The Future of Manufacturing


NewCo Shift Forum

Launch Forth represents a new approach to product development

Elle Shelley during NewCo Shift Forum 2017

You’ve probably seen Local Motors’ unique and arresting automobiles around the Internet (the company is credited with creating the first 3D printed car), but what you may not know is that Local Motors has birthed a maker community and platform, Launch Forth, that engages more than 70,000 “solvers” who engage with projects from companies as diverse as GE, Boeing, and many more. In this short talk at the NewCo Shift Forum earlier this year, Elle Shelley, lead at Launch Forth, walks us through an entirely new kind of innovation platform.

John Battelle: The next speaker, Elle Shelley from Launch Forth, a division of Local Motors. If you haven’t heard of Local Motors, you just got to go Google it because the cars that they make are insane.

What is cooler is, I was at a NewCo Boulder Festival hearing a NewCo presentation from Local Motors. Elle got up and told me about this new manufacturing platform that they spun out of the work that they were doing in that they just needed a way to rethink how to design and manufacture things at a smaller scale, but that could scale to massive scale.

She spent about 20 minutes explaining this thing. I was like, [makes sound] . I said, “You have to come and do the same thing here, but I’m only going to give you half the time.” [laughs]

Creative boxes, we love it. Please, for high order bit, a palate cleanser if you will, welcome Elle Shelley, the EVP of Forth from Local Motors.


Elle Shelley: We have eight minutes and I have to explain to you all kinds of crazy things. First, I’m going to go a little bit off script and tell you a story about me.

When I was 17, I graduated from high school. I’m from Arizona. I moved to go to high school in Northern Utah. The second weekend away from home, I met a group of friends. We decided to take a road trip from Northern Utah to Half Moon Bay, California.

Four of us jumped in my friend’s Toyota 4Runner, packed our bags, ready to really be adults and start on our way. About halfway through the morning, we stopped in a little teeny, tiny town called Elko, Nevada.

We filled up on pancakes and other deliciousness, got back in the car where I promptly fell asleep. This is where the story takes a darker turn.

I woke up two months later in a hospital in Phoenix. I didn’t have any recollection of what happened, what happened to me. We never actually made it to Half Moon Bay.

After the doctors explained to me where I was, my parents made me read the police report so I could understand what happened.

What happened is all four of us got back in the car. The driver put the car on cruise control at 85 miles an hour. Just like I fell asleep, he fell asleep.

The car drifted from the far left-hand lane all the way over to the right-hand lane. The gravel actually woke him up where he then realized that he was in the wrong place. He turned the wheel. When he turned the wheel, the car flipped over and rolled eight times.

I was, like I said, asleep in the backseat. I was ejected through the sunroof and flew 183 feet away. The other three people in the car, one stayed in the car. The other two were ejected. The people in the car were ejected within a 10-foot radius.

When the police and the ambulance came to get the first group of people, the driver heard…this is hard for me to tell you, sorry. It’s very emotional…heard the ambulance driver say, “We got all three of them. Let’s go.” The driver then said there were four, and then passed out.

That ambulance went on its way, and a helicopter actually came and found me where they thought…I was in really, really bad shape. They flew me back to Phoenix. My parents came.

The doctors actually told my parents that I was going to be brain-dead. Good news, I’m not. [laughs]

This whole story framed my life because I started asking questions. I started saying, “Why is this happening? Why are we still having mass recalls? Why are cars still so unsafe? Why is all this happening?” I really started thinking deeply about this.

Then I found that there were other people thinking about this. This is where my personal story actually intersects with Local Motors. This is the world’s first 3D printed car. Maybe, you know Local Motors from the Rally Fighter.

This is actually the world’s first co-created car. It’s colloquially known as the car the Internet built. It’s pretty cool. You might know Local Motors from the DARPA XC2V. This is a purpose-built vehicle specifically designed to keep all of our frontline troops as safe as possible. This is one very close to my heart, too.

Maybe, you’ve had your pizza delivered in one of these Domino’s ultimate pizza delivery vehicles, another co-created vehicle from our world.

Maybe, you’ve met Olli, which is our newest and really the crown in our jewel. It’s a self-driving cognitive shuttle. It’s powered by IBM Watson. It’s completely autonomous.

All of these vehicles actually have two things in common. I’m going to get real bookish on you and explain what they are. The first is that they are made in a micro-factory. What is a micro-factory?

It’s a physical operating space for rapid prototyping, modular experiment, experimentation, and small batch manufacturing of products. It’s also a solution to how we can stop mass recalls of bad products that get on the road.

They’re also co-created. What is co-creation? An active process where brands and their customers work together with software designers and engineers to accelerate product and technology development.

These two things together are the fundamentals with which Local Motors is built upon.

What ended up happening is that Local Motors saw so much success bringing really hard things, vehicles, to market faster and cheaper using co-creation and micro manufacturing that all these other brands started knocking on the door. It became very apparent that we actually had a service business on top of a product business.

We realized that all these other brands wanted to figure out this magic secret sauce that Local Motors had. We created a whole practice to do exactly that. Wait, first, a moment about our community.

This is really, really the secret sauce in where we’re going in the future. We believe that anyone can innovate. We believe that anyone can solve a problem. We believe in the democratization of ideas and solutions. That is the fundamental basis of our community.

Who’s in our community legitimately? If you went from an astronaut to a zoologist, to your grandma, to anyone. Like I said, Graham started coming to us and said, “We want to try this. We want to do this.”

We created a whole team of people that I lead, actually recently out of Boulder, that focuses on building our practice. We call this Launch Forth. This is where it gets very buzzy, but we’re in the Valley so you’ll like this.

It’s a community-powered SaaS platform that unites the world’s largest engineering and design community with companies to design and bring products to light faster. It’s really, really cool. I’m really inspired by it.

It’s three parts — service, then the Saas platform, and a community. I’m going to buzz through these slides really fast because I only have two minutes left. I want to talk about the community model because this is really what makes this different.

What we have developed is this large shared community of solvers underneath. This would be our community-powered. On top of it, we have a SaaS platform.

The big companies, like GE and Airbus, actually use to tap into and solve problems with our community.

It’s a really revolutionary idea because it doesn’t end just online. We’re not just another SaaS platform. We’re not just another platform. We’re not a social network. But we’re that paired with digital manufacturing.

Someone in, say, Colombia could have an idea to design a product and actually go online, submit the design, work with engineers from GE, solve problems with engineers from Airbus.

Then in a micro-factory, physically work to bring it to market. That’s the world that we envision and the world that we’re working to create.

Why are we doing this? We believe brilliant ideas are everywhere. It’s our business to find and empower as many of them as possible. I love thinking about that. When we think about our community, that’s exactly what we’re doing we’re listening.

The co-creation process. We start with inspire, then we ideate. We generate. We refine. Finally, we make. This is a critical part that’s different. Then a lot of the “innovation washing platform” that are going on right now in the space.

We believe it’s critical to physically make a product to understand how innovative it is, to understand who the market is, will they buy it, will they buy it at that feature.

Then to actually bring it full circle and remunerate the community for any of the potential sales from that product.

That really is our brand promise to the community, that we’re not just taking ideas and reselling them, but they get to be a part of the entire process including financially, a part of any of the successful products.

In this phase, this is where we think big. What we know about our community is the bigger the idea, the bigger the solution. We know that our community is willing to solve what we say is to solve the unsolvable.

A lot of what we talk about is how can we actually come up with really, really big ideas. We call them a “moonshot mission.”

What’s ironic about that is when we talk to our partners about moonshot mission, we got them so inspired that we have a partner that’s actually coming to us to dream bigger than the moon, which is Mars.

We’re actually going to co-create (a mission to) Mars with this whole community. That’s going to happen in the next couple of months.

A moonshot mission is comprised of a couple pieces. We have all these co-creation tools that make projects that then make up the moonshot mission.

Then we go into inspire. Once we have the moonshot, we then create our product strategy. We assemble our project teams, and we have a roadmap. This is another part to talk about from understanding. This is just interesting.

When we talk about a community-powered SaaS platform, our SaaS platform is what internal engineering teams use to do their product development. What we work with our partners on is to show how internal teams can actually use the power of a community to do their job better.

This is a fundamental shift in trying to convince engineers and product designers how to think about their job. This has really been a challenge for us and one that we think about often because we don’t want the concept to be that GE has partnered with us to basically crowd-source all these engineering jobs. That’s not what we’re doing.

Instead what we’re doing is we’re creating a new tool for engineers and product designers to get better at their job. It’s part of the shift in thinking about how we can actually move into the digital transformation with big companies.

Like I said, we are nothing if not makers. We believe in generating the PDFs, the CAD files, the PSDs, all of the actual geometry and algorithms that you have to actually do to make a product. That all happens on our platform. Again, collaborating between a community and internal subject matter experts.

Then we refine it. This is again where we tap into the community and where we are going to be exploring artificial intelligence to try to understand how peer to peer interactions or the community can regulate itself doing comments, voting, design modifications, upvotes, downvotes, etc., etc.

Then we make. If you get something out of this conversation, I hope it’s that you understand that making physical products is the key to our future.

We have to make products and we have to make them here in order to make an economy for all of the next generation.

Anyway, some stats.: Our community is home to 75,000 plus solvers. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We really understand how to do innovation challenges, how to talk to a community and how to actually ask the right question to get the right answer.

We’ve had over 7,100 entries to challenges and counting. That’s what we’re doing.

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