This morning I happened across a Twiter post by GrabCAD
. GrabCAD is a fairly new site that allows model uploads and sharing. They also have these design contests
where a company presents a design challenge and then offers a prize for the best solution. Prizes range in size from an iPad or Camera to a few thousand dollars. The contest that the post was about was to design a new axle for a trailer company. The price was $1500.
The concept is called crowdsourcing. Throw a problem out to a bunch of people and let the best ideas rise to the top. Great in theory and it can work in lots of situations. However I firmly believe that engineering is not one of them.
In the case of the trailer axle contest the design has some very specific criteria. It had to fit in a certain envelope, had to be able to withstand a certain load, and several other specifications. Contestants were given 2 weeks to present the new design.
Let's assume you worked only 50% of the time on this design. So that's 40 hours worth of work. Divide that into $1500 and that's a rate of $37.50/hr. This is amount 50% of what my company charges for assembly labor. Some of the other contests were even less. There was one to design a skateable work of art. That paid $100. My engineers are charged out at $110/hr. So that's less than an hour's worth of work. I won;t even turn on my computer for $100.
What I'm getting at is, pay $100 and you get a $100 solution. Maybe you'll get lucky and that $100 solution will be the right one (and will work, and is correct, and is not already patented etc..) but chances are you are going to get a bunch of half-baked ideas that you could have come up with using your own in-house team.
Once the solutions are presented you have to go through all of them. Determine which are viable and which are not. You need to test each solution to see if it passes your criteria. Then once you have narrowed it down to the final 1-2 solutions you need to verify that these solutions work. You need to check the calculations. You need to do analysis on the loading criteria. You need to verify that the wining solution is manufactureable for the budget and many many other factors. Honestly, the companies running these contests should be budgeting more time to verify the designs than they have given people to actually do the design work.
Now let's look at the engineers and designers doing the work. Are they doing it on their own time with their own software and hardware? If not it is often against the policy of most engineering firms that outside work not be done on company time or using company hardware/software. Furthermore many non-compete agreements state that any concept or idea developed on company time/hardware/software is the property of the company. This is in direct conflict with the rules of the contest that states that the design belongs to the firm that is offering the prize.
And what about liability? What if (heaven forbid) this trailer axle fails. The trailer company could be sued. If in the discovery phase it is discovered that they outsourced part of the design the engineer who won may also be named in the suit. While I have not read the fine print on the rules and regulations I'm guessing there is some gaping holes in the liability aspect. The lawyer fees alone to review the contract would more than eclipse the $1500 prize.
Furthermore, who is to say that the designer doing the work is even qualified in this area? Have they ever designed an axle before? Do they know the ins and outs of what will work and what will not? Did they even do an FEA simulation on their design to make sure it meets the load criteria as set forth in the contest. While the onus of the design should be on the commissioning company, it would be very easy to let down you guard and just "trust" the solution.
I have a close friend who works in the graphics arts industry. He is often asked to create logos or brands for companies. He has experienced this same type of situation in his industry. Companies will offer some small reward for designing a logo. More often than not the result is not as good as it could have been. Also in the end the commissioning company spends more time and money going through all the entries than it would have taken to just hire a professional who knew what he was doing. He also claims it hurts the professionals in the industry as companies think they can get work done for a 1/10 of the normal price. I don't disagree.
I think a more interesting experiment would be for engineers to offer their solutions but the engineers put a price on the solution. If the commissioning company wants to use their design they have to pay the asking price. I wonder how that might turn things on their ear? I certainly think it would bring the prices for the work much closer to reality.
In closing I think crowdsourced engineering can work in some aspects. The MakerBot initiative is one of those. People, out of their love for the product spend time and energy developing new ideas and concepts for the device. It's all open source and it's all free. However when you are crowdsourcing for-profit products, I see a lot of pitfalls and potential problems.