Crowd Sourcing? There Goes Your Engineering Job
Roopinder Tara posted on November 30, 2015 | 12869 views

We were quick to seize the idea of hopping into a stranger’s car to get a ride—especially when so many strangers began to offer it. Uber and the less-famous Lyft have succeeded in bringing the concept of crowd sourcing to the public. I watch one person after another outside a downtown San Francisco hotel getting into personal autos, some with the big “U” label on the windshield. I am waiting for a cab. And waiting. They seem to have disappeared. The bellhop wonders if the cabbies are on strike.

Could it be the end of the cab industry, the professional cab driver? When everyone can give you a ride, why wait for one of the few that are actually licensed to do so and their dedicated vehicles? These Uber cars are everywhere.

It’s working out pretty well for riders and drivers, as far as I can tell. But for the cabbie, it must suck—the full-time cab driver whose cab fares put food on the table has to do it for a living, all day, every day. And the cab companies must be suffering as well.

What’s happening to the ride industry is currently the hottest topic in tech and business. Uber came from out of nowhere to become a $50 billion company—more than four times the combined valuation of Hertz and Avis. Crowd sourcing was around before Uber, but with Uber’s success, crowd sourcing is going viral. And the engineering profession is not immune.

What Can Companies Learn from Crowd Sourcing?

Jeremiah Owyang, founder of Crowd Companies.
Jeremiah Owyang, founder of Crowd Companies.

Jeremiah Owyang is onstage at the recent Dassault 3D Experience Forum, proselytizing crowd sourcing. Once a Forrester Research analyst, Owyang now heads a firm that advises on how companies can change their business models to take advantage of crowd sourcing. He explains how large companies can adopt the same strategies from these crowd-based startups—and improve their relationships with their own customers.

Afterwards, he discusses cars—and what crowd sourcing is doing to the car industry and car ownership.

Owning a car was once a rite of passage for every American, but latest figures are showing that the love affair may be over. Nowadays, a car costs $30K. Who has that kind of money? In addition, urban dwellers are often not interested in owning a car, even if they can afford it.

“Cars are idle 95 percent of the time,” says Owyang. “New services like Uber and Lyft reduce the woes of car ownership for those in dense regions.”

If I can get anywhere I want and not worry about a hefty down payment, monthly loans, parking and garages, that’s more money for a Euro-style suit, picking up the tab at after-work happy hours and the latest iPhone. I’m living the life. But a shiny new car is no longer a part of it.

It’s not just an urban story. For the first time in automobile history, miles driven have gone down. The car is no longer central to who we are. It took more than several gas crises to make us realize this. And it took crowd sourcing. The ride and the accompanying lifestyle are what we really needed. Not the debt, not the hassle, not the city driving.

GE and Local Motors

Though it’s common for most companies see crowd sourcing as a threat to their livelihood, those who are more progressive look to catch the wave.

Local Motors, an American motor vehicle manufacturing company, which recently made the first 3D-printed car, uses the crowd almost exclusively for its concepts and designs. Anyone can suggest an idea, people vote and the most popular ones get “co-designed,” with collaboration from engineers and non-engineers all over the world. (It is not clear if any are paid for their effort.)

Haven’t heard of Local Motors? How about GE? GE has tens of thousands of engineers on its payroll.  That was either not enough, or they were not available, or they were not the right kind to make what it needed: a bracket for a jet engine. The company farmed it out to the crowd. In a GrabCAD competition that inspired 1,000 entries, the winning design came from an engineer from Indonesia who got the grand prize of $7,000.

Owyang sees companies such as Local Motors and GE as part of a trend; companies that have seen the writing on the wall. Crowdsourcing is real. It won’t go away. It will only get stronger and companies ought to get into it.

But where does this sort of trend lead?

Is a dedicated professional on staff, whether it is a cab driver or a degreed engineer, a luxury? A senior mechanical engineer can cost GE as much as $150K. Could it seriously downsize the number on staff if it was able to tap into a worldwide pool of engineering talent? Was the engine bracket contest a pilot project for exactly that sort of thing?

Steps for an engineering upheaval are laid out very clearly. Uber can serve as a cautionary tale for skilled, professional workers. When we, along with thousands of other Uber riders, forgo the corporate cab company and a professional driver to jump in with an amateur, it will likely not be accompanied with any thought of the poor cabbie—or any similarity with our own professions. It can’t happen to me. I’m an engineer.

But as the successes of Uber and crowd sourcing point out, people and companies who need services don’t necessarily need professionals. Ask a crowd who wants to offer a ride or do a job and see how many raised hands you get. Dangling $7,000 was able to get a thousand hands raised for GE. One of them was selected to win, but probably many more had good—or good enough—designs. Does it matter where they live, how old they are, if they graduated from MIT or Caltech, or even if they have an engineering degree?

While any one person in a crowd will generally not be not as good or as reliable as a staff engineer, having enough crowd applicants increases the chance of finding a replacement. As with using amateurs and part-timers, we are putting ourselves at a little risk but they will in most cases get us to where we want to go. The drivers may not be great but are good enough. 

Before the success of Uber, the cab driver would have questioned whether an amateur could ever last doing what he does. How could they know the city like he or she did, suggest the best restaurant, dodge in an out of snarled traffic without getting scratched, wait it out for hours in the airport lines? All were sources of pride for the cabbie. And all were dismissed by a public that really likes an app for picking a nearby car by smartphone.

Similarly, the engineer who takes pride in his or her engineering degree (which are not easy to get), who spent years learning and perfecting CAE software and decades honing engineering judgment to the point of achieving a Zen-like mastery of titanium-forged brackets, ends up getting sidelined by a kid from the other side of the world with a concept sketch. His or her company seizes on this as a breakthrough of creativity, a new way of doing engineering and a sure-fire sign that crowd sourcing works.

There’s a lot of creativity all over the world. The best engineers for a job, or the cheapest ones, may certainly not be the ones we have within our walls. Other countries produce engineers, too. Maybe they don’t have the equivalent of an MIT or Caltech degree. But are they good enough? They graduate a lot of engineers in other parts of the world.

There are many people in a crowd. One of them is going to be better than you. Or cheaper. Or both.

 

See Also:

How GE Plans to Act Like a Startup and Crowdsource Breakthrough Ideas, Liz Stinson, Wired.com, Apr 11, 2014

Will 2015 See an Uber Model for Manufacturing?, James Anderton, ENGINEERING.com, Jan 6, 2015

Is the Uber Model the Future of Manufacturing?, Kagan Pittman, ENGINEERING.com, Nov  13, 2015

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