No one dawdles in Building 273, not with one of the facility’s largest-ever orders to fill.
The General Electric manufacturing facility, built in 1949 on 27 acres of Schenectady land, is abuzz with activity these days as the company finishes building, testing and shipping the remaining steam turbines and generators requested by the Algerian government as part of a $2.7 billion contract. It’s also working on orders for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as part of a nearly $700 million contract.
Four months after the workforce at the nearby GE battery plant was slashed, the workforce at Building 273 appears to be thriving. In a way, the battery plant scale-down came at an opportune time for many hourly employees. The company worked out a deal with their union to avoid layoffs and move more than 150 employees over to Building 273.
The absorption was possible for two reasons: There was enough work at Building 273 to accommodate the new employees, and the company had opened an on-site training center designed to bring new people up to speed on the inner workings of the shop floor.
“A lot of it is how do you read drawings. How do you do shop math that you’ll need wherever you wind up going at GE?” said plant manager Ed Stefanik. “We’re trying to make sure they have those core fundamentals in place so that when they do go on the job they’ll get up to speed quicker.”
GE has always been big into training, since most positions require specialized skills. But in recent years it’s found if it can offer enough training to allow existing workers to slide into other roles should the market demand it (think: more incoming orders for generators than steam turbines, or vice versa). It can also help to cut costs and help the company to become more competitive.
The new training center required a $110,000 investment in a computer lab equipped with a fiber optic computer network, personal computers and a new video projection and audio system.
In recent years, they’ve cut the lead time between order and delivery on a steam turbine from 18 months to 14 months.
“The Algeria order was, is a big order,” Stefanik said. “But I really think it’s all the other things we’re doing that are helping us win right now. We’ve committed to shorter lead times. We’ve committed to lean training, to eliminate waste, to focus on things the customer really wants to pay us for. All of it is making us more competitive, and that to me is the reason we’re getting more work, because without those things we wouldn’t even have won the Algeria deal.”
To keep the work coming, GE began training workers in repairs and brought in 262 pieces of new equipment last year to support a service shop in Schenectady. Historically, if a GE turbine or generator needed repairs, customers shipped the part to third parties, sometimes even sending them to GE competitors like Alstom or Siemens.
“We didn’t have some of the equipment or training, all of which we have now,” Stefanik said. “But also the business model didn’t demand it. Now, we’re hungry for it. We want to get as much in here as possible.”
To prepare for the influx of work, GE invested $14 million last summer to upgrade its test facility in nearby Building 281. This is where new generator designs are turned on for about two months straight and put through a year’s worth of running conditions to work out any kinks. Customers, usually governments, can also request their product undergo testing even if it isn’t a new design.
Part of the upgrade involved switching from analog to digital data-capturing technology, which measures everything from temperature to speed to airflow.
“We really put it through its paces trying to simulate that year’s worth of conditions,” said Brian Carlson, who oversees all work at the test facility. “We can only do one at a time. And once you start, you can’t stop.”
In the average year, GE might test two or three generators. This year, it’s preparing to test 18, two with new designs and 16 for a government customer. To do so, it had to bring on 10 new hires who can help man the around-the-clock testing operation.
“This is going to be an interesting year for us,” he said.