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GE and MakerBot plan to make appliances together

GE's off-site R&D facility, FirstBuild, is partnering up with desktop 3D printer giant MakerBot.

GE's Louisville, Ky. FirstBuild facility in mid-construction. Colin West McDonald/CNET

FirstBuild is a small-batch manufacturing site dreamed up by GE Appliances and Local Motors. While the facility, located on the University of Louisville campus in Louisville, Ky., is still under construction, FirstBuild is already making headlines. MakerBot, a leading name in desktop 3D printers, and TechShop, a collaborative studio where members can attend classes and design and build prototypes of their own imagining, are partnering with FirstBuild to lend resources and expertise to the fledgling microfactory initiative.

When FirstBuild officially opens its doors in late July, it hopes to appeal to engineers, designers, students -- really, anyone interested in maker-movement-level manufacturing -- and use that momentum to spur innovation. Where GE's traditional production facilities turn out millions of units of a single product, FirstBuild will focus on cost-saving micro-manufacturing, where teams oversee projects from start to finish and end up with a small number of prototypes.

It certainly seems like a clever way for a major manufacturer to experiment with products that may not be mainstream enough to start out on the mass production floor. But, if GE thinks they have promise, they might just move to a regular factory down the road. And while MakerBot and TechShop's roles haven't been made explicit, it would make sense for MakerBot to contribute 3D printers and TechShop to challenge its members to think of products that would work under the umbrella of GE and FirstBuild's appliance-focused platform.

In fact, FirstBuild has already announced two different challenges in advance of its July launch. The first is a micro kitchen; basically, taking the amenities of a traditional kitchen and paring them down to a more realistic size for urban dwellers. The second challenge is indoor grilling: move the functionality of an outdoor model inside so you can enjoy it year-round. The FirstBuild community will pick winners, make a limited number of products at the Louisville microfactory (perhaps with a shiny, new MakerBot 3D printer?) and sell them on the FirstBuild site.