Three Ways to Bring Crowdsourcing into Mainstream Manufacturing


ERP Analyst, Software Advice

Great ideas are all around us. But great ideas often get lost in the noise because they never reach the right person, or aren’t transmitted through the right channel. One solution is crowdsourcing–tapping into a broader community, or “crowd,” to solve a problem or design a new product.

Marc Halpern, Vice President of Gartner Manufacturing Industry Advisory Service, recently suggested that crowdsourcing could fix manufacturing by leaning on crowds for some aspects of product design and development. I caught up with Halpern to learn how crowdsourcing might work in the manufacturing industry, and what needs to happen before it can gain widespread acceptance.

What is a “Crowd” in Manufacturing?

Before diving into how crowds can be tapped for great ideas in manufacturing, Halpern had a distinction to make: not all crowds are created equal. The type of crowd that’s useful for product development depends on what’s being developed. Designing a t-shirt, for instance, is a far cry from developing a new medical device. In the manufacturing industry, crowdsourcing is typically best-suited for the engineering, scientific and enthusiast crowd, not (necessarily) the general public.

Crowdsourcing Can Speed Up Innovation

The manufacturing industry has received a lot of media attention lately for being an essential innovation hub in the United States. According to Halpern, crowdsourcing can be a great way to accelerate innovation and bring the best mix of ideas to the manufacturing industry. By placing an open call to the community and contracting out the design process, says Halpern, manufacturers can rapidly gather great ideas to bring to market with only a fraction of the effort or investment.

Sound far-fetched? Well, Proctor & Gamble gave crowdsourcing a whirl back in 2002 when the company couldn’t figure out how to print images on Pringles cans. To solve the problem, they turned to RTC North, a European scientist network. The search led them to a professor-run bakery in Bologna, Italy where the owner had figured out how to use inkjet technologies to print images onto pastries. By licensing this technology, P&G was able to bring this idea to market in just under a year. The experience proved so successful that the company now relies on outside collaboration for up to 50 percent of its innovations–a 40 percent increase since 2002.

Crowdsourcing Creates What the Market Wants

Beyond improving the exchange of ideas, crowdsourcing can also be useful for keeping companies “in touch with the tenor of the market,” says Halpern. Procter & Gamble isn’t the only large company seeking the wisdom of crowds for product innovation. Clorox, 3M, Johnson & Johnson and others regularly rely on networks such as Innocentive and YourEncore to crowdsource their product ideas.

One of my favorite examples of crowdsourcing in manufacturing, however, comes from a small company called Local Motors. Local Motors uses crowdsourcing to design vehicles and then contracts with micro-factories to build them. They recently made big news when they won a Department of Defense competition to build a combat vehicle. Next up, they’re crowdsourcing the design of an electric car. With gas prices on the rise, crowdsourcing an affordable electric car design could create the market innovation that meets current green consumer demands.

Three Ways to Make Crowdsourcing Mainstream

If crowdsourcing has been successful for these companies, why aren’t manufacturers embracing it even more? As it turns out, Halpern explained, there are three obstacles that need to be overcome before crowdsourcing can become mainstream: fear of change, intellectual property issues, and a lack of design sharing technologies. Halpern shared three strategies for overcoming these obstacles.

  1. Ease into crowdsourcing for idea creation. Historically, many manufacturers have taken the attitude that if it wasn’t invented within the “four walls,” an idea didn’t merit consideration. This can be a tough change management issue to tackle. One piece of advice Halpern offered is to start using crowdsourcing with a fringe product that isn’t core to the business. “These products can be used as a training ground for managers to get used to the approach,” explains Halpern. After a few successes, they might get bolder about introducing more products through crowdsourcing.
  2. Divide projects to protect intellectual property (IP). IP theft is a big concern in the manufacturing industry. What’s to stop an outside party that collaborates with Proctor & Gamble from taking those ideas and collaborating with Clorox? Compartmentalizing roles in the project can help limit the problem of information sharing. For instance, a manufacturer may want to crowdsource just the fuel cell for a car but keep the rest of the car design proprietary. To protect the IP of the car design, manufacturers can limit information by narrowly defining crowdsourced project roles and information access.
  3. Create a single file sharing system for design files. There is a broad ecosystem of computer-aided design (CAD) software out there, with each system running its own flavor of XML code. This makes it difficult to share design files with collaborators. While creating a universal standard for CAD programs is beyond the reach of any one manufacturer, the industry as a group could push for format standardization. In Halpern’s view, creating a standard format and standard environment that everyone could use would go a long way toward enabling more crowdsourcing projects in manufacturing.

A few years ago, crowdsourcing product design and development in the industry wasn’t even a topic of conversation. This year, Local Motors is hosting a competition to design a car that they'll build at the International Manufacturing Technology Show. The fact that it’s being openly debated in the manufacturing community–and actively used by Fortune 500 companies–indicates that there is movement afoot in the industry. Whether that movement continues depends on how well these obstacles are addressed.

What do you think will be the future role of crowdsourcing in the manufacturing industry? Can it hit the mainstream? Please leave me your thoughts below.

Thumbnail image created by khalid Albaih.

  • Alyson

    Hi Derek – I was just reading one of your guest posts over on the Manufacturing Innovation Blog. I work for a spring manufacturer here in Houston and I think the resistance to change and fear of design/idea theft are key. Oftentimes, manufacturers have been in this business forever – but, in order to remain relevant and, indeed to prosper, there has to be a shift in the cultural mindset to adopt new technologies and ideas.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing! – Aly 

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