A few months into his tenure as chief technology officer of General Electric, Vic Abate spoke with The Daily Gazette about the direction he's taking GE Global Research in 2016.
Technically, there are thousands of directions. From the Niskayuna headquarters, Abate leads 3,000 Global Research scientists and engineers at Niskayuna and nine other research and development centers worldwide. These 3,000 contribute to and draw from the work of 40,000 engineers at GE's various component businesses. Taken as a whole, this army of minds is working on a staggering number of projects and initiatives at any given time.
If there's one unifying theme that Abate is trying to create -- a single "direction" -- it's to unify the efforts of all those people in 140 GE labs around the world to better build off each other and accelerate development of the company and its businesses.
For example, new superconducting magnet technology developed by a GE medical technology researcher for an MRI machine can be used by a power engineer who's trying to build a better electricity generator, even if the two products have little else in common.
"One of the aspects that has always made General Electric strong is our research," Abate said. "The way I think about it," he continued, referring to the 43,000 researchers, "they're really the alphabet with which we can script the future of the company."
That said, his immediate goal is to maximize the effectiveness of their research. Referring to the 3,000 people at Global Research, he said, "You don't need half of them [studying the bigger picture]. Thirty people connecting the dots can make them a lot more effective."
He summarized it succinctly: "How do you take a high-tech infrastructure company, which GE is ... how do you get the engineering organization more forward-leaning?"
Abate, a Saratoga Springs resident, has an academic background in both business and engineering: He holds a mechanical engineering degree and an MBA from RPI, and a master's in engineering from Union College. In his 25 years with General Electric, he rose to become president and CEO of GE's Power Generation business before succeeding Mark Little as chief technology officer last autumn.
Speaking of his new role, he sprinkles his discussion with references both to the science of developing products for GE and the business of selling them; bringing those two efforts closer together is clearly his mission.
Risk vs. reward
Abate breaks it down into two main considerations: Technology risk/reward and market risk/reward.
Technology risk involves expending resources inefficiently, with counterproductive or duplicated effort; reward is an end result that is brilliant or revolutionary or profitable, or preferably some combination of the three.
Market risk and reward are essentially two sides of the same coin -- the risk of creating something the world isn't ready for or doesn't need or can't afford, no matter how good it is, and the reward of creating something great that the world want or needs, and can use, and will pay for.
"It's physics plus business," he said succinctly: With the right mix of planning, coordination and forward thinking, the ideal result is low technology risk and high market reward.
"You can create a ton of value in five-, 10-, 30-year chapters. You need to look at the next chapter."
He said the company has been successful in adapting -- of the original 12 companies that were components of the Dow Jones Industrial Average when it was created in 1896, only GE remains today -- and it must continue to change and adapt.
"We have to continue to find the next chapter," he said.
Abate speaks of "ecosystems" as he describes the product development process -- various seemingly unrelated divisions of General Electric working on seemingly unrelated products that combine to exceed the sum of their parts. One such example is the Dinosaur-to-Dining Room model:
• GE Oil & Gas looks for better ways to extract fossil fuels from the ground.
• GE Power Generation works to create the most power possible from each unit of gas or oil pumped out of the ground.
• GE Transmission & Distribution tries to get that electricity to consumers as efficiently as possible.
• GE Lighting develops the next generation of more-efficient lights by which consumers eat dinner.
• Traditionally, GE Appliances made the oven in which the family might have roasted their chicken for that dinner, but General Electric is getting out of that business.
Abate singled out Lighting as an example of the evolution of products and philosophy within General Electric. The old round-globe incandescent light bulb with the GE logo stamped on top -- as familiar an object in the 20th century home as one can imagine -- is gone, replaced by the compact fluorescent bulb, which uses less electricity to create the same amount of light.
GE earlier this year announced that the CFL bulb is now going the way of the incandescent bulb. In its place, the company will produce LED lights, another big jump forward in energy efficiency.
Abate said the model for GE's research and development process is also reflected in the most local part of its product line -- the huge steam turbines and electric generators built at the foot of Erie Boulevard in Schenectady.
To improve the product and improve the value for customers:
• Better and more wear-resistant materials are sought for the turbines;
• Better insulating materials and cooling mechanisms are sought for the generators;
• Faster manufacturing processes are explored;
• Researchers run virtual scenarios through the "digital twin" -- the computer copy of the product -- to tell customers how to use their power equipment at lower cost and higher efficiency.
A new frontier
One other area of vast and barely tapped potential that awaits General Electric's researchers?
Three-dimensional printing, which has already revolutionized some manufacturing processes.
Asked where today's 3-D printing technology stands, as compared to, say, the automobile -- the 1920 Ford Model T, 1957 Chevy Bel Air, or 1994 Dodge Ram -- Abate said none of the above.
It's still in the horse-and-buggy era, he said.
"It's just the beginning. It's kind of like the first computers."
Not surprisingly, General Electric and its research partners are already working to develop new concepts in 3-D printers, with one of their goals being to fabricate larger parts more quickly.
The size and complexity of certain modern product components makes it impractical to carve them out of a block of metal, Abate explained.
Global Research spokesman Todd Alhart gave a very recent example of the promise of the new technology: Earlier this month, the latest generation of the best-selling airliner in the world, the Boeing 737, flew for the first time with two General Electric engines containing several key components fabricated on a 3-D printer.
The lighter weight and greater heat resistance of the ceramic matrix composite materials in these new engines is expected to provide benefits ranging from better fuel efficiency to quieter operation.
Hear again, the cross-pollination within the GE research community is revealed: The ceramic materials were originally engineered for use in gas turbines, but the market wasn't ready for them, so attention turned to aviation applications. And the material is still expected to have future uses in power generation equipment.
Reach business editor John Cropley at 395-3104, [email protected] or @cropjohn on Twitter.