Testing out new manufacturing processes off-site

In this Plant Profile, GE Power & Water has high hopes for efficiency solutions from a South Carolina manufacturing lab.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

One of the problems plant managers and directors face in trying to drive efficiencies on the plant floor is that it's difficult to test out new processes and protocols while meeting existing production demands.

What's an efficiency-minded manufacturer to do? For GE Power & Water, the answer is taking the testing off-site. This fall in Greenville, S.C., GE Power & Water will open the doors to its first advanced manufacturing works facility, an approximately 120,000-square-foot facility that will serve as a laboratory for trying out new manufacturing processes and techniques.

"There's a lot of innovation going on within manufacturing processes, and we want to make sure we're in a position to explore that," says Kurt Goodwin, general manager for GE Power & Water Advanced Manufacturing Works.

The facility, for which foundations were poured in February, is slated to be up and running sometime around Halloween. It's designed to have a "fairly flexible infrastructure," Goodwin says, with a standard manufacturing floor occupying the back half of the building and the front half of the facility divided between office space and a lablike manufacturing area. The space will be "set up for collaboration where we're sort of bringing manufacturing into the conference room," he says.

GE Power & Water produces heavy-duty gas turbines, distributed-power engines and wind turbine parts (among numerous other offerings) for utilities, independent power producers and other businesses. One of the tasks at the Greenville plant will be to test new manufacturing applications for lasers and other emerging technologies. Incorporating lasers into traditional welding processes, for example, can reduce the amount of metal needed for a weld. Finding ways to speed cooling and other manufacturing processes will be another focus for the facility. 

"Most of our shops have a lot of great ideas for productivity, but they have a mission in life," Goodwin notes. "Their job is to ... ship things to customers when they said they would. For them, a lot of the good ideas they have, they've been limited by time or resources (in testing and implementing them). So for them to be able to hand that challenge off to us ... I think that will pay off a lot, and I think that goes for everything from machining to material handling."

The Greenville plant will be the first of its kind for GE Power & Water, Goodwin adds, though other GE businesses have seen success with similar lablike facilities. Around 40 people will be on staff by the end of the year; that number may double by the time the plant reaches general maturity.

The workforce itself will be another unique feature at Greenville. A mix of scientists (some from GE's Global Research headquarters in New York state), high-end specialists, manufacturing engineers and operators both from within and outside GE will work together at the facility. Their charge, as a unit, is to develop manufacturing processes that are not only innovative but also easily implemented and scalable.

"Some we're hiring locally, and some we're hiring from wherever the best people are," Goodwin says, adding that GE's pursuit of advances in robotics and automation has GE recruiting for Greenville from the Detroit-Chicago-Milwaukee corridor that's known as a stronghold in those fields. “Collaboration and innovation on doing things is something that kind of gets us all out of bed pretty quickly in the morning.”

"Personally, it's very exciting because it's a very collaborative type of environment to work in," Goodwin says.

Read more Plant Profiles.

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