A Manufacturing Democracy

Using crowdsourcing and micro-factories, new community-oriented manufacturers are building innovative products of the people, by the people, for the people.

Not too long ago, Web 2.0 technology was largely ignored by manufacturers. They viewed social media tools as a passing fad that had no place in the enterprise. Executives couldn’t easily govern its use, and company secrets might slip out by way of a loose-lipped employee. Just a few years ago, however, we started to see signs that social media actually offered value—facilitating new ways of communicating and collaborating in real-time. Large companies, among them General Mills, were using wikis, blogs, even Facebook.

Now the social media tsunami has swept through sales, marketing, and customer service departments, with specific communities formed to facilitate outreach or gather feedback. In parallel, new product innovation emerged in the form of crowdsourcing. IBM’s InnovationJam,  Dell’s IdeaStorm, and Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea are all great examples of how companies can tap into the collective intelligence of their customers.

Now the question is: Can social media transform the factory floor? Other innovative technologies already have: witness the digital manufacturing model that uses web services and collaboration technology to connect product design to the assembly line. But that model builds on the old paradigm of capital-intensive manufacturing and mass customization.

A truly transformational opportunity involves using social media to reconstitute the way we build and distribute products. One car maker, called Local Motors, has done just that. Using crowdsourcing and micro-factories, Local Motors lets its customers vote on product designs proposed in the development community. Concepts with the most votes are further developed through online collaboration with peers and the Local Motors team to choose the car’s body, engine, shocks, etc. Once the car is fully designed, the customer can buy it and build it. Local Motors opens a micro-factory in your area where you and the Local Motors team assemble your custom car over two three-day weekends.

Local Motors’ first open-source production vehicle is the Rally Fighter, a $50,000 off-road (street legal) racer that rolled off the micro-production line last year. More designs are in the works. For example, Local Motors’ Open Electric Vehicle project is now underway.  The co-create community is designing a reusable open source chassis that can be included in future electric vehicle production.  And, according to Siemens PLM Software, Local Motors is recommending designers use the company’s 3D CAD Solid Edge software with synchronous technology in the Open Electric Vehicle effort. In addition, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), together with Dassault Systemes and Local Motors, just delivered the first co-created military vehicle. And if you want to watch the birth of your own car, it’s as easy as joining a community.

Through the use of Web 2.0 technology, Local Motors is transforming the way we manufacture. This is the type of out-of-the-box thinking that could help save manufacturing in America. At the very least, it is sure to usher in a generation of social media thinkers who will bring new life to the factory floor.

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