Ever been to a restaurant that had nugget ice? It is most commonly found at places like the national chain of drive-ins called Sonic. Believe it or not, there are groups of people that passionately feel that nugget ice is the best ice. People love this ice so much that Sonic even began selling bags of it. If you search through Facebook, you’ll find multiple fan pages devoted to the admiration of these little chewable odd shaped bits of frozen water. It is safe to say that nugget ice is popular. It is also, until now, relatively difficult to make at home.
GE’s FirstBuild micro factory, which you may remember is a kind of crowdsourcing makerspace for people to collaborate with GE to design appliances, has stepped up to bring out a residentially focused nugget ice machine. The machine was born out of one of the regular competitions at FirstBuild and submitted by someone from the public. The current enthusiasts are spending upwards of $3,000 for a home nugget ice machine, so a proposed $500 unit gained traction pretty quickly. After that, GE engineers worked with members of the public to create a polished product that people will want.
The FirstBuild concept is interesting in that it is literally a collaboration between engineers within GE and the public. This seemingly innocuous item, an ice maker, is a perfect example of how a micro factory interfacing with the public is very different than a traditional model. Instead of GE designing a machine to fit the broadest spectrum of potential purchasers, the Firstbuild team has built a very focused piece of hardware with the help of enthusiasts.
I asked Taylor Dawson (a Product Evangelist at FirstBuild) some questions about how this ice maker came into existence.
Kraft: Where did the idea originate from?
Dawson: Opal was co-created by the FirstBuild community, FirstBuild designers and engineers, and GE refrigeration engineers. The idea for an in-home nugget ice maker was submitted on the FirstBuild website last May. It developed a considerable following, and FirstBuild decided to launch a challenge in March 2015 for the design of a countertop model that would meet an affordable price point. The community voted on about 30 submitted entries, and the winning design provided the basic engineering architecture and industrial design for the final product.
After seeing the interest on FirstBuild.com among makers, we did some outreach to our local community members and found that there is a really dedicated group of enthusiasts who love nugget ice. When talking to people about the idea a large percentage instantly responded, “Oh, I LOVE nugget ice.” Some of our community even responded with anecdotes of their daily trips to a specific gas station to get this particular type of ice, or going to Sonic (drive-in restaurant prevalent in the South) to pick up a bag for a party.
This convinced us that there is a lot of enthusiasm for this type of ice among our community members, both locally and nationwide. When the idea of an in-home nugget ice maker was posted to FirstBuild, it struck a chord with our community because it addressed the biggest pain associated with ice: availability. So we are trying to give our community and consumers at large the opportunity to have nugget ice at home, right where they want it.
Kraft: Who built it?
Dawson: The Opal nugget ice maker is a community-inspired product. It was built by university students and engineers at FirstBuild under supervision of expert refrigeration engineers from GE.
Our philosophy is that we can learn a lot by building a prototype, and so we focus heavily on the “making” part of the design process. A prototype is worth a thousand meetings. By making a prototype, the abstract questions become concrete very quickly, and we can understand the engineering and design challenges and feed them back to the community for rapid improvements.
Kraft: Did they receive any help?
Dawson: The community helps us by providing good feedback and solid design ideas. We help the community by moving forward the development of products that wouldn’t have come otherwise.
All FirstBuild challenge entries are completed by the community. With Opal, we gave them some basic guidelines: This is the size of the refrigeration system, it should fit within this volume. We try to make sure our guidelines provide inspiration for what could be, not constraints on the imagination. We have been exceptionally pleased with the quality of the work that our community brings to us.
As we move further in development, we provide constant updates to our online community so we can get feedback on the development process and take into account suggestions for design and engineering improvements. Several of our really engaged community members have given us insights on how to move the design forward.
Kraft: How long did it take from idea to development?
Dawson: The community support for a nugget ice maker has been growing since we launched the FirstBuild online community last year — we’re coming up on our one year anniversary next week. Based on the intense interest, we decided to launch a product design challenge in March. The development of product concepts by community members is the most fundamental step in the process, and we spent about 4 weeks receiving the concepts and reviewing them. The total idea-to-development process was about 4 months.
Kraft: What was the biggest problem faced?
Dawson: We knew that to make a great product we would have to find a way to combine the elegant design provided by the community with the functional components. We went through several iterations until we finally ended up with the most elegant solution possible. It is kind of like the complex process that goes behind deriving a basic equation in physics. You go through several steps of complex calculus before finally arriving at e=mc2.
Kraft: What happens now? (Who owns what?)
Dawson: The Opal Nugget Ice Maker will be available for pre-order at Nuggetice starting on July 28. If we meet our funding threshold, we will be delivering the product in the summer of 2016. Community contributions are recognized through an initial payment once the product is launched, plus a royalty proportional to that size of the contribution.
Kraft: What’s next?
Dawson: We are always looking for better ideas. A lot of the students that have helped to get us to a functional prototype will be moving on in the coming months. We will bring in more talent from the community to keep the product moving from prototype through production. You can participate at FirstBuild.