Manufacturing success: how to use crowdsourcing to enhance innovation and product development

March 7th, 2012 by

microtask_crowdsourced_manufacturingSince the global financial crisis, rich countries have increasingly come to see manufacturing as a reliable driver of growth. Globalization, of course, means that it is more difficult than ever for rich countries to compete with developing countries in this sector of the economy.

In this environment, crowdsourcing is increasingly recognized as a good way to enhance innovation and develop better products more efficiently. For a variety of reasons, however, many companies are hesitant about importing it into their development processes. Below I set out concrete ways that companies can overcome some of these issues.

Reflections of a software analyst
For the last year and a half I’ve been covering the manufacturing industry as a software analyst for Software Advice, a site that reviews manufacturing software. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing how tools such as Salesforce’s Chatter are making their way into the industry and how they can improve supply chain and shop floor collaboration.

All of this got me thinking: why should collaboration be limited to in-house experts? How can companies alter their processes so that outsiders can help?

Crowdsourcing speeds up innovation
By now it’s pretty well documented that if run properly, crowdsourcing can bring products to market faster and at a lower cost. Proctor & Gamble experimented with crowdsourcing a while back to find a way to print images onto its Pringles cans. Its search led it to a small Italian bakery that had figured out how to print images onto pastries. P&G licensed the technology and was able to bring its idea to market in a little under a year.

Because crowdsourcing proved successful in this instance, it decided to expand its crowdsourcing efforts. P&G currently relies on outside collaboration for a full 50 percent of its innovations. But it’s not alone: several large companies have started to lean on the wisdom of crowds for production innovation. Among them are companies like Chlorox, 3M, Johnson & Johnson and many others.

How to bring crowdsourcing into the mainstream
These companies are the exception rather than the rule for a variety of reasons. Most important amongst these seem to be a fear of change, uncertainty about intellectual property rights, and a lack of design sharing technologies. Luckily, each of these obstacles can be overcome. Here are three ways to bring crowdsourcing into mainstream manufacturing.

1. Start small and work your way up. A lot of manufacturing companies are uneasy about opening up their development processes to outside influences. To work around this mentality companies should start off using crowdsourcing for a small project to get management used to this method of innovation. After a few successes, they can work their way up to bigger projects.

2. Protect intellectual property by dividing responsibilities. Many companies are (understandably) also nervous that the crowd may steal their ideas or intellectual property and share them with competitors. This is a legitimate concern but one that can be mitigated by compartmentalizing roles of the project. By narrowly defining who gets access to what, the problem of intellectual property theft can be managed.

3. Make it easier to share design files. Right now, there is no standard for sharing CAD (computer aided design) files because there is no standard software format for the files. This makes it difficult for project collaborators to share their designs with others. Without a way to share files, it’s pretty tough to change and adapt different designs. Creating a universal standard for CAD files could greatly enhance the potential for crowdsourcing and collaborative innovation.

A few years ago, crowdsourced product development was almost unheard of in the manufacturing industry. Although some early adopters are now effectively using crowdsourcing, whether or not it catches on across industry as a whole may depend on how well companies can navigate the obstacles outlined above. For the sake of European and American manufacturing industries – and economies as a whole – I hope they succeed.

  • T72

    What’s wrong with the dwg -format that is understood by practically any current CAD -software and CAM -interface?