General Electric (GE), founded 125 years ago by Thomas Edison and others, has succeeded in part because of the company’s willingness to take risks and embrace new technology. The most recent example of this mindset is a new startup called Fuse.

Launched by GE in 2016, Fuse is a crowdsourcing platform that allows users worldwide to work with GE engineers on a variety of projects. The initial focus of the project is on nondestructive testing (NDT) for aerospace applications, with projects such as “On-Wing Engine Inspection” and “Measuring Reflective Objects.”

In July, Quality spoke to Naveen Nair, Fuse’s technology leader, and Amelia Gandara, Fuse’s community leader, about how Fuse benefits GE and the collaborators they seek.

Quality: Tell me a bit about how Fuse got started.

Amelia Gandara: Sure. We’re a new innovation team within GE that focuses on accelerating new product development via open innovation. That open innovation element, specifically crowdsourcing, is how we came to the need of having a platform to engage with people outside of GE in order to solve specific problems.

There are a lot of different ways that GE currently solves problems, and there are a variety of different customer problems that we look to solve. Very specific problems benefit from the insight of people from different industries or from the general public: people who are educated in different ways and have different professional experiences. Some of those problems we wanted to put out into the world, and that’s how we came up with this platform.

And why did Fuse decide to initially focus on NDT?

Gandara: GE is looking to scale Fuse across all of its businesses. Our first sponsor was GE Inspection Technologies under GE Oil & Gas, and so that’s how we landed on Inspection being the first really interested group to step forward. But even though we’re under the Oil & Gas division, we solve nondestructive testing problems across many different industries, from jet engine inspection to pipe seam manufacturing.

Naveen Nair: I think inspection is a field where there are a lot of set techniques and methods that have existed for years, if not decades. It’s also governed by a lot of standards, so it’s not like you can just come in with a new inspection methodology. So in a field like that, where innovation has some inherent limitations, it makes sense to apply a new innovation methodology. Because we need to work on a set of models that don’t typically exist in more forward-thinking fields like medicine or renewable energy, where the general trend is to come up with new and wild ideas.

Gandara: And we’ve seen that, right? Some of the inspection technologies that we use, like X-rays and CT scanners, came from other fields.

Nair: Yeah. Other fields seem to do things first, and then we catch on and adapt them. So by having an open innovation platform, we can enter from the other way.

On this platform, can any self-driven individual or team of people collaborate with GE employees?

Gandara: It’s really quite open, which is a bold move for any big company. It’s nerve-wracking to make that first leap and be so open.

Right now, without even signing up for an account, you can go to our website and start clicking through the different challenges we’re trying to solve. Our most current challenge is around position sensing for ultrasonic inspection. We have that challenge posted, so anyone on the site can come and read about it and watch one of our live Q&As, but you have to sign up for an account to ask questions. People were asking questions as of just a few hours ago, and we respond in as close to real time as we can. So, as people are building up to submit to one of our challenges, they can ask questions of our GE engineers so we can help them create the best possible solution.

And how are you providing a benefit to the user, beyond giving them the opportunity to earn money and build their professional reputation?

Gandara: Like you said, we do want to build up their professional skillsets and résumés. But we also see that there is a certain type of engineer or technical person who already hangs out in a variety of places online. They’re driven by questions that have yet to be solved and applying their own expertise in a field that they don’t get to work in every day. And those are the types of people that are thriving in our community, and they’re the ones who are usually participating across multiple challenges.

We’ve seen a wide range of participants, from individual engineers with decades of experiences to students to small engineering firms, and we try to encourage participation with different forms of prizes for our challenges. We offer prizes in the form of a dollar amount for an exchange of IT all the way through—like with the position sensor challenge we’re running now—a cash prize and options for further development funding. We’re trying to be really open about how we work with the different people who come on to the site.

How transparent is the process moving forward if, say, the winner of the challenge is granted the opportunity to enter into talks for additional funding and potentially more money down the line?

Gandara: Everything is done in a way that is mutually beneficial, for us and for the community members participating. Sometimes the winner is an individual who comes in and enjoys participating in the challenge, but that’s all they have the energy or time for. So in that instance, maybe it’s just the prize at the end, and they’ve presented a great idea, but they don’t have the interest or experience or time, if they already have a full-time job, to continue with the development. But we really want to be open to a variety of different ways of working with people. If someone has the technical knowledge, time, and desire, we can work with them to actually co-develop something.

Fuse is only a year old, but have any of the products created as a result of these challenges reached the demo stage?

Nair: Yes. In late December 2016, we posted the Jet Engine Design Challenge online. We went through the judging process in March, and we are about to do the first demo, probably a month from today. We are building a prototype which we will demonstrate to GE Aviation, build it up a little more with input from Aviation, and then we hope to take it out and put it on an actual engine by the end of the year. 

Gandara: Even though we’re part of GE Inspection Technologies, our customers vary across industries; and in this case, our partner was in GE Aviation and had this particular need. They were with us every step of the way as a subject matter expert, answering questions on the platform and continuing to work with us during the product development process. So we work very closely with our customers as well.

It’s exciting for the users too, I can imagine, as the barrier to entry for a company as huge and esteemed as GE is opening with Fuse in a way that it never has before. 

Gandara: We have entries come in from all over the world and from all levels of experience. The jet engine challenge was particularly interesting because the top five entries came from five different countries. And that wasn’t purposeful. We keep the entrant’s experience level, location, and other personal information private, and we don’t make any decisions based on that. From a judging perspective, that has no weight on who ends up being successful. So to find that out on the other end was really interesting, because people came in to solve the problem from so many different angles and experiences. You get this diversity of thought that’s really helpful.

Nair: It is a bold move to reach out to the public in this way, but it’s also the next logical step. However big of a company you are, you’re probably not going to have more than about 3,000 employees, and there are 7 billion people out there. So it doesn’t make any sense to ignore those people and assume we can figure out everything ourselves. Who knows what some guy in Jakarta sitting in an office building can offer? Maybe he has the solution.

Examples of recent Fuse challenges:

  • Position Sensor Design Challenge - Position sensors are ubiquitous in today’s world, though they are often known by other names. If you have ever used a computer mouse, you have used a position sensor. This challenge seeks to couple a low cost wireless position sensor with hand-held ultrasonic testing (UT) inspection units to make inspections faster, safer, and more accurate. (Challenge judging underway.)
  • One-Size-Fits-All: X-ray Plate Adapter Challenge – This challenge seeks solutions for creation of a universal adapter for transporting X-ray imaging plates through a scanner. (Challenge closed, winners announced, in prototyping.)
  • Consistent Images: Jet Engine Inspection Design Challenge – This design challenge explores an entirely new solution for inspecting jet engines. A new inspection device or an improved technique that allows for repeatable, consistent images of the same engine would have revolutionary impacts on the industry–leading to improved predictability of engine wear and tear, planned downtimes and eventually,  fewer missed flights due to the ever familiar “technical reasons.” (Challenge closed, winners announced, in prototyping.)
  • Speedy CT Image Delivery Challenge – This challenge seeks ideas for how to make CT images easier to store and transmit to experts who know how to read them, even if they’re halfway around the world. (Challenge closed, winners announced, evaluating business case further.)