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A look inside GE’s generator production line

A look inside GE’s generator production line

Before General Electric ships industrial generators to its customers across the globe, workers at th
A look inside GE’s generator production line
Work inside at General Electric on Feb. 12, 2016.
Photographer: Erica Miller

Before General Electric ships industrial generators to its customers across the globe, workers at the Schenectady-based generator plant test them at twice the voltage they will ever see in the field.

"If there is something wrong with it, we want it to fail at the factory, not at the customer's site," said Brian Carlson, who manages generator production at the plant.

For a model on the testing line on a recent Friday morning, that meant a jolt of 39,000 volts.

After roping off the area around the near-complete generator, the plant's team of quality-control and safety testers flipped a switch and listened attentively.

"They are ramping it up," Carlson said as the machine started to let off a humming buzz that gradually got louder and louder.

"Sound good?" one of the testers asked Carlson as he passed by.

"Sounds good to me," Carlson answered. "If there is something wrong with it, you hear a big bang. But this one was a success; we don't like to hear bangs."

The massive manufacturing facility -- Building 273 -- was built in 1949 and contains more than 1 million square feet of manufacturing floor space, enough room to fit 40 football fields. Hundreds of cranes spread across the factory move parts from as small as 100 pounds to the finished generators that can weigh over 400 tons.

"It's big, it's very big," Carlson said as he walked between the dozens of workstations in the generator production line. Turbines, the other key component of power plants, are also made in Building 273. "We are the heart of the power plants."

Of the 4,000 people at the GE campus in downtown Schenectady -- which once housed over 10 times as many employees and served as headquarters of the global industrial behemoth -- around 1,300 are in manufacturing. Of those, 550 work building generators.

The manufacturing floor runs 24 hours a day, with workers splitting three eight-hour shifts. Around 400 workers are spread out across the enormous work floor during any given shift. The engineers work out of offices in the same building.

"The people who designed them are right in the building with the people who make them," Carlson said. "If we have any questions, we can bring the guy who designed it down to the floor in real time."

The generator production tour starts in the bar shop, where workers unspool rolls of copper wiring and, braiding the wires together, create long flat bars -- called robels. A single generator may ultimately hold over 40,000 pounds of wiring in it -- or the equivalent of between 35 to 55 miles of wire.

The flat bars are then heated and shaped into the precise curvature needed for the model of generator they are destined for -- now they are stator bars, which sit at the heart of the generator and help ease the flow of electricity to users.

Since the factory also produces replacement parts for every GE generator still in use -- some dating as far back as 1927 -- there are around 250 unique wooden frames stored on-site. If a customer needs a certain replacement stator bar, GE workers pull out the right frame, which then shapes the bar to the needed form. Workers clamp and hammer the bars -- which run between 6 and 30 feet long and weigh as much 350 pounds -- until they are within an eighth inch of the mold.

"We break out all the original tooling and put it back in practice, so we can make a replacement," Carlson said. "A lot of skill and craftsmanship goes into bending the copper just right, so it stays where you want it to."

Once the stator bars are shaped and formed, they are wrapped in special insulating tape, Micapal, which is produced by Rotterdam-based Von Roll. Each bar is wrapped as many as 16 times, using special machines that run the length of the bar, spinning a spool of tape as it does so. Even with the machinery, the specialized taping process must be so precise that it can take a worker an entire eight-hour shift to tape three bars. The wrapped bars are baked in an oven to 100 degrees Celsius, so the insulating tape hardens and the bars are ready for the generator.

It takes between 12 and 18 months from the time a customer places an order with GE and they are actually producing power with their new generator, Carlson said. It takes upwards of eight months to forge the massive shell of the generator -- the stator frames -- at a GE factory in China. It takes between three and four months for the Schenectady workers to convert the empty frames into generators ready for customer use.

In a large bay of the factory, teams of workers rappel into the frames and stack electrical steel laminations -- called punchings -- one-by-one into the side of the frame. The pairs work back-to-back, layering the punchings one on top of the other like the quick work of a card dealer. They are building the internal backbone of the generator, which will eventually hold the stator bars in place. A separate bay is home to the machinists responsible for turning massive chunks of metal into the generator rotors, which spin at the core of the generator, producing electricity for millions of people across the globe. The company's larger model -- which produces 600 megawatts of electricity -- can service around 600,000 homes.

The plant is looking to hire around 10 more machinists this year. GE partners with Hudson Valley Community College, paying tuition for machinists in training who spend time each week working alongside experienced machinists at the plant.

"Guys who can machine a 100-ton forging without a mistake don't exactly grow on trees," Carlson said.

Once the slots are sliced into enormous rotors, long and looping copper bands are coiled the length of the rotor -- "just like a slinky."

In the last stage of the manufacturing process, the rotors are carefully positioned inside the core of the stator-filled frame, propped up and locked in place by countless ties and gradually knocked into place by yet more workers.

Many of the generator models are so large they have to be shipped in parts and assembled at sites across the globe -- Texas, Florida, China, Russia, Algeria, France, and elsewhere. Carlson said the Schenectady plant produces around 40 or 50 new units a year, as well as replacement parts.

"This is true manufacturing," Carlson said. "We take raw materials and we assemble it all together."

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