SCHENECTADY -- General Electric’s chief technology officer helped Union College kick off its Steinmetz Symposium on Friday, with a speech illustrating how the vision of The Wizard of Schenectady continues to guide the company today.
The symposium, now in its 27th year, is an annual showcase for the creative and scholarly work of Union students.
The college’s connections with GE are many, starting with the namesake of the symposium: Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the great GE electrical engineer and founder of GE’s first formal research lab, was also a Union professor. Victor Abate, as the leader of GE’s research and development efforts, is a direct successor to Steinmetz, and he’s also a Union alumnus. Students at Union - the campus sits squarely between the GE Power headquarters and the GE Global Research headquarters -- frequently benefit from learning opportunities at the company.
And, Abate noted, the school has a multidisciplinary approach to education, just as GE has a multidisciplinary approach to research.
Abate has said that a key part of his role is tying together all those people working across disciplines at 140 locations so that they form a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of its parts and is producing results relevant to the company’s future needs, as it marks its 125th birthday.
“How do you create an industry that doesn’t exist?” he asked the crowd. “How do you survive a century? The question I ask as the leader of the technology organization is, how do you go to the next century?”
When Abate took over as head of Global Research in 2015, his predecessor left on his desk a letter dated 1900 from Steinmetz to Elihu Thomson, scientific leader of the young company, proposing creation of a GE research and development facility. The idea was approved; the endeavor that began in Steinmetz’s barn is now anchored in Niskayuna, on a campus where more than 2,000 people work.
“Put yourself back in 1900 -- there really isn't a U.S. power grid,” Abate said. So at that point, looking for better ways to create, deliver and use electricity was essentially positioning the company for the future.
The fundamental goal Steinmetz was pointing to -- seeing the future and having products or technology ready when it arrived -- remains the same today at Global Research.
“How do you see, move and create the future? That’s easy to write down, but how do you do it?” Abate asked. “Everyone wants a checklist. It really isn’t that. It’s constant innovation and constant learning.”
The Niskayuna Technology Center is the headquarters of GE Global Research, but there are 140 labs worldwide. A key task is to tie together all the work in all the locations.
“When you have that alphabet, if you will, that’s what we use to script the future of the company,” Abate said. “So now the question is, how do you pull together a word? How do you pull together a sentence? How do you create a paragraph?”
One way is to see the finished book, or at least have a sense of how that book should read.
So, Global Research has created EDGE labs, Abate said, to look at the very edge of what is feasible -- and what might be beyond the edge for now but not forever. Having no sense of where the edge is and where the edge will move is problematic, or even risky, because it’s hard to commit to action in a totally unknown environment.
“When you think about technical people, they’re brilliant,” Abate said. “I'm blessed to be surrounded by people that are so much smarter than me. The challenge is, can you see what they see?
"If you can’t see, you're going to take baby steps. But if you can see, your confidence goes up.”
The most rapidly moving areas of research right now are in what’s called exponential technologies, those whose power doubles every year and/or whose costs shrink by half each year.
One of the best examples is additive manufacturing, in which General Electric is investing heavily and pouring research.
The idea of forming metal powder into impossibly complicated machine components using computer-guided lasers holds tremendous promise as a replacement for cutting multiple simple parts from a chunk of solid metal, then joining them.
The challenge is to see a few steps ahead and move the process accordingly.
Abate gave the example of a fork that might cost 50 cents to cut and finish from a metal strip, compared with $5 to produce it with a laser printer and a pile of metal dust.
Don’t be daunted by the obvious lack of economy, Abate advised. Instead, look for a way to produce the entire place setting, or even the entire cutlery drawer, in a single $5 production run. Make the production run faster.
He cited a recent demonstration project by a group of the newest Global Research engineers, who did a disassembly-rebuild of a turboprop engine. The project replaced conventional machined parts with 3-D printed parts. They were able to greatly reduce the total number of components, as each 3-D part took the place of dozens of separate machined parts.
“A company like GE has to put all these pieces together and create the new electric company of the future.”
That sense of developing not just knowledge but usable products and processes is at the heart of Global Research’s work.
“Can you go a decade without something new? Can you go two decades without a breakout? A century without a breakout?
"I think one of the reasons we’re one of the last industrial labs is because of that accountability and that connection to the outcome.”