Case Study: GE Garages
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2013 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 14 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments.
At the beginning of 2012, General Electric (GE) engaged Sub Rosa to help discover where innovation is born inside the organization and how new modes of prototyping and technology would impact the world in the years ahead. The aim of this massive assignment was to create a point of view that exhibited GE’s position on innovation, leadership and advanced manufacturing.
After we conducted a series of directed site visits, the brief began to take shape. We interviewed key stakeholders both inside GE and externally. The primary revelation unearthed during the discovery period on the shop floor was this: Not only is GE leading the industry in development and construction of complex machinery and software, but every step of their process involves human interaction. All told, GE products are assembled almost entirely by hand. This insight helped inform a GE-led strategic global positioning campaign, GE Works, and ultimately fed the development of large-scale advertising and marketing efforts to exemplify this position globally.
The goal was to demonstrate how GE technology and employees work in tandem to positively impact the lives of customers, communities and the world. Although people working within the energy and manufacturing industries are used to thinking of GE as a technology and innovation leader, the majority of their customers know them primarily as a household appliance brand. In order to share the GE Works story with the public, we needed to come up with an approach that would reach ordinary consumers, inviting them to experience the brand in a genuine, objective manner.
Our goals were as follows:
- Demonstrate to consumers the ways in which GE is making a difference.
- Provide a window into GE's invention and manufacturing processes.
- Bring together thought leaders who embody the principles with which GE seeks to align itself.
- Engage the audience and provide them with a lasting and authentic experience.
General Electric is an American multinational corporation that operates in the energy, health, home, transportation and finance sectors. The company is listed as the third largest in the world in the Forbes “Global 2000” and the sixth-largest firm in the U.S. by gross revenue. Taking advantage of their size and scope, GE has become one of the biggest players in finding renewable energy solutions, developing hybrid transportation technologies and recycling the materials used in the production of their appliances. They consistently earn high marks as an innovative company, a global leader and a green business in the rankings of Fortune, Newsweek and Fast Company, yet there is no set of circumstances for everyday interaction with the brand that reveals its aspirations and successes.
With this in mind, Sub Rosa and other members of the GE team worked together to develop a large-scale program that would bring innovation out of the factories and labs and into the real world. Organized under GE’s new “GE Works” tagline, GE Garages was born.
Every day, the people at GE work to “build, power, move and cure.” We at Sub Rosa were tasked with taking a bite-size slice of that undertaking and making it interesting, accessible and relevant to just about anyone. One guiding strategy that we returned to throughout the process was bringing the philosophy of GE Works to life. Recognizing that this sentiment is difficult to convey in words alone, we sought to construct an environment where users would witness this credo in action, with opportunities for one-to-one engagement with any type of audience member.
Given the impressive intersection of science, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship that occurs every year in Austin at the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW), SXSW 2012 seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring the new campaign to life. Building on GE’s commitment to technology and innovation, we embraced the concept of “making things” as a driving force.
At the time of planning for SXSW Interactive, the Maker Movement was reaching its peak, and as such we took care to introduce GE to the leaders of that community and invite them into a bigger collaborative program. The team recognized that making these connections via the SXSW activation was crucial to the credibility of the project long-term, and they put in considerable strategic hours striking the right balance between tech-heavy and user friendly, science and craftsmanship, digital and analog.
Sub Rosa spent time with GE, conducting significant informal research into the goals of the corporation and the morale of the workforce. We learned that GE spends $1 billion per year teaching employees new skills and billions more on innovation. Their focus on advancing technology is at the forefront of what they do. In order to shed light on GE’s commitment to invention, we needed to make a connection between the technologies the company uses everyday on the factory floor and the technologies that real people might imagine being available to them in the not-so-distant future.
The approach to research was dual-pronged. Our initial engagement with GE produced a first round of insights about their company and their vision for the future. The GE Works platform was established for that, and we distilled a new set of pragmatic issues to address, namely the kinds of equipment, people and programming that would make for a successful implementation of the first installment.
We realized early on that collaboration with groups championing the maker movement—who are used to connecting with people through programming—would be an invaluable resource, particularly as maker culture continues to gain in popularity and accessibility. The right group would help present technology with a low technical barrier in order to accommodate broad audiences. They would be adept at speaking with both novices and those desiring more complex information. Finally, they would be able to leverage their expertise as makers themselves to construct a programming schedule that was sensitive to the need for short windows of engagement and could be built iteratively for returning visitors.
GE and Sub Rosa set about fashioning the first-of-its-kind manufacturing collaboration designed to celebrate technologists, entrepreneurs and everyday consumers alike. Mindful of the GE Works mantra and the human element that distinguished GE’s approach to advanced manufacturing, our team envisioned and constructed a pop-up engineering lab made from recycled steel shipping containers filled with custom-designed workstations equipped with woodworking, plastic-working and metal-working machinery.
The GE Garages model is a complete, self-contained fabrication workshop, dedicated to rendering advanced manufacturing technology relevant and digestible for everyone. The platform creates a series of modular maker spaces that allow participants hands-on access to advanced technologies and raw industrial materials via mentored prototyping and instructional workshops. The mobile lab was loaded with a laser cutter, an injection molder, a computer numerical control mill, 3-D printers, metal inert gas welders, electronics and other high-tech tools used by industry professionals on a daily basis.
An illuminated branded lamppost rose above the container workshop, inviting guests from all facets of the conference to gain access to the technologies, thinkers and entrepreneurs present. Once inside, signage outlined the function of the machinery as well as its value to GE in the real world. Workstation computers were loaded with Autodesk software to allow custom design to take place on the fly. The computers also enabled the Garages team to support visitors who brought in their own projects. Although classes took place throughout the workshop, an additional container provided a full classroom space complete with long tables, stools, presentation screens, computer workstations, couches and coffee tables.
The first Garages activation at SXSW 2012 was staffed in part by TechShop, a membership-based DIY workshop community with hubs across the United States whose team acted as on-site equipment experts to support ad hoc learning (watch the video). The program also brought together representatives from Skillshare, who helped organize education events; Quirky, who offered a crowd-sourced competition at the festival for a consumer product designed for mass production (which they then helped to prototype and produce); Inventables, who supplied basic raw materials; as well as speakers and equipment from littleBits, MakerBot, MAKE magazine and Autodesk.
The Garage additionally undertook a partnership with BikeTexas to design and weld bike racks for the city of Austin. Working with conference attendees and Austin residents, 13 bike racks were created over the course of the festival.
Due to the nature of the conference setting, the limited active time guests would have to interact with the installation was a potential challenge. To ensure that experiences were succinct enough to be impressive and memorable, even with brief engagement, several projects were developed ahead of time. This helped us ensure that there was always something in the works in the Garage, with constant opportunities for engagement.
As mentioned, many of the challenges inherent in this activation were related to programmatic concerns such as finding the right groups to partner with. We sought partners that would not only grant GE valuable access to collaborators, start-ups and supporting organizations, but would enhance their overall relationship with the maker community.
Similarly, thoughtful and flexible project planning was necessary to ensure that there was something there for all interests and skill levels, that projects were not so niche or complex as to intimidate guests and that there was still room for advanced learning and sequential accreditation for repeat visitors.
An overarching conceptual challenge fundamental to the brief itself was how to help GE, a seemingly ubiquitous industrial monolith, register as “innovation leader” in the minds of consumers.
The turnout for the Garage was in the thousands. At the end of the day, it empowered people to make. The Garage activation was successful in large part because it presented an experience of the brand that was genuine and succinct. It communicated GE’s mission in a tangible manner, without drowning consumers in campaign rhetoric.
The machinery that visitors were invited to explore had, at its core, the same technology that GE engineers use in their manufacturing facilities everyday. Though the equipment in the Garages is scaled down to be workable and comprehensible to everyone, the tactile invitation provided a platform for brand representatives to talk about the things GE is doing with the very same processes.
Now with a niche mobile forum for involving people in their practice and philosophy, GE can bring opportunities for education, innovation and creation across the country. And with our help, they did just that. As a testament to the success of the platform, the initial project at SXSW launched an ongoing series of GE Garages activations in key cities throughout the country. An ancillary benefit of the Garages’ community engagement model is the ability to partner with local schools, vocational institutions and universities to create a unique talent development and recruitment program.
Following SXSW 2012, the Garage visited Rice University in Houston (April 2012), Maker Faire in San Francisco (May 2012), Virginia Tech University and the city of Boston (both September 2012). In October 2012, GE Garages opened its longest-running activation yet in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood in collaboration with STORY, a revolving New York retail space which curates merchandise and educational programming around a new theme every month (watch the video).
This installation, placed in a brick-and-mortar store, became a high-tech manufacturing skills school that was open six days a week. It featured more than 40 events ranging from robot workshops to classes about everything from 3-D printing to the nexus of laser cutters and fashion. The Garage also made a stop in Washington, DC for The Atlantic’s “Manufacturing’s Next Chapter” conference in February 2013.
The six Garages activations in 2012 garnered more 15,000 attendees, with an average engagement time of 60 minutes per guest. Each event saw more than 100 influencers and media at their respective launch events and produced hundreds of thousands of Facebook and Twitter impressions. Each of the smaller, three-day activations saw an average of 400 to 800 guests per day, helping GE make valuable connections with near-graduation-age engineers and exposing them to new career opportunities.