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In GE’s first ‘microfactory,’ anyone can turn an idea into a 3D-printed product

In recent years, dozens of companies have popped up, offering the same service: a platform for ordinary people with great ideas to propose, source, and create innovative objects and services. Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Quirky are just some of the better known companies starting a trend toward the democratization of manufacturing and inventing. Now GE is joining the fray with its very own FirstBuild microfactory in Louisville, Kentucky, where inventors, students, engineers, and ordinary people can come and make their ideas a reality.

Inventors can design, build, and sell their products all from the same location. However, if you don’t happen to live in Louisville, you can still make your dream invention a reality via the online community for FirstBuild. There, anyone can pitch ideas to the community. Even if you don’t have the know-how, you can find someone who does online. Inventors can team up with others to design and build the product.

Right now, there are many different proposals up for consideration on the FirstBuild site. FirstBuild is currently working on five projects, including a Bottomless Chilled Water Pitcher, food waste disposer, a refrigerator attachment called Chill Hub, and more.

Of course, the microfactory can’t produce every invention that is proposed, but the most popular ideas will be selected. Then, a prototype will be made, tested vigorously, and manufactured right on location. If the inventor agrees to grant GE a license to sell the product, it will appear in the onsite store and online store for anyone to buy. Innovators still own the intellectual property, but GE gets a license to make and sell the product. Either way, the maker gets royalties from all sales.

The idea behind FirstBuild is that “creation begins with the community,” said Venkat Venkatakrishnan, director of research and development for GE Appliances during a press conference, adding that FirstBuild “liberates you to think of any idea and you can collaborate with anyone … There are no constraints.”

A prototype will be made, tested vigorously, and manufactured right on location.

Perhaps one of the coolest things about the microfactory is that anyone can go there and participate. Taylor Dawson, the Lead Project Manager for GE FirstBuild, told Digital Trends that the factory is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. College students, retirees, engineers, and anyone else can come and get engaged with the community.

“FirstBuild is about co-creation,” Dawson told us. “Where others have focused on crowd sourcing ideas and taking them to market, FirstBuild will engage a wide range of people from enthusiasts to engineers to designers and makers.”

FirstBuild believes that allowing customers to dream up and create products will not only result in great, innovative designs, but also improve customer satisfaction.

“Our community members are people who experience our products on a daily basis,” Dawson told us. “If you want to improve the consumer experience, give the consumer a voice.”

“When we launch a product we’ll let our community be the first to purchase that product and they’ll give us valuable feedback,” Dawson added. “Our community members will want to buy our products because they were involved in the ideation, design, and manufacture of our products, and because the core value proposition of the product is a great user experience. Also, getting engaged with an open community exposes us to a wide range of ideas, allowing us to test which ideas are best by making a real product.”

Since FirstBuild has a partnership with the popular 3D printer MakerBot, many of the products will feature 3D printed parts, making them faster and cheaper to make.

“We have MakerBot machines in the microfactory to allow us to iterate on designs rapidly,” Dawson said. “The genius of MakerBot is the cost of both the machine and the material is dramatically lower than conventional options. The engineer who developed our Smart Pitcher basically set a Makerbot on his desk and built parts all day long, every day until he had the product right.”

3D printing at the microfactory will also benefit inventors because “it allows us to make new products small batches, taking ideas from mind to market in months rather than years,” Dawson told Digital Trends. “Since starting design on products a few months ago, we already have a few products that are showroom-floor ready. I am not aware of this ever happening before in the appliance industry.”