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Open Innovation: Pushing the Boundaries of Possible

By Eloise C. Young November 21, 2013

Companies are always looking for a competitive edge. More and more of them are turning to open innovation as a means to accelerate the innovation process.

 Open innovation brings together innovators with diverse backgrounds to redefine ‘state of the art’ and push the boundaries of what is possible. The types of projects that are marked for open innovation are increasingly becoming more varied, integrating unique, creative or ‘ideative’ characteristics.

For example, there is a great deal of buzz around 3D printing these days.  Recent articles in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications all highlight the potential of this disruptive technology.  Many companies are actively implementing or experimenting with this approach to shorten the design and prototyping loop, or to use it as a manufacturing process.  NineSigma has run several different projects that examine how 3D printing can improve manufacturing processes, allow for innovative design approaches, and promote the use of non-traditional materials for a given product.

One example is a project where our client was looking for someone who could 3D print soft goods as a way of significantly reducing manufacturing costs. Another client engaged us to find groups that could manufacture titanium automotive components through additive processes.  They were looking for anyone who could demonstrate expertise in additively manufacturing these parts with the potential to scale to commercial levels. Another example is a project currently underway with GE, the GE 3D Printing Production Quest.

Test coupon for GE 3D printing production quest

This two-phase quest challenges fabricators to demonstrate their abilities to produce complex parts with high precision, using refractory metals and 3D printing.  In Phase One, respondents identified themselves as having the appropriate experience, expertise, and resources to be able to fabricate a test coupon with successively smaller-scaled features.  GE selected the 10 most promising respondents to advance to Phase Two.  These 10 respondents represent a true global cross-section, including Germany, Spain, China, and the U.S. and represent academia, small start-up companies, and more established businesses.

The Phase Two participants each have 90 days to deliver their best test coupons, using materials and technical drawings supplied by GE.  GE will evaluate the test coupons and select a maximum of three winners.  Each winner will receive a $50,000 prize and may have the opportunity to collaborate with GE.  This quest is currently in the midst of Phase Two.  GE will announce winners before the end of the first quarter, 2014.

Eventually, the digital fabrication technologies identified through this quest will likely be used to produce medical imaging equipment and may be implemented in other areas, like aviation.

What is the benefit in sharing a challenge with the world to seek new technologies, ideas, and innovation partners?  NineSigma has worked as an intermediary with numerous clients across industry sectors to help them anonymously identify and connect with key technology solutions.  This is a valuable approach when the technology need and application must be kept confidential.  However, there is a tremendous advantage in taking a more open and collaborative approach as GE is doing through its 3D Printing Production Quest.  Three distinct advantages come from this open and collaborative process:

  • Sponsoring a challenge generates excitement within the community of innovators to advance the performance of a given technology or process.
  • By establishing clear targets and guidelines and offering a monetary prize as an incentive, the challenge creates a specialized community that is more fully engaged in the process.
  • The sponsoring company can ultimately broaden its supplier network of high-end providers that will help the company advance its technologies well into the future.

Companies are always looking for a competitive edge.  More and more of them are turning to open innovation as a means to accelerate the innovation process.

There is a growing awareness that solutions to a company’s critical problems can be found globally, from sources outside the company’s industrial sector.  Partnering with someone who can adapt an existing technology to another application saves the company valuable time and resources.  Additionally, partnering with other organizations in other geographies and other fields offers new perspectives and challenges the current ways of thinking.

Through initiatives like the GE 3D Printing Production Quest, open innovation brings together innovators with diverse backgrounds to redefine ‘state of the art’ and push the boundaries of what is possible.

Eloise C. Young is a NineSigma Senior Program Manager.