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GE Plant Is Not Just Smart, It’s ‘Brilliant’

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GROVE CITY, Pa. – Were this five years ago, Keith Spahn would be busy at his workstation scrawling calculations by hand to determine whether a metal plate used on locomotive engines was fit for service or should be scrapped.

The process could take up to 10 minutes. Not only was it time-consuming, he says, it left wide open the potential for human error. One mistake could result in sending a bad part down the line bound for an engine assembly or throwing away a perfectly good component.

This was before Spahn’s employer, GE Transportation, gutted a building in Grove City, Pa., and converted it into one of the corporation’s first six “brilliant” plants that it operates around the world. The Mercer County plant remanufactures diesel powered locomotive engines.

Spahn, an assembler at the plant in Grove City, today uses wireless technology to arrive at these precise measurements – in this case, borehole tolerances on the back plate for an oil pump. He places one of two hand-held devices inside one of the openings and within seconds, a reading appears on his workstation computer screen. A green light on the gauge means the part is OK, a red light that the boreholes are too worn and the part should be replaced.

“It makes it so much easier,” Spahn says as a green light indicates the measurements are correct. “All of this is guided by wireless technology now.” He repeats the process with the other gauge on a second borehole, this one slightly smaller in diameter.

It’s all part of GE’s efforts to use digital technology to improve productivity, reduce downtime and to ensure that quality standards are consistently met – in short, creating a manufacturing process and culture that’s not just smart, but “brilliant,” says plant manager Jeffrey Smith. “The concept of a brilliant factory is to collect all the remanufacturing data so we can better improve reliability and do what we call analytic repairs.”

About five years ago, GE Transportation acquired a 240,000-square-foot former food packaging plant in Grove City and relocated its remanufacturing operations there from its new-engine manufacturing plant just three miles away, Smith says. The packaging plant was gutted so an entirely new factory could be built based on GE’s brilliant concept.

“We are one of the six brilliant factories that GE has, and one of just two in the United States,” the plant manager says. The other U.S. site is an aviation manufacturing plant in Muskegon, Mich. The corporation has four other brilliant plants in India, Japan, Vietnam, and Italy that are involved with industries such as renewable energy and health care. GE Transportation’s new-engine manufacturing plant, also in Grove City, is undergoing a transition to become a brilliant factory this year.

As a brilliant plant, GE Transportation’s remanufacturing site can collect and synthesize data from just about every operation in the factory. About 40 major parts of the locomotive engine – and these are big engines – are etched with a barcode, which when scanned, calls up all of the work done on that particular part and when.

This creates what Smith says is a “digital thread” that connects operators, managers and assemblers with the history of a component – when it was manufactured, the customer who sent it, or the last repair done. In the process, the data essentially create a digital twin of each component that helps managers and workers predict just when the part will next require upgrades.

“Two years ago, an engine would come in and we would completely disassemble it,” Smith says, noting every engine would be torn apart to diagnose a problem. “Now, we use analytics to do condition-based repairs – sort of like prescribed medicine for each part.”

By analyzing these data, managers can anticipate which parts of the engine require the most attention before it even reaches the plant. Once the engines arrive, managers know which are in the worst shape and classify them accordingly.

“It’s sort of like triage. We know the state of the engines before they come in,” Smith says, as he points toward rows of overworked engines ready for reconditioning. One row is lined with those that require full teardowns, another section contains those engines in need of medium repairs, and a third staging area is reserved for engines in need of light conditioning.

This information is also helpful in determining which parts of an engine are likely to wear out and when, enabling the Grove City plant to correctly forecast precisely which components to prepare for. Knowing in advance how many pistons will need to be replaced on a specific engine, for example, could affect staffing levels in a particular repair line.

“These engines work in the field about 10 years,” Smith says. “Each engine is about 40,000 pounds and we do about a thousand a year.” Remanufactured engines cost roughly half of what it takes to build a new engine, so the Grove City plant is an integral part of GE Transportation’s supply chain for its locomotive business. “We make used like new,” he says.

The remanufacturing plant employs 330 hourly and another 70 managers, Smith says. Another 400 employees work at the new-engine manufacturing plant across town. Engines from both are sent to GE Transportation’s locomotive manufacturing plants in Erie, Pa., and Fort Worth, Texas.

Smith says the plant is designed to improve every aspect of the manufacturing and remanufacturing process, from prototyping down to where waste cans are placed in the plant.

Additive manufacturing, while not an integral part of its business, is an asset when it comes to developing prototypes for customers. “We can draw up a design, print the component and try it on a part,” he says, which eliminates the need to source such work to an outside vendor.

About 100 machines were relocated in the plant to improve throughput, while operators wear badges they swipe instead of laboriously entering an identification and password each time they log on to a computer. The plant is also filled with real-time flat screens that gauge whether a work-station or machine is on target or be hind in production, and identifies any problems that can jam workflow.

It’s part of an effort to create a completely transparent environment that invites hourly employees and managers to better communicate with one another and engage in problem solving, Smith says. Those who walk into the plant are greeted with a wall empaneled with eight large digital flat screens that track the performance metrics of reliability standards, machine operations, lead time and inventory, delivery targets, and manufacturing line output.

In the plant’s assembly area, performance is monitored through cameras that measure completion rates on engines against programmed plant standards. Screens above each work area then display data indicating whether the work is on or behind schedule.

“You don’t need to be an expert to know where you’re at,” Smith says. “So, we build this trust through transparency.”

In the past, managers had to walk the entire plant and assess one-by-one the performance rate of each sector, Smith recalls. Now, they simply glance at a screen or retrieve the data from their tablet or smartphone.

“The brilliant factory is as much a physical change as it is a cultural change,” Smith says. The assembly area, for example, is flooded with bright LED lighting and evokes a clean room atmosphere that is equipped with an air circulation system that pushes debris out of this section of the plant. “Anything that is contaminated we try to change over before it reaches assembly,” he says. “Dirt could be very bad for engines.”

A critical aspect of the cultural shift within the plant is the understanding that order and discipline are essential to improving productivity, Smith says. Just about everything in the assembly area has a place specially marked off for it – even waste cans have precise spots identified by floor labels. Tools at each station are arranged in sequence and labeled accordingly.

“Each operator should know where everything is at all times of the day,” Smith says. “At the end of the shift, you know they have everything they need to do their job.”

Simplifying the remanufacturing process through advanced technology is a vital part of the brilliant plant concept, Smith adds, noting it has helped not just quality of the product, but also working conditions on the shop floor.

Were this five years ago, assembler Bill Knight would be using a tool that weighed about 40 pounds to tighten bolts on one of the large engines in the assembly area. Over time, the repetitive nature of the job would strain his back or could cause injury to his fingers or arms. Moreover, his job called for torquing bolts in a proper sequence, and there was no fail-safe mechanism to ensure that it was done properly.

All of these concerns were resolved with advanced technology, Knight says. Now, Knight merely holds an extended handlebar with a trigger and guides what looks like a small bazooka suspended overhead. A small screen transmits a digital image of the part – in this case a back plate on an engine – and then highlights the precise torque sequence.

All Knight need do is fit the tool over each bolt and press a button. Should he try to tighten a bolt out of sequence, the machine is disabled and simply doesn’t respond. Once it’s replaced in the right spot over the right bolt, it re-engages.

“I didn’t do anything but hold on to this and put it into place,” Knight says. “It’s mistake-proof.”

Smith, the plant manager, says all of the data are captured and become another fiber in the digital thread that knits together the entire manufacturing process. “It doesn’t allow for mistakes. It’s much safer for the operator. You’re not wearing out your shoulders or catching your fingers in something,” he observes.

Also important about GE Transportation’s Grove City plant is that much of the innovation and technology used here can be put into action across other GE plants, Smith says.

“When we come up with new ideas, they’re scalable solutions that could be used for other operations around the world,” he says. The processes are leveraged and implemented through the corporation’s “GE Store,” a bank of innovations that are open for consideration companywide.

Smith reflects that the Grove City remanufacturing plant is among the pioneers of GE’s brilliant factory concept, creating a template for future endeavors. “There were some mistakes we made,” he allows, “but we were able to adjust.”

Future brilliant plants can incorporate and implement all that is successful about the Grove City plant and learn from what did not work.

“We started small, tested some ideas, and then scaled it across the shop,” Smith says. “This is a pioneer plant, and now it’s all what a brilliant factory is supposed to be.”

Pictured: Jeffrey Smith, plant manager at GE Transportation’s plant in Grove City.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.