According to the latest count, GE (IW 500/6) employs about 306,000 workers. That's roughly the population of Iceland dispersed in offices, facilities and sites across 160 or so countries all working together to invent, create and perfect that enormous mixed bag of GE-brand products and services.
It's a big brand, after all. It needs an army to maintain it.
Moving the brand forward, however, is a different story.
No matter how expansive that army may be, no matter the experts or expertise it includes or how strong that GE brand is, when it comes to developing new ideas and new innovations, GE isn't big enough.
And GE knows it.
That's why GE has joined the ranks of a growing number of established manufacturers who are looking beyond their billion-dollar R&D labs and internal talent and to an untapped world of niche experts and black swan innovators hidden in the crowd.
"We’re not just interested in what we can do today or what we did before," explains Prabhjot Singh, manager at the Additive Manufacturing Lab at GE Global Research. "We’re interested in what we will do next."
And that, he says, means looking outside the confines of GE—outside its research narratives and trajectories, outside everything it already knows and does. It means opening GE up to the world.
"We're looking for people who are developing new ideas and new techniques," Singh explains. "These people tend to be locked in universities across the world; they are smart kids who will eventually work for software companies. We want to get them and get them early."
"It's all about discovery," he says. "We want to discover something new."
"There's a lot of allure to the open innovation model," says Eloise Young, senior program manager at open innovation coordinator, NineSigma.
"Companies have come to realize that, although they do have very strong internal resources, so do all of their peers," she explains. "They need something to differentiate themselves -- something that will give them an advantage."
That advantage, she argues, all comes from opening up and bringing these outside resources into the established system.
That's all part of the open innovation yarn, of course. But there is a strong precedent for the point.
3-D printing, for example, wasn't invented in a fancy corporate lab. It wasn't developed by well-funded, seasoned researchers toiling away in cushy 9-to-5 R&D gigs.
3-D printing is the result of Chuck Hull daydreaming after hours at UVP. It's the result of Scott Crump experimenting in his garage. It's the result of the same thing that drives most breakthrough innovations: brilliant people doing brilliant things all on their own.
"Traditionally, a lot of the great answers don't actually come from where you think they will come," Young explains. "Great solutions could come from reshaping technology that came from a completely unrelated industrial sector or technical discipline; It could be from something entirely new, entirely unexplored. The key is just to find it."
So, as GE sets its aim at becoming the first industrial-scale 3-D printing house, it only makes sense to spend some time hunting down the next generation of independent geniuses already working to make it happen.
3-D Printing Production Quest
To that end, GE launched a couple of far-reaching, high-gain crowdsourcing projects over the past year specifically designed to locate these innovators and to help advance 3-D printing and, inevitably, the GE brand.
The current project, just entering the final stage now, tasked the world to create a method of 3-D-printing high quality, high precision designs with two very tricky metals: tungsten and molybdenum.
Unlike the previous challenge, which sought out-of the-box designs for current products, this 3-D Printing Production Quest, as it's called, is looking for quality experts. It is scouring the Earth for any individual, university, department or company that knows how to work with this stuff and how to achieve the results GE is looking for.
Basically, it means trusting that somewhere in the world, someone is already an expert at a challenge the rest of the company had never even considered.
And it seems to be working out.
In December, GE officially announced its selection of 10 finalists for the challenge -- 10 manufacturers, academics and startups stretching from the U.S. to China with enough know-how and proven experience to get GE's attention. Since then, they have all been loaded with the material, CAD designs and cash necessary to print samples for an apples-to-apples contest that will award three of them $50,000.
But that part of the contest is really beside the point.
"At the end of the quest, GE will have accomplished its goal of finding the most state-of-the-art technologies for 3-D printing hard-to-work-with metal," Young explains.
But there is much more to it than that.
"You can think of this as American Idol, in a sense," she says. "Of course you want to win, but the fact that you've made it to the top ten automatically puts you on the radar for GE. They know who you are and they know what you can do. The relationship will continue."
In other words, by opening up its R&D doors for this technical contest -- whether American Idol-inspired or not -- GE stands to walk away with the technology it needs to take the next step in 3-D printing. And it has also pulled some of the best minds on the subject into its reach in the process.
So when the judging is done in April and all of the prize money dispersed, GE will walk away with three cutting-edge applications and 10 new, industry-leading experts for a thrifty $250,000 investment within a year -- impossibly fast and hilariously cheap compared to an in-house job.
And that's the point.
"Even though we have a global presence and 50,000 engineers working with us, there is always something that we missed," Singh says. "We want to find the person who hasn't missed it."