EDITOR'S NOTE: For week five of our series on General Electric's 125th anniversary, Business Editor John Cropley and photographer Marc Schultz tour GE's massive Building 273 on the main campus.
SCHENECTADY — Still in round-the-clock production as it approaches its 70th birthday, the main manufacturing building at General Electric’s Schenectady-Rotterdam plant is receiving continual equipment and technology upgrades to keep it ahead of its competition.
The cavernous facility measures more than a million square feet and turns out generators weighing more than a million pounds, but some of the most important pieces of equipment are smallish whiteboards and glowing screens that keep track of progress as managers and employees work to improve the plant’s efficiency.
As General Electric turns 125 years old, the campus at the foot of Erie Boulevard is home base for a variety of office operations and personnel, but it remains best-known for generators and steam turbines — the machinery that produces electricity. Roughly a third of the world uses power generated by GE apparatus, and the Schenectady plant is backlogged with orders for more.
A steam turbine-generator unit is easy to summarize in concept: Boil a large amount of water and direct the resulting blast of steam to pass through turbine blades, causing the turbine blades and the shaft to which they are attached to rotate. The shaft spins a rod with a magnet inside the generator, causing electrons to flow in the coils that surround the magnet. The electron flow is also known as electricity; the largest generators produce enough of it to light hundreds of thousands of homes.
It's harder to build one.
On a turbine-generator unit, every percentage point of efficiency wasted by friction and heat loss costs the plant operator $50 million over 20 years. So there is a continual effort to improve the efficiency of the product, but also a continual effort to make the manufacturing process itself more efficient — faster and less expensive, thus improving General Electric’s competitiveness.
Plant manager Nathan McCormick walked a Gazette writer and photographer through the massive Building 273 in late May, and explained some of the things the company is doing to improve the manufacturing that goes on around the clock there.
A term that comes up a lot is “lean”: Doing more work with less effort and expense, and without waste. Getting lean is an initiative that involves all levels of the workforce, McCormick said. The hourly workers are trained in ways to make this happen by their union and by their supervisors, and asked for suggestions on how to make it happen.
“I look at it as a partnership,” McCormick said.
An entire classroom-type space is walled off from the continual activity of the production floor and used for this purpose. Its walls are covered with diagrams and maps showing how processes work, and how they could work more efficiently.
Over 1,000 workers have gone through the training so far with their union, IUE-CWA Local 301.
Meanwhile, GE has a continuing partnership with Hudson Valley Community College, through which lower-level production workers at the Schenectady plant receive training and earn an associate’s degree, then become machinists for GE. The company pays their college tuition and expenses and keeps them on the payroll through the period of learning.
Machinists are critical to heavy manufacturing and are in short supply — so much so that about 65 percent of the machinists who work in Building 273 are products of the HVCC program.
“You can’t 3-D print a steam turbine,” McCormick said, referring to the laser printing process that is being adapted to manufacture many small parts.
A new function at the Schenectady plant is overhauling other companies’ products. The facility has long been refurbishing GE equipment, but in 2016, it began refurbishing other manufacturers’ turbines as well, thanks to a human skill set gained when GE acquired the power and grid business of French-based Alstom.
Infrastructure upgrades also are underway: 2016 saw the most investment in Building 273 in a decade.
Among the new equipment are machines that automate production of stators, a critical generator component. Robots are now wrapping them in insulation and soon will be bending them into shape. The bending process is currently done by hand, in a decades-old procedure that requires a lot of skill and carries the potential for unwanted variations. A system of rollers will keep them moving through the process, rather than humans picking them up and moving them manually.
Production of another key generator component — the “field,” the rotating core at the heart of the generator — has been reduced from two or three weeks to one, with a new horizontal boring machine.
These new machines and many existing machines — 30 so far, 60 by the end of the year — are being fitted with real-time monitors, so their performance can be constantly assessed, and tweaked if need be.
“We’re relatively early in the process,” McCormick said, but already, video displays show the status of all 30 machines, and flag anything that can be adjusted to improve efficiency.
It is becoming a “Brilliant Factory,” which is GE’s term for a facility that combines advanced manufacturing and efficient manufacturing with analytical software for a live readout on how things are working.
Within Building 273 there is what McCormick calls a factory within the factory, where smaller parts are manufactured. But for visual impact, nothing equals G Bay, the quarter-mile long main hall stretching through the heart of the building, or the final assembly lines, where massive generators and turbines are completed.
Each generator and turbine is picked up repeatedly during the process by overhead cranes and moved about. An oven the size of a small house sits open like a clamshell, waiting to bake the next generator. (They are typically heated up repeatedly during the manufacturing process to cure epoxies and resins.)
Up to ten turbines and 25 generators crowd the floor at the same time, swarmed by production workers doing various tasks in a months-long process. The batch on the floor on this day was destined for power plants as far as Turkmenistan and as close as Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The largest generators have to be shipped in pieces and assembled at the site where they will be put to work. Others go intact. GE has ironed out the logistics of moving enormous generators and turbines out of Schenectady, but the same isn’t always true at the destination.
If the generator is going to its new home on a barge on a river 5,000 miles away, and that river is closed to navigation for several months a year, the production team is presented with a hard deadline for getting that new piece of equipment on the road.
It is here that the science of designing the equipment joins with the art of choreographing thousands of people at a half-dozen GE facilities and more than 250 external suppliers to make it all happen on time.