All Your Engineering Are Belong To Us

voltronIs engineering getting a little crowded?  In this brave, new world of Makerbots and GrabCAD, there’s a rising trend -some would call a revolution- that crowd sourcing is changing the very nature of engineering.  Increasingly abundant examples are popping faster than you can connect your dynotherms, from DARPA’s Adaptive Vehicle Make experiment, to the Local Motors phenomenon, or everyone’s favorite project that even Tony Stark doesn’t have time for: Hyperloop.  The question to ask: is crowd sourced engineering simply an alternative approach,  a curious experiment, or is it the future?

The internet is a major transformative force.  Case in point, the collaborative possibilities of the internet has been revolutionizing a variety of fields, especially science.  Author Michael Nielsen penned a book titled “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science” for which Colabria sums up nicely:

“Reinventing Discovery tells the exciting story of an unprecedented new era of networked science. We learn, for example, how mathematicians in the Polymath Project are spontaneously coming together to collaborate online, tackling and rapidly demolishing previously unsolved problems. We learn how 250,000 amateur astronomers are working together in a project called Galaxy Zoo to understand the large-scale structure of the Universe, and how they are making astonishing discoveries, including an entirely new kind of galaxy. These efforts are just a small part of the larger story told in this book–the story of how scientists are using the internet to dramatically expand our problem-solving ability and increase our combined brainpower.”

Engineering is no different.

In some ways, crowd sourcing engineering is acknowledgement that engineering has always been project focused.  Traditionally there’s been somewhat of a disconnect there – engineers are hired by companies based on rather generic qualifications and experience but are ultimately assigned to projects.  At their very core, engineers want to tag team and form Voltron.   Maybe not specifically to build a totally awesome sword fighting robot made out of gigantic multicolor robotic lions, but it has to be nonetheless cool.  Engies need to point at a grand idea and say – I want to make that into reality.   They are attracted to companies based on the projects that are being worked, and there’s always a bit of drama when they are instead assigned a project that’s very different in nature (or in aggregate coolness points).

This is the point in the article where software engineers make a frumpy face and say: “Well, duh.”  In fact software engineering has long been the torch bearer for crowd sourcing – witness exhibit A of every open source project on earth.  The reason software is so far ahead of the rest of engineering on this front is for one very simple reason: low barrier of entry.  It’s very easy for anyone to pitch in, and manufacturing the product is relatively trivial.

And that’s the new twist that is raising eyebrows ’round the world.  Hardware engineering projects have been -for the most part- previously contained within corporations for reasons of practicality.  The tools needed for design have historically been both expensive and resource intensive, while manufacturing has required “Pacific Rim” style infrastructure.  Complete with giant robots!  3D printing is definitely turning manufacturing on its head, and a variety of design tools are becoming more affordable to the individual than ever before via subscription based business models.  Though as I’ve mentioned before, some accessibility issues continue still.

A prime example: the potential demonstrated with GrabCAD/GE jet engine bracket challenge.  In this contest, designers across the planet submitted wildly creative competing designs.  The goal:  to dramatically reduce the weight of a particular engine part while preserving the necessary load capacity.  The top ten designs are being additively manufactured and are undergoing load testing to determine prize winners.  Is this the future of design, where anyone with an idea can participate?

The counterpoint is that the crowd-sourcing will have limitations, mostly due to IP issues and the financing necessary to drive mass production of physical hardware.  Also there are unanswered questions about how an unfettered crowd sourced design process can effectively execute in industries where heavy regulations exist for environmental and public safety.  For example, how would the FAA approve a truly crowd sourced design?  And ITAR is likely to give us a migraine (as usual).  These challenges are generally not an issue with open source software.  Which begs a larger question, must all crowd sourcing also be open sourcing?  Michael Nielsen seems to think that’s the case for science at least:

“But, as I explain in the book, there are cultural obstacles that are blocking networked science from achieving its full potential. And so the book is also a manifesto, arguing that networked science must be open science if it is to realize its potential”

Engineering is changing – are crowd sourced efforts today a glimpse of what is to come or an isolated trend that must necessarily be limited in scope?  And more importantly, are we ready to form Voltron?