A screenshot of FirstBuild's online project portal.

A screenshot of FirstBuild's online project portal.

General Electric (GE) is pairing crowd-sourced design with micro-scale production to develop its next generation of appliances. In May, the appliance and electronics maker announced that it is teaming up with Local Motors, a Phoenix-based developer of open-source hardware, to source designs for new product concepts via an online portal (above) that is accessible to the public. Called FirstBuild, the partnership will then produce the designs at micro-factories nationwide, the first of which will open this summer at the University of Louisville’s Belknap Campus in Kentucky.

Their goal: To open product development to individuals outside of the GE community, tapping into a growing trend propagated by popular Web-based, crowd-sourcing platforms, such as Kickstarter, that call on the public for feedback and financing to develop a product or service. Local Motors brings its nearly 7-year-old business model of serving as a crowd-sourced auto- maker that has generated designs such as that of a military support vehicle prototype to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency in 2011. On its website, Local Motors lists micro-factories of its own in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Knoxville, Tenn., as well as a mobile micro-factory.

“We realize there is a tremendous amount of creativity and talent outside our walls,” said Kevin Nolan, GE Appliances’ vice president of technology, in the company’s announcement last month. “Now those curious, maybe even frustrated, engineers, designers or anyone who wants to create products with great design and exceptional features can … get involved in developing the next generation of kitchen appliances.”

This partnership isn’t the first of its kind for GE. In April 2013, the company announced that it would pair with Quirky, a maker of Internet-connected devices, to develop app-enabled consumer products. As a part of the agreement, GE released thousands of its patents—covering technology such as optics, fleet-management systems, and other electronics—to the public for further development. So far, the partnership has yielded the smart air-cooling unit Aros (below), a universal sensor called the Spotter, an egg-freshness monitor, and more gadgetry.

  • Aros, an Internet-enabled air-cooling unit, was developed through a partnership between GE and smart-devices maker Quirky.
    Aros, an Internet-enabled air-cooling unit, was developed through a partnership between GE and smart-devices maker Quirky.

“For years, patents have become widely misunderstood and misused,” said Quirky CEO and founder Ben Kaufman in a statement. “We are going to return patents to their original purpose to act as a blueprint for technological and societal progress while protecting inventors and becoming a source of inspiration for future creators.”

GE and FirstBuild are hitting the ground running. Opened to the public on May 15, the joint venture kicks off with two projects: the development of a micro-kitchen for use in residences tight on space, and of an indoor grill to render barbecues immune from foul weather. In its announcement of the partnership, GE explained that the winning designs will be produced in limited quantities at the Belknap micro-factory with the potential to be mass-produced.