GE Lets You Create Your Own Appliance With "FirstBuild"
NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — Take a trip to FirstBuild, General Electric's new microfactory in Louisville, Ky., and it becomes immediately apparent that this is a different kind of plant. In a lot of ways this place is more like the college campus next door than a working factory, and not because of its coffee shop (a feature making its way into increasingly bizarre business models). It’s the production space, a wide, open floor peppered with both company engineers and locals all tinkering over their newest ideas. This doesn’t feel like an appliance conglomerate; it feels like a workshop. Everyone is invited, and they’ve shown up too, however odd that may seem for a place dedicated to the future of microwave ovens and other household goods.
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Director Venkat Venkatakrishnan isn’t surprised, though. It’s exactly what he’s going for, a place for “anybody who has an idea.”
“We are building a community,” he said. “People join every day, and these are people who are very enthusiastic about making products, building products.”
FirstBuild is a microfactory, one of the first of its kind actually intended for commercial production. As opposed to normal factories, which emphasize economies of scale, a microfactory cost effectively manufactures products in batches of no more than a few dozen at a time. The result is a facility that can focus on experimental products and new ideas, road testing something like the indoor grill that might never otherwise have a shot at the millions of dollars necessary for traditional production. According to Venkatakrishnan this kind of flexibility allows him and his team to get creative, producing limited runs of ideas without having to go through months of intense market research first.
If their newest garbage disposal flops, it’s no big deal.
Venkatakrishnan’s team is out of pocket for 48 of the things, not 48,000. The ability to design, produce and market on a small scale gives them the freedom to fail. If a new product succeeds, then they kick it over to teams more interested in long term production, and it might show up at Home Depot in a few months. By then, FirstBuild will be on to new things.
“The appliance industry is becoming very fast,” Venkatakrishnan said. “If you look at the product development process and what it takes to bring a product to market, it’s broken up into two distinct segments. The first segment is coming up with a product idea. It’s making sure and verifying that the idea is good, that consumers will like it, proving technical feasibility and testing it with the market. And that takes a long time. And then the second segment is, 'O.K., we have a product that consumers will love,' then we go through the process of tooling it up."