GE solves real business problems using the crowd

Mario HonrubiaCrowdsourcingCase Studies

Companies such as GE have been using Internet-based crowdsourcing concepts to generate new ideas for more than a decade, so one might think that such models are now mature enough to be extended to new types of problems such as product development, manufacturing or supply chain. Having observed web-enabled crowdsourcing models for the last 10 years, I can tell you that this change is already happening: As the capabilities of the existing platforms and the experience with leveraging the knowledge of the crowd improves, some companies run successful initiatives to not only generate ideas through the crowd but also solve real business issues. Take GE as an example: The company launched a 3D Printing Design Quest in June last year challenging the public to redesign a metal jet engine bracket, making it 30 percent lighter while preserving its integrity and mechanical properties like stiffness. A jet engine bracket designed by M Arie Kurniawan, an engineer from Salatiga in Central Java, Indonesia, came in the first place. Kurniawan received $7,000 in prize money. The judging committee also selected seven other design winners who divided the balance of the $20,000 prize pool. The bracket attaches to the outside of the engine. Manufacturing and maintenance crews typically use it to manipulate jet engines like the GEnx, which weighs 12,800 pounds. From nearly 700 bracket designs submitted by designers from 56 countries, Kurniawan’s bracket had the best combination of stiffness and lightweight. The original bracket weighed 2,033 grams (4.48 pounds), but Kurniawan was able to slash its weight by nearly 84 percent to just 327 grams (0.72 pounds). tumblr_inline_n181q4tz631qzgziy The original bracket by GE which weighed 2,033 grams (4.48 pounds) - Source: GE Reports
M Arie Kurniawan's design which was nearly 84 percent lighter, just 327 grams (0.72 pounds) - Source: GE Reports M Arie Kurniawan's design which was nearly 84 percent lighter, just 327 grams (0.72 pounds) - Source: GE Reports

The 10 shortlisted designs were 3D-printed at an additive manufacturing plant in Cincinnati, Ohio. Later GE workers made the brackets from a titanium alloy on a direct metal laser melting (DMLM) machine, which uses a laser beam to fuse layers of metal powder into the final shape.

Finally, the team sent the finished brackets to GE Global Research (GRC) in Niskayuna, New York, for destruction testing. GRC engineers strapped each bracket to an MTS servo-hydraulic testing machine and exposed it to axial loads ranging from 8,000 to 9,500 pounds. Only one of the brackets failed and the rest advanced to a torsional test, where they were exposed to a torque of 5,000 inch-pounds. Are you impressed? The reality is that both companies and the crowds participating in such initiatives are getting more sophisticated in this method of problem-solving: The above-mentioned example was not a simple open call for ideas to improve a product or service. Instead, the final submissions required a mix of artistic approach to design, the ability to model and analyze structures, and also the knowledge to pick the right materials and the correct manufacturing equipment. And the crowd did get it right! I personally believe that the year 2015 will be the year where such type of engagements will continue to rise facilitating the process of entering a new playground for crowdsourcing. Do you agree?   Photo credit: rickihuang / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA Download our Engineering Crowdsourcing white paper