Greenville Plant Leads the Charge in GE’s Digital TransitionSeptember 8, 2016
That shift is deeper than public perception — the New York Times recently reported on G.E.’s establishment of G.E. Digital, which aims to harness the Internet of Things and create digital programs to monitor the health and maintenance needs of major industrial equipment and to increase production efficiencies. The Greenville plant is leading the charge in testing the technology and has already seen cost-saving and time-reducing results.
We’re proud that G.E.’s Greenville manufacturing plant is a test site for G.E. Digital’s Predix operating system, and that its employees are successfully marrying traditional industrial activities with emerging technology. This story embodies the innovative spirit we have in the Upstate and is one of several such examples of businesses flourishing while adapting to the modern age.
“Gas Turbines, the Digital Way
In its factory in Greenville, S.C., G.E. produces both giant power generators and evidence that this metamorphosis might work.
The three-story building is crowded with immense cranes and milling, grinding and welding machines, overseen by manufacturing engineers and technicians. The finishing touches are being put on one of G.E.’s new gas turbines.
It looks like the business end of a rocket ship lying on its side, a gleaming steel dynamo at rest. It weighs 950,000 pounds. It fires up at nearly 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can generate enough electricity to supply more than 500,000 households.
The gas turbine was brought to market in half the typical five years. That kind of accelerated product development is a performance that G.E. hopes to replicate across its industrial businesses. And it is a story of changes in design and manufacturing practices made possible by digital technology.
John Lammas, the 56-year-old vice president for power generation engineering, started his working career 40 years ago, on the shop floor of a Rolls-Royce jet engine factory in Birmingham, England. He has been with G.E. for 31 years, moving up the ranks of the company’s jet engine and power turbine divisions.
“I’m an old mechanical guy,” he said. But a couple of years ago, he issued an edict: no more paper drawings.
In the past, a model of a new part would be made and then converted to detailed blueprints running to 70 pages or more. These would then be physically sent to G.E. manufacturing engineers and outside suppliers to begin setting up the tooling, casting and cutting for the part.
This prototype-and-blueprint routine took up to eight weeks. Now, engineers use 3-D computer models, skip the prototype step and instantly send the models electronically.
This goes a step beyond computer-aided design, which is commonplace. In Greenville, the designers are for the first time linked directly with manufacturers and suppliers in real time, in what G.E. calls a “digital thread.” This means they can collaborate in ways that have changed the work process while making it more likely that problems or defects are spotted sooner.
Traditionally, one set of engineers designed a part, and only then passed it on to manufacturing. If a problem arose on the supplier side, the design was kicked back and the process started over. “Jobs are combining in this digital world,” Mr. Lammas said.
Greenville’s own equipment has been a Predix guinea pig. The machinery and factory were retrofitted with data-generating sensors and the software. Matt Krause, the plant manager, said that last winter, when a snowstorm shut the factory for a day, the sensor network detected that the plant had consumed 1,000 pounds of argon, an inert gas used in coatings for parts. The leak was fixed, saving $350,000 a year.
“We can see things we never did before,” Mr. Krause said. Over all, 60 of 200 steps in design and production have been automated or eliminated, reducing work time by 530,000 hours over three years, G.E. estimates.”