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Business Report

Asking the Crowd How to Make Something

A DARPA project shows how the wisdom of crowds can be tapped for a fresh take on how to manufacture something as complex as a combat vehicle.

A dustpan called the Broom Groomer and the XC2V FLYPmode combat vehicle have something in common: both were created with the help of crowdsourcing, in which a community of people unite online to contribute anything from color recommendations to engineering designs.

Rethinking production: This military supply vehicle was built quickly by Local Motors, an Arizona company, after members of the public submitted designs and voted for the best ones.

Crowdsourcing has been around for nearly five years, mostly as a way for Web-savvy marketing departments to solicit design ideas and build online buzz around a product. But it also has promise as a way to inject fresh ideas into traditional manufacturing, speed up production cycles, and cut costs.

Case in point: the XC2V FLYPmode, the first crowdsourced military vehicle. Last fall, Local Motors, an Arizona-based automotive company specializing in crowdsourced vehicles, won a $639,000 contract from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a prototype of a high-speed supply vehicle for the military. Responding to specific guidelines set by DARPA and the promise of a $10,000 cash prize for the best design, 500 people submitted ideas to Local Motors. After a vote to choose the winner of the competition, the design was manufactured and assembled in Local Motors’ 40,000-square-foot micro-factory in just 14 weeks. Building other military vehicles can take nearly five years.

By encouraging innovation in manufacturing, crowdsourcing “stands to change the military in a huge way,” says Jay Rogers, Local Motors’ CEO and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. Traditionally, such innovations have been hard for the military to come by, says Jeff Howe, a Northeastern University journalism professor and the author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business. But by scattering decision-making, “crowdsourcing brings fresh thinking into the mix,” he says.

Appealing to the general public for new ideas is also helping startups reduce the risks of mass production. For example, Quirky.com relies on a community of 70,000 members to design everything from the high-tech Broom Groomer dustpan to stainless steel cookware. And before beginning full-scale production, the New York-based startup posts its product prototypes on the company’s website and asks for orders. Not until the product reaches a predetermined sales threshold does Quirky.com begin the manufacturing process in its Hong Kong facility.

“It’s a little untraditional in that we test our products in a very safe way and really validate them in the market, whereas a lot of companies don’t have that luxury,” says John Jacobsen, Quirky.com’s head of engineering. He adds that as many as 500 community members may contribute to a single product; 30 percent of sales are given back to contributors as royalties, in exchange for their intellectual-property rights to a product.

Not everyone is convinced that asking for the public’s input is wise, especially for a military project. In June, a report from a Senate appropriations committee raised concerns that crowdsourcing and other experiments with new approaches to manufacturing could be leading DARPA to commission vehicles that are not safe enough.

And then there’s the question of credentials: if the military recruits the best and brightest, why solicit contributions from just anyone? But don’t be too quick to discount the input of amateurs, responds Rogers at Local Motors. “Just because you co-create products doesn’t mean you’re accepting terrible designs,” he says. Adds DARPA program manager Paul Eremenko: “The value of crowdsourcing is to be able to lower the barrier to participate. If we uncover just a handful of hidden savants, it can change the course of history.”

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