A couple of things up front about the StreetScooter. First, it isn’t actually a "scooter" (see picture). It’s a German-made electric car with a range of about 80 miles, a price tag of about $6,000, and a top speed of 74 mph. Second: tThe most important thing about it isn’t its range, speed, or price (though it’s a lot cheaper than comparable models).
What’s special is how it was developed. More than 50 companies took part in the StreetScooter’s design and engineering, co-creating, and collaborating from scratch. Not a single large brand was involved, and many were small- and medium-sized firms. The process effectively turns traditional car development on its head. Instead of one manufacturer dictating its designs to suppliers, all the companies had equal status, and could provide input.
"The problem [with the traditional approach] is that there are huge additional amounts of innovative ideas in the supply chain that could not be followed," says Achim Kampker, a professor of production engineering at RWTH Aachen University, and managing director of the StreetScooter consortium. Collaboration with established original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) was "intentionally avoided," he says, "to minimize the impact of existing theories and legacy processes."
The StreetScooter is built in modules (body, powertrain, electronics, and so on), with the companies organized into "lead engineering groups" to focus on their specialized area. Kampker says this allows the car to be built more quickly, and to be highly customizable. If there is a disagreement between the groups, the problem is sent up to a management group that resolves it.
Kampker first started working on the concept back in 2007. But the companies developed the actual prototype in just 12 months. Kampker says a OEM might have taken 12 years to develop the same thing, though that seems a little harsh, given the speed with which the Chevy Volt, and other EVs, have appeared recently.
StreetScooter is due on the German market in 2013, with plans to bring it to the U.S. at a later stage. Already, the consortium has won orders from DHL and the German postal service, which will use a version of the vehicle for short-haul deliveries around cities. The price doesn’t include the battery, which is leased separately.
Kampker describes the StreetScooter consortium as a "virtual OEM," where powerful "product lifecycle management" and CAD software substitute for the everyday coordination of a large, integrated company.
Chad Jackson, an expert in product lifecycle management, says such technology is vital. Large-scale collaboration will only work if you have a way of effectively managing all of a product’s definitions, configurations, and iterations.
"Engineering is so chaotic that if you don’t have something that will manage the central product record, it gets out of hand very quickly," says Jackson.
The development of StreetScooter has similarities to another car-crowdsourcing project: Massachusetts-based Local Motors, though the latter is more open-source. When Local developed its first vehicle for DARPA, it fielded 35,000 designs from 100 countries.
Some commentators see such projects as the future: the transfer of the web’s "post-institutional" business models to the world of physical objects.
Jackson, who writes at the site engineering-matters.com, says whether the crowdsourcing takes off in the car industry will depend partly on what suppliers get out of it.
"The OEMS have really squeezed the supply chain hard, trying to get every penny and nickel out of it, so they can make it more profitable. When they’re gone, there is more margin is passed down the supply chain. If this project is successful, it might become the preferred choice for suppliers."