"Launching a refrigerator takes two and a half years from mind to market," Venkatakrishnan says. Or imagine a new product, like a slushie maker. "It takes six months to a year to do the engineering feasibility," he says. "Then it takes a year and a half for us to go into the system to make a decision. Then you get a team together and scale that up, which takes another year and a half." Four years later, you have your slushie maker. And so do your competitors.
By contrast, consider FirstBuild's most successful product to date, a small machine called Opal that produces "nugget ice". These are small, soft pellets of ice popular at fast-food restaurants and convenience stores in the south of the US. Prized for their cooling ability (the ice has more surface area) they can, curiously, also be comfortably chewed. It was a niche market, with an uncertain consumer demand for making nugget ice at home.
FirstBuild is an experiment by parent company GE that combines the power of so-called "open innovation" -- the idea that new products can come from outside a company's own walls -- with the speed of additive and low-volume manufacturing, topped off with the novel promise of crowdfunding, or getting a passionate, self-selecting market of consumers so early to adopt that they are willing to buy something before it has even been built.