Today Wired posted How GE Plans to Act Like a Startup and Crowdsource Breakthrough Ideas. The piece highlights the hugely successful Open Engineering initiative GE launched with GrabCAD.
Last year, the aviation engineers at General Electric found themselves with a jet engine bracket problem. At 4.48 pounds each, the brackets, little pieces of metal that support engine components, were weighing the plane down. Now, in the grand scheme of airplanes, a five-pound bracket seems pretty harmless, but it was a problem nonetheless, and one GE thought was solvable. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great if you could figure out way to make the bracket lighter?” recalls Steve Liguori, GE’s Executive Director of Global Innovation & New Models.
Traditionally, the only way to make a bracket strong enough to support a jet engine (which by the way, can weigh around 13,000 pounds) was to pour titanium alloy into a mold. This results in a strong, stiff object, but it was far from optimized. GE figured if it could find a way to reduce the weight of each bracket, they could significantly scale down the heft of an engine, resulting in millions of dollars’ worth of fuel savings each year.
GE knew the part needed to be 3-D printed. Problem was, the engineers didn’t have the time or, frankly, the know-how to significantly reduce the weight using advanced manufacturing. “Our engineering knew this problem was there, but based on our focus and priorities we were never able to really get around to it,” Liguori explains. “So we asked them, what are some problems you know we’ve been needing to solve but just haven’t been able to get to?”
GE turned to GrabCAD, an online community of more than a million engineers and designers, and presented a challenge: Whoever could redesign a bracket that reduced the most weight while still supporting the engine would win $7,000. More than 1,000 entries came in, with the winning design by M Arie Kurniawan a young Indonesian engineer who reduced the weight by a whopping 84 percent, to .72 pounds.
“I’ll never forget the day we presented this to Jeff Immelt [GE’s chairman and CEO],” Liguori says. “He was like, ‘Where did you find this kid, and how much aviation experience does he have?’ And you know the answer to that question? Zero.”
It was a triumph of crowdsourcing—for a nominal price, GE used the knowledge of someone they would have never otherwise met to innovate its way out a design problem. It was also a proof of concept for the engineering behemoth’s new innovation strategy. Under Immelt, GE has invested a sizable chunk of its annual $6 billion R&D funds into taking advantage of a simple, internet-enabled truth: Now, more than ever, it’s possible to connect with people around the world, so why not take advantage of that to solve some engineering problems?