Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

Local Motors joins trend for crowdsourcing car design

Could 2009 be the year that crowdsourcing takes root in the area of car design? My last 2008 post here described how Caterham, a specialist British sports car maker, is crowdsourcing the design of its next car. In late December, an article in the Boston-based XConomy website described how Local Motors, a startup company in Wareham, MA, raised $4 million in funding to test the idea that “car design can be crowdsourced to web-based communities and that consumers will want $50,000 “mass-customized” vehicles built in small batches at a network of micro-factories”.

Company head Jay Rogers and his staff of nine have built a system that:

“so far is 50 percent Web 2.0 social community and 50 percent rapid-prototyping workshop. The first half of Rogers’ big idea is tospeed up the design process—and, in theory at least, tap directly into consumers’ own ideas about what they want from their next car—by staging online design competitions. Hobbyists and professionals alike are invited to join Local Motors’ online studio and submit their 2-D sketches and renderings for periodic contests focused on cars for different geographic areas. Community members vote on the designs, and the winners get not only cash prizes ($2,000 for first place, $550 for second, $300 for third) but a shot at having their design turned into a production vehicle. The company pays the final selectees $10,000 for the right to the production-bound designs.”

The company will then take the selected designs into full-scale, 3-D engineering plans, designed to use as many off-the-shelf parts as possible.

Many of the recent rounds of the design competition have asked participants for designs that are inspired by various locations within the U.S., for example the tagline for the current ‘Chicago’ competition is “Driven by Humanism, Gangster by Design”.

Local Motors Chicago competition poster

Local Motors Chicago competition poster

Local Motors wants to build a network of 50 small assembly plants around the United States, where engineers would essentially hand-craft vehicles, with help from the buyers themselves, at least in the beginning. The company will limit production to runs of between 1,000 and 2,000 cars per year per factory, miniscule figures by comparison with the mainstream auto industry. However, the company’s target market is not regular car buyers but rather those from the auto enthusiast sector, who may well be involved in motorsport or kit-car building.

In the XConomy article, Jay Rogers focuses on the ‘green’ credentials of the Local Motors concept, referring to the goal of making the cars lighter than mainstream equivalents, therefore improving fuel economy. From his experience of the Iraq war, he is also interested in reducing the U.S. dependency on imported oil.

Separately, he makes an interesting comment on the inability of large manufacturers to respond to changing consumer preferences:

“I looked at the supply chain and I saw that there are people who make great engines, great batteries, great lightweight materials—but the people who make cars can’t use them, because they’ve gotten stuck in their enormous apparatus.”

He notes that this will delay the large U.S. automakers in particular from responding to the fall in demand for SUV’s and other larger vehicles. I made similar observations in a post titled ‘Car Trouble‘ two years ago. This difficulty in responding to changing customer demand had been foreseen by many commentators in the automotive media. There is also a certain amount of overlap between some of the ideas in my Car Trouble – Part 2 post, and Local Motors strategy of using ‘off-the-shelf’ components wherever possible.

Local Motors is admirable for offering winning contributors to their crowdsourcing project rewards in cold, hard cash, compared with the ‘free labour‘ view held by some.

As the XConomy article notes, the history of the auto sector is littered with stories of companies that started promisingly but fizzled out after a few years.  However, many of those companies were trying to emulate the mainstream manufacturers in the way they organised themselves.  Because Local Motors is starting from a ‘blank page’ in terms of so many aspects, from design to supply chain, it may at least have a better chance of success than many of those other small manufacturers that came (and went) before.

Share this item on these services:
  • digg
  • Furl
  • NewsVine
  • RawSugar
  • YahooMyWeb

4 Responses to “Local Motors joins trend for crowdsourcing car design”

  1. Ariel Says:

    I think you’re right! More and more companies will utilize the direct customer-connection made possible by crowdsourcing. Local Motors was launched in late March of 2008; Project Splitwheel was launched in November 2008 I think. Splitwheel was not the first, nor was Local Motors (unless you’re talking about companies and not projects), the OScar (open source car) project was going prior to Local Motors. It IS going to be an interesting year! Thanks for the shout out :)

    Also, we’re already building one of the designs from our community.

  2. Donal Reddington Says:

    Thanks for the feedback Ariel. There seems to be a growing view that a new business model is needed for the automotive sector in the U.S.:

  3. Ariel Says:

    That’s an interesting article. Thank you for posting the link; I would have missed it otherwise. Local Motors is building cars in JIT fashion – and we are doing it locally. This decentralized made-to-order method is a far cry from old-school automotive, but we think it can work quite well for the our car enthusiast customers.

  4. Computation and Design and dynamic identities « finalayout Says:

    [...] Our next car – [...]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.