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The Dawn of a New Ice Age: Meet Opal, FirstBuild’s Crowdsourced Countertop Ice Nugget Maker

By Terrence Murray

Rolling out almost any consumer product is an intricate process that usually involves lengthy market studies and costly R&D. But consumer tastes are fickle – especially today – and a blockbuster idea can grow stale before it arrives in the store.

But there’s a way to fix this: by speeding up the design and development cycle. That’s what FirstBuild has set out to do. The year-old joint venture between GE Appliances and the crowdsourcing invention factory Local Motors is transforming how companies choose, develop and launch new products.

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The FirstBuild community only started working on their latest product, the nugget ice maker Opal, in March. Image credit: FirstBuild

FirstBuild stands on two cornerstones: a website where a community of some 7,500 makers from around the world share and improve their ideas, and a microfactory on the campus of the University of Louisville, where the best ideas get prototyped and made.

“What you’ll find on FirstBuild.com are people who are techies and hackers and who do electronic and mechanical hardware design and understand engineering principles,” explains Taylor Dawson, FirstBuild’s self-professed “product evangelist.”

“But you’ll also find people who are designers and able to create elegant products.”

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Above and below: Opal prototypes at FirstBuild’s microfactory in Louisville, Ky. Image credits: FirstBuild

The concept is working. During the first year, the group worked on more than 800 ideas and came up with eight new products.

The latest one is a special kind of countertop icemaker called Opal. (FirstBuild started selling the first version of the machine on Tuesday on the website Indiegogo.) Opal produces the soft, chewable ice nuggets that are extremely popular in the South but until now were mostly available only in restaurants and convenience stores.

“We know from our consumer surveys that people prefer nugget ice over crescent ice by about three to one,” said Natarajan Venkatakrishnan, director of FirstBuild. “We developed Opal to offer an affordable nugget ice maker for home use and we are using Indiegogo as a selling platform to gauge market acceptance of the product.”

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By product development standards – it can take as many four years to come up with a new appliance – Opal’s design is approaching warp speed. It was only in March that FirstBuild challenged its community to develop a compact nugget icemaker capable of producing up to one pound of nugget ice per hour.

The call garnered 30 total entries, and the winning proposal, which was submitted by an independent designer based in Guadalajara, Mexico, was selected just a month after the launch of the contest. The first prototype rolled out of FirstBuild’s microfactory in early July.

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“Literally, from the time that we got the product concept finalized until the time that we had the first functional prototype took just about two to three months,” Dawson explains. “What we’ve done is take that years-long process and try to turn it into a months-long process.”

FirstBuild plans to bring the retail version of Opal to Indiegogo users by next summer and, based on response from the early adopters, scale production. That’s pretty cool.

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The finished product. It’s now on sale at Indiegogo. Image credit: FirstBuild

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