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Nugget ice is just the tip of the chewable iceberg for GE’s crazed FirstBuild labs

I hate the word disruption.

Every startup prepping its first Kickstarter page, every entrepreneur with an idea and a gleam in her eye, claims to be disrupting some industry. It’s usually horseshit. Your new mapping app has a new feature but isn’t “disrupting mapping,” a new instructional app isn’t “disrupting the education system,” and smartwatches aren’t disrupting much of anything. In general, the concept of upstarts disrupting major industries is more or less a myth.

So it isn’t lightly that I write these words: GE and First Build are disrupting the appliance industry.

“It’s four years for a typical product from the appliance industry. Our intent is for products to have roughly a three-month time from start of work to launch,” explained Taylor Dawson, Product Evangelist at FirstBuild.

That’s impossible sounding, but it’s the mission of FirstBuild, a remarkable offshoot of GE that introduces a new model of manufacturing to the staid industry that brings you refrigerators and ovens. FirstBuild challenges a community of enthusiasts and designers and makers to come up with ideas for stuff that might have some commercial appeal. Then it helps them build it.

Opal will sell for $500, and you probably won’t buy one. That’s okay.

That’s why Dawson is sitting here in my conference room in New York City, pants soaking wet and a tad exhausted, asking for a soda and lugging around an ice machine.

The Opal is the eighth product from FirstBuild. It’s a nugget ice maker, which works by packing together small ice crystals to create nuggets of soft yet crunchy ice, which chill beverages faster than conventional cubes and are far more chewable than your average barrel. You might have gotten them in your beverage at the movie theater, or in a soda from a restaurant like Sonic. But no major appliance maker deals with them.

“Manufacturers have been focused on ice being ice. Ice is just frozen water, it just cools your beverage, they think. Well there’s an experience you get with nugget ice that you don’t get with barrel or cube shaped ice,” Dawson tells Digital Trends. “People who like chewing ice want something softer.”

Enthusiasts — yes there are ice enthusiasts — crave the stuff, which is why there are already products that cater to them. Really expensive ones: Countertop versions sell for $3,000. Opal will sell for $500, and you probably won’t buy one. That’s okay, Dawson explained.

“We don’t necessarily have to cater to the mass market,” he told us. “We’re trying to do as much innovation as we possibly can in as short a time as possible. We launch the product, we validate the product, and we make it in low volume while waiting for a larger parent to pick it up.”

There’s a good business, an interesting business — dare I call it a disruptive one? — in building interesting new appliances for smaller markets. By targeting a small group of enthusiasts, FirstBuild almost guarantees itself success — the company opted to build Opal because enough of its own community already plans to buy one. The audience is built in.

And here’s the really neat part: FirstBuild leverages the work GE is doing. The Opal is built on a small-ish nugget-ice making mechanism that GE spent years designing and producing. You can imagine it going into the door of a $2,000 fridge at some point in the future, and it almost certainly will. Meanwhile, FirstBuild put a housing around it and plans to sell it to you, cheaply. Next week.

Opal launches on Indiegogo on July 28 — check for information — and should be available by next summer. Looking over the prototype Dawson lugged into my office, it’s clear that there’s work left to be done. There are exposed wires and zero insulation, and while it may not be as loud as lawnmower, a stereo won’t drown out the rumble of the current machine. That will all change in a final product, of course.

There’s no doubt FirstBuild will make its goals; the company is connected to GE, after all, and isn’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to building things. The challenges of actually making a product (lining up manufacturing in Asia, distribution, production runs, shipping, and so on) are what usually cause delays in crowd-sourced products.

Opal is likely to be a hit, but other things from the FirstBuild community may not be. Due to the company’s unique process, some products may not work, some may not succeed, he says.

“FirstBuild was started as a way to get more swings at the ball, more chances at the plate.” The wholly owned subsidiary of GE Appliances isn’t even aiming to make money, although no one will argue with it, of course. “We’re a research and development organization. We want to find the products that will find success.”

Opal follows seven other products, including a pitcher that automatically fills itself when you put it in your fridge, a double-oven range, a dog bowl that fills itself, a dryer that tells your smartwatch when it’s done, and so on.

If fire is more your thing than ice, stay tuned for FirstBuild’s next project: An indoor pizza oven for making pizzeria-quality pizza at home.

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Jeremy Kaplan
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