Crowd noise: Social media creates a new era of manufacturing

Monday October 22, 2012
Written by Robert RobertsonThe emergence and power of online social communities, as well as converging technologies, are fundamentally starting to push traditional manufacturing to the edge of change. Right now, everyday inventors, designers and consumers are a
The emergence and power of online social communities, as well as converging technologies, are fundamentally starting to push traditional manufacturing to the edge of change. Right now, everyday inventors, designers and consumers are at the forefront of a growing movement toward personalized production. Based in New York, Quirky specializes in social product development by enabling a fluid conversation between its global online community and internal staff team. It brings together two new consumer ideas each week through its collaborative platform. Quirky also uses 3D printing to navigate products from start to finish.The company has more than 223,000 community members and 347 products in its portfolio. Quirky staff consists of industrial designers and mechanical engineers, and it also arranges for the manufacture, sale and distribution of products. Revenues are shared within the community for bringing product ideas to life, and Quirky paid out more than US$1 million in royalties to inventors and influencers last year.One of the most successful Quirky products is Pivot Power, which is an adjustable power strip that holds large adapters in every outlet. With six feet of cord, a flat head plug and six adjustable outlets, you can pivot the surge protector in such a way to actually use all of the outlets. The power strip also pivots around furniture and hard-to-reach places.  “One reason why Quirky exists is because there are people with lots of great ideas, but no way to fully actualize or execute them,” says John Jacobsen, head of engineering at Quirky. “We provide engagement, interaction and collaboration in a real, online way. It’s about redefining product development and opening up the curtain. “For all intents and purposes, we’re creating products the world wants. We have an open, collaborative process where we allow the inventor and influencers to participate. When we go to retail, our ideas are coming from the consumer. It’s not us dreaming them up in an ivory tower and saying we know better. The research is already done by the community.”Inventors first submit product ideas, which are evaluated by the Quirky online community and top concepts are chosen. Once the community selects an idea, Quirky then handles further research, design, branding, engineering and manufacturing through to retail sales. The digitization of manufacturingGinny Dybenko, executive director, Stratford Campus, University of Waterloo, says we’re now seeing the digitization of manufacturing. According to Dybenko, Quirky is an example of what’s taking place in the manufacturing sector, especially in terms of using social intelligence to design and manufacture novel products easier and cheaper. “Everybody wins by using the Quirky community as a sounding board. They [Quirky] can say the product isn’t a spit in the wind, but rather it came from the crowd, was trialed and really worked,” says Dybenko. “The web is connecting consumers and they will demand more. The wheel is turning away from mass manufacturing and towards more individualized production.”Dybenko says change on the shop floor is taking place in a heartbeat, and it’s essential for companies to no longer see themselves as a smokestack industry. According to Dybenko, a shift to the web and 3D printing will continue to evolve and more actively engage consumers in the design, manufacture and distribution of products.  “A third industrial revolution is underway, as manufacturing is going digital. Web-based services and 3D printing have really taken off,” says Dybenko. “What’s happening now is a little broader than social manufacturing. I would almost call it distributed manufacturing.“The ramifications of 3D printing are far more than convenience of time. You can make almost anything, anywhere whether it’s from your garage or an African village. 3D printing blows the whole concept of economies of scale, which are associated with producing many copies of exactly the same thing, right out the window. ” A new set of choicesAccording to Bruce Bradshaw, director of marketing, North America with Objet Ltd. (a provider of inkjet-based 3D printing systems and materials) in Billerica, Mass., Quirky enables inventors with good product ideas to rapidly create working prototypes, which can be held and tested by a large online group of people. He also expects 3D printing will soon give consumers a new set of choices.“There are many people with ideas and Quirky provides a platform to test them out in ‘real time.’ The social media aspect is streamlining how a product comes to market,” says Bradshaw. “Think of shoe manufacturers and sporting goods companies that want to do product personalization. You can print out an inexpensive mould and produce customized shoes. Manufacturing will change that way because of 3D printing.”With its head office in the Netherlands and a new production facility in New York, Shapeways has an online community of 150,000 people and offers direct 3D printing services. Community members are able to upload ideas for 3D printing, sell objects online, discuss 3D printing trends with peers and arrange for groups to meet together in person.“Social media enables designers, manufacturers and consumers to communicate directly and quickly with each other,” says Duann Scott, communications with Shapeways, NYC. “It provides an open channel of dialogue for consumers to provide feedback to each other, as well as to designers and manufacturers, while giving direct insight to designers as to what people want.”Online communities, such as Quirky and Shapeways, and 3D printing fruition seem set to alter the face of manufacturing and the economy through what some are calling “creative commerce.” And while its full impact may be a few years away, social media is attempting to forge a new create, buy and sell model – and that, in turn, will completely change production lines and how goods are manufactured. Robert Robertson is a freelance writer based in Mississauga, Ont.

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