,” or problems that GE Inspection Technologies was looking to solve for its customers. All four of these projects invited community members to participate in brainstorm sessions and discussion chats, but only one of the projects had an active “challenge.” Challenges are where community members are asked to submit final solutions to the problem, sometimes with prize money attached.
While a challenge is active, the Fuse team works with GE subject matter experts to vet submitted solutions, and will eventually choose winners based on the viability of the solution.
“I’m really looking for the [solutions] that we can implement quickly,” Brown says. “Even if they’re potentially longer-term solutions, we would still take those ideas and pass them to a different research team. The message is we always want ideas to come in. The question then is, ‘What can we prototype and manufacture to solve the problems our customers have?'”
- CT, or computerized tomography, is used to inspect objects during manufacturing processes in many industries to ensure they meet the desired specs. In many cases, thousands of large scans (up to 80 GB) generated daily need to be analyzed by offsite inspectors. The transfer of these large scans can take days, creating bottlenecks in the overall manufacturing process.
- In the airline industry, routine maintenance of airplanes helps to make flying to your destination dependable and enjoyable. This routine maintenance includes periodic inspection of the airplane’s engines. This challenge focused on ways to make the inspections more efficient and generate richer data for future maintenance activities.
- Historically, X-rays were cumbersome because they were taken and analyzed via film. Even with the arrival of digital X-rays, challenges still exist because of proprietary imaging capturing plates. This challenge is looking for ways to create a universal adapter for transporting X-ray imaging plates through a scanner.
Don’t Push for the Answer You Want
“Thinking about your customer is super crucial,” Gandara says. “[The community] wants to understand a customer’s true problem. And it forces us to not think about setting up a challenge in a way that we’re already pushing people toward a solution that we think is correct. By properly discussing and relaying the customer problem and the pain point, it allows people to think through solutions from a lot of different angles.”
What Happens when You win a GE Fuse Challenge?
There are several reward options for a team or individual who submits a winning solution to a challenge. GE Fuse provides monetary prizes, ranging from $500 -$20,000 depending on the project. Additionally, Gandara says there are opportunities for challenge winners to form lasting relationships with GE.
“We’re trying to experiment as much as possible,” says Gandara. “In the same way that we’re experimenting with how we’re finding different people who might be interested in being a part of the community, we’re experimenting with the structure of our challenges as well. Our ‘Consistent Images Challenge’ for example, we have a two-fold path if you win. [See sidebar for more detail on that challenge.] You can have an intellectual property exchange, or you can potentially go into a business arrangement where we’ll have a joint development. We wanted to be very open to working with a variety of different people. We might have an individual who presents an idea and is very happy that they participated, but they have a full-time job or something else that takes up their time…We want to be able to work with those people…We just want to be as open to as many ways to get to a solution as possible, rather than restricting it to one challenge where we say, ‘Hand us over everything; here’s a prize at the end.’ We believe there’s a lot of potential. These relationships that we build with people might go beyond just the challenge into a co-development process.”
Manufacturing Winning Ideas
“A lot of people have really creative ideas, but they don’t necessarily know or understand what the manufacturing process would look like,” Brown says. “And that’s OK, because we do.”
When a solution is chosen as a winner for a challenge, Brown gets to work with fellow GE engineers to start thinking about prototypes and the eventual manufacturing process.
“A big part of us being in this micro-manufacturing facility is to have the tools, resources, and abilities right around us to [make products],” says Brown. “The products we’re making are beyond what you would do with a DIY 3D printer. There’s a metal machining shop, there’s laser cutters…We’ve got resources around us to actually make products.”
And once a prototype exist, the Fuse team looks to quickly put it into a real-world environment.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we’re saying, ‘Hey, if we could put together a rough prototype, can we go out there and test it in one of our customer’s lines?'” Gandara says. “And the fact that we’re able to get to that point this quickly is a positive sign… We’re able to get to proof-of-concept much faster.”
Sourcing Ideas from a Diverse Crowd
While Fuse is headquartered in Chicago, the online community has been attracting participants from around the world. “We’re in the middle of a judging phase right now, and…we’ve seen a top group of entries from 6 different countries. And they’re all coming from completely different perspectives. For example, with one of our most recent challenges, we thought we were iterating on a borescope, which is a tool used to inspect a jet engine. But just the way that people are thinking about it — they’re iterating on different elements that we wouldn’t have thought of by ourselves. Having that international perspective has been mind-blowing.”
But Gandara and Brown says they try to put a blindfold on when it comes to selecting winners.
“Some of our teams are super young and some of them seem to be super experienced, but when judging it, I don’t look at where the submission is from — whether it’s domestic or foreign, the background of the person who’s submitting it, or whether it’s a team or an individual person,” Brown says. “I really look at it for the technical material they’re presenting.”
Question Everything, Iterate Fast, but Don’t Alienate Internal Teams
“We’ve learned to question ourselves, and question what we’re doing and how we’re putting forward these challenges,” Brown says. “We’re trying different scopes of challenges. Big challenges, little challenges, big prize rewards, smaller prize rewards, and I think we’re learning…what resonates with people. Being a smaller division, we can iterate fast. We [on the GE Fuse team] get together and we say ‘What do we want to do? How do we want to run this challenge?’ And then we clear it with legal and we’re all good.”
She continues, “We don’t have to [say], ‘Well everyone’s not ready to meet until a week from Thursday, and that’s when we’re going to have our big committee meeting for how we’re going to run this challenge.’ Usually someone will just walk in and we’ll start talking around our desks, which of course are all in a big open room, and the conversation can happen somewhat organically. We write a bunch of stuff on the wall and then Amelia takes it and runs with it.”
Despite their ability to iterate more quickly and make adjustments freely, the Fuse team still works closely with GE’s internal product development teams, and believes that forging positive relationships with these teams is an important aspect of their work.
“We’re out here to fail,” Brown says. “We’ll do a test and fail, test and fail. So by the time it gets to [GE’s other product development teams]… we have a clearer idea of how and what we will need to go into production…We’re all learning through this together. I think any time you go to somebody and you say, ‘We’re here to solve your problem quickly,’ there is definitely an openness to it. And a curiosity for what [the solution] is. I think within GE, there’s a lot of curiosity as to how this is going to work.”
“A lot of it is about the how you communicate,” Gandara says. “What we’re hoping to do is build strong relationships with our fellow product development teams… We’re here to test out what the product manager didn’t have an opportunity to test out in the past. Maybe they would have loved to have taken this risk, but they didn’t have the budget. So let us take that risk with you. We’re working as partners, not competitors. We’re not here to replace the brilliant engineers that already work at GE. We’re here to help accelerate something.”