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I posted about crowd sourced engineering last week and have had another thought on that topic. Last week’s post focused on projects where the team was made up of individuals from the crowd. However there is a different kind of crowd sourced engineering model that has been around for a while, the competition, where the crowd is made up of teams.
I think one of my favorite engineering competitions was the Netflix user recommendation system optimization competition. It was supposed to leverage the ideas of thousands of scientists to increase the user experience of its customers. It’s my favorite because it made a lot of sense to me at the time and should have been easy to implement. Unfortunately, the Forbes article above talks about how incorrect that perception was in so much as NetFlix never implemented the winning solution. I still have an optimistic expectation that NetFlix still earned enough value from the competition to make the expense of it worth it.
My next favorite competition family are the X prizes; Ansari X Prize, Archon X Prize, Automotive X Prize, Google Lunar X Prize, Tricorder X PRIZE. These prizes have definitely forced people to imagine new things and challenge the limit of current thinking. However, if you look at just the Ansari X Prize you see that the first and last commercial human space flight took place in Sept 2004. Outside of Dennis Tito via the Russians there have been zero commercial space flights in almost a decade. Based on this single experience you can easily argue that competitions can only serve to improve an industry and not one single team. Need to see if future X-Prize competitions bear more fruit.
I have found many other examples of professional and government level competitions that follow the same lifecycle; team competes, team wins, winner tries to commercialize success and ……. crickets while the industry grows.
One bright spot is the spinoff type businesses that leverage some of the advancements developed to achieve the full competitions goal. High school and collegiate level competitions appear to do this quite a bit. One good example is the number of businesses that have been created in and around the student robotics competition known as FIRST. FIRST robotics teams across the country have created over 50 businesses ranging from machine shops to circuit board suppliers to prosthetic limb companies. One such business sprung from team 357 out of Upper Darby Pennsylvania who started fabrication business for specialty robotics parts.
All in all I think this form of crowd sourced engineering will be more productive at both completing the goal and creating business when compared to the ones I discussed last week. I will be watching to see if my predictions are correct.
Over the past 4 or 5 years I have watched the growth of crowd sourced design. I have seen protein folding projects claim success by harnessing the crowd. I have also seen SETI grow their search for life from harnessing thousands of computers to now also harnessing their owners. I have not personally taken part in any projects, so I went looking on the web to see any engineering design projects had used crowd sourcing and how the community perceives their success. I was able to find articles on completed software and bio engineering projects but non on any completed design projects. However I also found a lot of engineering crowd source projects still running; NASA crowd source project, DARPA crowd source project, Open Source Rocket and a few others. All of these projects made me a little excited and a little scared.
As a designer in the aerospace industry I am all too aware of the amount of control, checks and rechecks that go into the design and fabrication of aerospace products. The design of simple angles may be controlled by over 20 spec documents and need to be reviewed by 15 subject matter experts before it can even go out for bid to a supplier. Once the supplier fabricates the part easily over 30 sped documents were referenced and several levels of quality check will have been performed. Lastly, the parts are continually inspected as they are received and added to the assembly or product. And even with all of those reviews 25% of a program’s budget usually goes to rework. So this experience begs me to ask a few questions:
- How much accountability can be built into crowd sourced engineering?
- How much efficiency is lost in crowd sourcing your engineering?
- What specs, processes and controls will need to be created to make these projects viable?
- What data formats and change management systems are used to ensure that downstream stake holders of the engineering output can plan their tasks?
- How is functional commonality achieved? ie. how do you know all of the parts are being stress analyzed the same way?
I see some solutions for these questions but it will take a leader and a hierarchy to implement on the project. Is that a viable for crowd sourced projects? Only the future will tell I guess.
I am going to try a few of these and let you know how they turn out.