Director – Advanced Technologies, FirstBuild
Co-Founder and CEO, Giddy
There’s a reason people go off-site for meetings, because new environments can inspire new thinking. When we conceived FirstBuild, an innovation “start-up” and subsidiary of GE Appliances, we wanted to do things differently to get different results. This included our efforts with FirstBuild’s online community (firstbuild.com) and its physical facility where people could come together and innovate.
The purpose of FirstBuild is to work with the community to generate ideas, turn them into products and validate them with the hope that they could graduate to GE Appliances. To do this, we didn’t need large-scale production, we needed a microfactory where ideas could become tangible and tested quickly. We didn’t need more security, we needed more openness. We wanted people to come in and co-create with us, and we needed the right type of people to make this happen.
FirstBuild’s parent company, GE Appliances, is headquartered at Appliance Park, a 900-acre campus which was built in the 1950’s. Appliance Park, almost a city in itself, sits 25 minutes from downtown Louisville, and at one point had its own zip code and a post office staffed by the U.S. Postal Service. There’s nothing wrong with the campus, it’s designed to be a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility that produces one of the largest appliance brands in the world. While it’s efficient and impressive in scale, it is the complete opposite of what we needed for FirstBuild. We needed to create an environment that would attract makers, designers, hackers and early adopters.
We started planning FirstBuild in the fall of 2013, and assessed three cities as potential for FirstBuild’s physical location:
- San Francisco, because of its depth in software and new business models.
- New York, which is renowned for great design.
- Louisville, the homebase of GE Appliances.
San Francisco is great at developing software; New York is great at coming up with new designs, but Louisville is great at making things. There’s something inherently “maker” about the Midwest farming culture - they know how to form, bend and shape metal to solve daily household problems.
In addition to Louisville’s strong maker community, GE Appliances’ manufacturing was located in Louisville, and we knew its employees would play a critical part of the FirstBuild community.
Integrating into Louisville.
Now that we knew what city we wanted to be located in, we had to decide where within the city to build. If we were going to co-create with the community, we needed to be accessible. We decided to put FirstBuild near a university campus, because students, fresh from learning new concepts and theory, are brimming with ideas. The University of Louisville (U of L) and the City of Louisville were thrilled to partner with GE Appliances to set up the first co-creation microfactory in the city’s history.
In three months, the U of L architects and construction team, transformed a warehouse into a 33,000 sq. ft microfactory, FirstBuild’s physical home.
Open Design = Open Innovation
As you walk up to FirstBuild, you’ll notice its modern design, its bright orange accents and the fact you can see through the entire facility, an intentional design choice which communicates openness. FirstBuild is open to ideas and to people - anybody is welcome to walk-in. Open the door and you are welcomed by the energy and enthusiasm of the FirstBuild team and the FirstBuild community members who are always building or testing their ideas at the facility. There are no time restrictions you can spend in FirstBuild, outside of its operating hours (9 am to 9 pm M - F and 9 am - 5 pm, Saturday). In fact, it is meant to be a hangout place where people can network, dream big and bring ideas to life.
From the moment you step through the door you are encouraged to start innovating. The products manufactured at FirstBuild are displayed and sold in the showroom which doubles as the FirstBuild lobby. All the products in the showroom are first-to-market and based on ideas from the FirstBuild community. People can experience a new idea or product and give FirstBuild feedback on its usability and value proposition. Some visitors take it one step further, and build on the idea displayed or build a better product or feature.
The Kitchen Hub: Coffee and Co-Creation
Next to the showroom is a GE Appliances kitchen which is also an event area that can seat about 30 people. Since the kitchen is the hub for the home and most of GE Appliances’ products are used in the kitchen, it occupies a prominent part of the facility. All product launches and community events are hosted in the kitchen seating area.
Past the kitchen area is the interaction space. This is where people hang out and meet to discuss ideas. There is a coffee bar in the corner, where the best coffee in Louisville is always available. You’ll find people networking, collaborating, and developing great ideas over a cup of joe. You’ll see many FirstBuild employees meeting in this space as they don’t have designated offices or seating. FirstBuild’s open seating model encourages employees to mix with visitors and community members who may have the next best idea. After all, we believe it takes a team of creative people to bring an idea to life.
The Microfactory: A Prototype is Worth a Thousand Words.
The heart of the facility is a makerspace. The makerspace is the “dream garage” It has all the equipment and tools to build any product in the home - hand tools, 3D printers, laser cutters, soldering stations, measuring instruments and very large work tables. This is where ideas come to life in the form of products.
If you are an inventor or a tinkerer, this the best place in the Midwest to hang out. It doesn't cost anything to use the tools and equipment and build things. Think of the makerspace like a design and manufacturing library, where you can “check out” equipment for use at the facility. The FirstBuild staff and community members will help you find the right equipment, teach you how to use it, but you have to build it yourself. Making is about the tactile satisfaction of your ideas coming to life - FirstBuild is the place to experience it.
The rules for using the makerspace are very simple.
Advanced Manufacturing Shop: Leveraging GE Appliances
Beyond the makerspace, behind glass walls is the advanced manufacturing shop in which the component and parts for innovative products like our Opal Nugget Ice Maker are made. The manufacturing model in FirstBuild is very simple and based on Manufacturing 101. FirstBuild uses GE Appliances as a giant “Hobby Lobby”. Partially built appliances and parts are procured from Appliance Park, the new parts to implement FirstBuild innovations are then made and assembled in the shop. FirstBuild products are checked for safety and certified by UL and sold with the same warranty and service support as any other GE Appliances product.
The advanced manufacturing shop is designed for low volume manufacturing techniques, mainly focused on wood, metal and vacuum forming. It has capacity to make a volume of 1,000 units a year for about 8 - 10 products at any point of time, and is run by skilled technicians and U of L engineering and art students.
The last area in FirstBuild is the assembly and shipping area. This is where all products are assembled, tested, certified, packed and shipped. All the fixturing is made out of wood and the assembly lines are flexible and can be changed over quickly.
From the exterior of the building to the lack of traditional offices, FirstBuild looks nothing like Appliance Park, and that’s intentional. Because of its layout and location, we are able to achieve its purpose - design, build and sell quickly. What does your physical space say about your business? What would you change if you could?