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  How to Organize a Crowd for Open Innovation 

Kyriakou, Harris; Nickerson, Jeffrey V.; Sabnis, Gaurav

The Encyclopedia Britannica was in print from 1768 to 2012 -- a remarkable run, famously ruined by Wikipedia's 21st-century birth. (You can read all about it on Wikipedia's entry for "Encyclopedia Britannica," which includes 121 references.)

So, how might other businesses be transformed by tapping the power of crowds? Working via digital platforms and 3D printers, could new product development open up to anyone with good ideas? How might it all be organized?

To answer some of these questions, professor Harris Kyriakou looks at the open sharing of product designs for 3D printers on a platform called Thingiverse. With 3D printer prices dropping, hobbyists can now make nearly anything -- from Apple Pencil holders to zippy quadcopters -- right in their own homes. The implications extend well beyond hobbyists though: the open sharing of product designs in conjunction with access to rapid prototyping technologies, such as 3D printing, is enabling startups to quickly experiment and debut new, potentially disruptive, products.

Kyriakou studies how product designs are created, reused and customized -- in other words, how open innovation is organized. Drawing from his doctoral dissertation, Kyriakou homes in on a Thingiverse tool that encourages experts to produce more and novices to make customizations for incremental innovations. That research has been published in MIS Quarterly's special issue on IT and innovation as "Knowledge Reuse for Customization: Metamodels in an Open Design Community for 3D Printing," with Kyriakou as the lead author.

A Universe of Things
Thingiverse, meant to be an online universe of things, is the largest solid-object-design platform these days. It attracts a diverse community of expert designers and engineers mixing with novice hobbyists interested in making stuff. Take whistles, for example. If you need a whistle, you can copy a design to 3D print at home.

The platform's openness, with Creative Commons (CC) licenses to promote sharing and open collaboration, offers the opportunity to witness designs evolve, succeed and fail. Contrast that with traditional corporate R&D centers, where working designs tend to be shrouded in secrecy until launch.

For this article, Kyriakou et al. home in on a special tool for Thingiverse members called the Customizer. Essentially, this app allows designers to create templates or "metamodels" which anyone can then use to tweak the designs to their liking, even without knowing the computer-assisted-design protocol (OpenSCAD).

With an intuitive interface, novices can take a whistle design and customize it to their own specifications. Add your name or change the dimensions to make a unique sound on a crowded field.

More importantly, the metamodel that enables this family of designs is openly and readily available for other innovators to build upon, creating other families of designs. For instance, another designer can build upon the metamodel responsible for the whistle and combine it with a flashlight, a knife and a compass design, creating a whole new family of survival kit designs. The sharing of these metamodels leads to a rapid and nearly perpetual innovation process.

Analyzing data before and after the Customizer's launch in 2013, the authors sort through thousands of design iterations, separating the metamodels from their customizations. They found that the ability to create metamodels significantly boosted design output in the community, noting that the metamodels were reused often, while the design models created from them were not.

Their findings have implications for organizing open platforms -- and even for software design. Because metamodels encourage more customization, it may be smart to provide technological features to support them. Not only do these templates help hobbyists become "designers" of their own customized produces, they also encourage the pros to produce more. "Perhaps the high reuse that accompanies metamodels provides a quick injection of positive feedback to the designer, which encourages the creation of more metamodels," the authors suggest.

Methodology, Very Briefly

Kyriakou et al. look at 24,173 designs on Thingiverse that were created in just over five months in 2013. That period of time was long enough to see designs' use and reuse, but not long enough to have technological or platform changes affect the study. They counted the number of times designs were reused and measured the similarity between resulting products using a computer graphics method for comparing 3D objects. They controlled for designer tenure, design availability and format. "We found that experts gravitated toward the metamodels, and that the metamodels were more reused when built by experts," they summarize.
This article is based on:  Knowledge Reuse for Customization: Metamodels in an Open Design Community for 3D Printing
Publisher:  Management Information Systems Research Center, University of Minnesota
Year:  2017
Language:  English
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