FirstBuild: Community Building, Microfactories and the Next Generation of Co-Creation

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This article was first published on Innovation Excellence on October 14, 2014.

There are so many converging forces impacting the world today, that it can be quite dizzying as we explore different ways to make new connections that allow us to create something meaningful…and potentially profitable.

It’s dizzying, difficult and exciting, all at the same time. Some of these forces are:

  • The Internet of Things
  • Maker Spaces
  • Crowdsourcing (as it grows up)
  • Open Innovation and Co-creation
  • Remote Workforces and Telepresence
  • The Challenges of Execution and the Back End of Innovation
  • Prototyping and Need for Getting to Market Faster
  • Community and the Power of the Connected Network
  • Innovation Teams that Combine Cross-functional Internal and External Talent
  • Unique Partnerships between Startups and Corporations

So, who out there is blazing new paths by connecting these dots? How can these be combined into a business model that creates new value in new ways?

I recently discovered FirstBuild, a new community at the very early stages of doing this, while creating something unique and powerful

A Community AND Business Re-Inventing the Future of Product Development and Implementation

                  Taylor Dawson at Maker Faire 2014 NYC

                  Taylor Dawson at Maker Faire 2014 NYC

FirstBuild is an online and physical community dedicated to hacking, designing, engineering, building, producing and selling the next generation of home appliances.

I had a wonderful opportunity to sit down with Taylor Dawson who came to  FirstBuild about 6 months ago (from its partner company GE).

He is one the first members of the team and founding members who helped define what the vision was early on.

There is a lot to be learned by hearing their story, approach to getting started and vision for their path forward….

Lynda Koster: Tell us a little bit about your background and role at FirstBuild

Taylor Dawson: I have a background in engineering and spent two years in product development at two different companies. These positions were in pretty typical corporate cultures. So I’ve participated in about 5 product launches over the course of my career and most recently worked as Design Manager at GE Appliances in the water systems for refrigerators.

I came to FirstBuild about 6 months ago as one the first members of the team. One of the founding members who were helping define what the vision was early on.

FirstBuild has been a staged rollout of different pieces that have allowed us to be more and more open to the community – first we went for the web community, then our local community and now and now we are going for a community of people who can physically do something, who are also distributed throughout the United States.

I have seen FirstBuild through the launch of our web platform in May, and then the launch of our Makerspace – what we call our Microfactory, in July. And now we are announcing the launch of a new product (GreenBean) two months later.

LK: Tell us about your MakerSpaces/Microfactories. Do you plan to open more physical locations?

TD: We try not to call ourselves a Makerspace as much because we aren’t exactly a makerspace. That has all kinds of connotations with it. It IS a place where makers can come in and see everything we are doing – it is a completely open environment. But, we are also focused on a micromanufacturing and making things that will actually be sold which is why we call it a microfactory.

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It is a new concept and actually a term created by Local Motors, one of our partners who helped define this vision about how you could get a community involved in manufacturing and developing new products, manufacture those products in low volume and still make money on them when sold as real products.

People often ask us if we plan to expand and open up more microfactories. Our plan right now is to make the vision work really well on this, and the current microfactory (currently located in Kentucky).

LK: How do you select members from the community to work on the projects?

TD: In general, it would be ideal if the person who is the concept leader is the person who created the idea. It is possible that the person who has put the idea on our website is an ideas person and not a technical person who knows how to bring it forward, but is an enthusiast, who can still help make sure the vision stays true to what they were thinking. If that is the case then that person could still be a concept leader who could bring in a couple of other people from the community to help solve for some of the engineering challenges.

But ultimately what we are seeing happening is that an idea becomes a project when we get a concept leader, a group of people that are focused on the project and we have enough definition to build a prototype. So we call that a project. So the idea is updated to a project when you have those three things.

What a project means is that we are committed to building a functional prototype, we will all evaluate it and we will decide if we want to make a product in low volume that we will sell out of our microfactory.

LK: How can the community get involved (online and offline)?

TD: We started out with a web platform and online community. Everything we do we want to be very transparent on that web platform, so we let people submit new appliance ideas that could provide some new value.

If there is an idea that has a lot of interest with the community, then it will become a project. Every month we have a meeting where we look over the most popular projects, the one that people are talking about the most, the ones with the most thumbs up, the ones that have the most activity in general and then we will say, okay, if there a critical mass of people working on the project and is it defined well enough to where we can actually commit to making a prototype. We will select it.

And, if we get to that point, we say let’s go build a physical prototype of this idea. We also look for a leader…a concept leader. This is someone who either posted the idea, or who is the most active person who could really take it from the stage of an idea to a prototype.

LK: What does your community get for contributing and staying engaged?

TD: There are two motivations to be a member of the FirstBuild community:

  1. If your idea becomes a product – the day that we make the first product you get a payout…for every unit we make after that you get a royalty. Click here to see how compensation works.
  2. Recognition and satisfaction of seeing product in the homes of millions of people worldwide. This satisfaction is what we believe motivates a lot of people. 

LK: What type of community members are you most interested in participating? Who are most important

TD: This is a hard one to answer. We don’t see one as more important than another. We actually want to attract people who are,

  • Hardware hackers
  • Software developers
  • Generally, people who know how to manufacture
  • People who are enthusiastic, who may not have a particular skill in building

LK: You just launched the GreenBean module, which gives you direct path into the brain of your kitchen appliances and I now see that it is in the FirstBuild Market on your website. Who is your target, what is the vision and how can people far and wide can get involved with it.?

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TD: The Green Bean Maker module allows you to use USB technology to connect your appliances to the Internet of Things. The idea is to be open about software… it is only compatible with GE appliances, so one of the things we are trying to do is that we want to create a suite of appliances and plan to call it GreenBean garden – a place where you that you can actually log into and check out time on an appliance.

It will be physically located at FirstBuild, but if you create an application for a refrigerator or a dryer, you can login to one of our telepresence robots, so you can see it happening. And you can actually checkout time with a FirstBuild community manager so they can push the buttons and show you what your application did. 

So that is one way that people far and wide can get involved with GreenBean.

The other thing we are trying to do is reach out to Maker Spaces to get them GE Appliances. So people in their maker spaces can download some of the applications, try them, refine them and re-uplodad them or come up with entirely new applications and share them with each other.

So our real vision for it is that it is something that a community of people can use to develop and refine ideas and I would expect that over time when we build a strong community, there will be great ideas that come out of it that are commercializable.  And the people who were involved in the development of that will become concept leaders who will be rewarded for it

LK: How did FirstBuild get started? Was GreenBean submitted to FirstBuild as an idea?

TD: GreenBean has actually been an idea since before FirstBuild. There is an interesting story of how it came about. Over a year ago, at GE, we were trying to come up with ways to be faster around getting new products to market.

So we did a lot of work trying to figure out ways to get things to market faster. We kept hitting barrier, after barrier, after barrier, after barrier, which kept us from doing this. So my boss and his boss, who are the people who birthed FirstBuild said, “Okay, we need to figure out a way to get it to be faster to get new an innovative products out to market quicker and to do it cheaper.”

And then they heard about this local hacker space called lvl1- it is one of the best hacker spaces in the country…a fairly big and influential hacker space. So they decided to attend a meeting. And when they attended that meeting they found that there were people there who were interested hacking but there were also GE appliance engineers there, which was surprising. So they decided that it would be appropriate to hold a hackathon to test out this vision of working with an open community to see how this would work.

There were no nondisclosure agreements and there was a pretty limited approach to confidentiality because what we were trying to test here was could we, a corporate entity, effectively work with this outside entity that is not corporate…that wants to work together.
So you are trying to figure out if they are interested in working with you because they have is vision of you as a corporation and you are trying to figure out if you are getting all of those pieces together.

So we held a hackathon and one of the things we did in preparation for the hackathon was to build this GreenBean, which is a way for people to build new software for appliances. So the winning idea from that was a linecode/barcode scanning oven called LineCook , so an appliance knows how long to cook food at time and temperature.

If you are interested in learning more – take a look at Taylor’s talk at MakerCon last month:

LK: How does GE’s Announcement to Sell Appliances to Electrolux Impact First Build? The Green Bean Product?

This question was answered by the GE Appliance spokesperson: We are already making and selling products from FirstBuild. It is a great new model that GE and our local community supports. We are focused on creating innovative products and will remain that way. However, it is premature to determine what will or won’t happen once the acquisition is complete which could take up to a year.