I’m a manufacturing geek, and proud of it. I even have a PhD in Automotive Engineering with a research focus on machining. I love this stuff. Never has there been a more exciting time to be in the manufacturing industry. Embedded computing is changing the way everyone interacts with all kinds of devices and industries are reaping huge benefits by analyzing copious amounts of data from disparate sources. Digitizing manufacturing is enabling us to peer down into wear and tear on our machining assets and cutting tools or zoom out to survey the state of our entire manufacturing process. GE has been creating a buzz with our thoughts of the possibilities and I come from one of our plants where those thoughts are being put into practice.
Most of my career at GE has been within GE Power at our Gas Turbine manufacturing site in Greenville, SC. Every time that I’m in the Gas Turbine manufacturing plant I’m in awe of the sheer scale and complexity of both the gas turbines being produced and the manufacturing processes producing them.
In addition to the spectacular manufacturing plant, GE’s Advanced Manufacturing Works (AMW) facility recently opened on the campus. This facility is the epitome of everything that GE stands for today. It represents the cutting-edge of technology and stands firmly at the intersection of Digital and Industrial.
The AMW has a robotic arm mounted on an unmanned autonomous vehicle (UAV), metal cutting lasers contained in a jet of water (laser microjet), 3D scanners and printers (metal and polymer), and a data collection and controls lab for ushering in the age of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). That is just the stuff in the Welcome Area of the building. There is a full high-bay with conventional machining centers, electrical discharge machining centers, an enclosed area for making composite wind turbine blades, and the other advanced processes that do not get mentioned but will continue to position GE Power as leaders in the power generation market.
Those things are fun to look at and talk about, but are they practical? Absolutely. How could they be used? Keep reading.
Every time that I’m in the Gas Turbine manufacturing plant I’m in awe of the sheer scale and complexity of both the gas turbines being produced and the manufacturing processes producing them.
Why does anyone need a robotic arm on a UAV? These types of systems will allow shops with layouts that are not conducive to traditional industrial automation to leverage the ergonomic, stability, and reliability benefits of automation without significant modifications to their existing processes. In other words, an older plant, like a Gas Turbine plant built in the 1960’s, will have a layout that has developed over years and, perhaps, with very large machinery that is built into the foundation of the building. These conditions are not conducive to restructuring the layout as is typically desired to implement part-tending automation. With this robotic system a shop could receive benefits of part- or machine-tending automation without costly and time-consuming infrastructure changes.
Lasers have been used to cut metal for a long time. What makes this laser microjet special? The combination of the laser with the jet of water has a number of benefits such as: no taper and no heat affected zone, to name a couple. Perhaps more importantly though, by containing the laser within the water jet the distance at which the laser is effective is dramatically increased because the position of the laser’s focal point is no longer a concern. This is important when using the laser to cut uneven surfaces or create very small and precise holes through a non-metallic material into a metallic base material, as GE Power commonly does. This type of technology is a disruption to the current process for producing these types of features and enables significant cycle time reductions in the manufacturing process.
3D Scanning and Printing
3D printing is everywhere now but these printers are producing real parts which will be used in actual power generation products or in the process for making those products. 3D printing opens up new possibilities for creating designs that cannot be made with more traditional processes. In addition, these printers have already proven to be valuable in the manufacturing process by allowing engineers to quickly design an assembly aid or a jig or fixture to hold a workpiece or tool. Then they create and test it faster and cheaper than ever before. This is cutting down on cycle times, allowing the shops to respond faster to needs on floor, and be more flexible in operations. The 3D scanning technology enables a part to be inspected and a digital twin is created. When the scanning technology is combined with the printing technology it is like having a copier for multi-dimensional objects.
Industrial Internet of Things
There is a huge buzz about the Internet of Things (IoT). At GE we are confident that Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will dwarf the consumer IoT in market size. We also believe that there is no other company better positioned to leverage the IIoT and lead the Digital Industrial revolution than GE. This belief is reinforced by the amazing work taking place (and planned to take place) at the AMW. They are working hand-in-hand with GE Digital to develop data collection and control systems for manufacturing equipment, testing beta-devices from leading digital technology companies, and pioneering new methods of extracting and presenting information about how manufacturing operations are conducted. The knowledge gained here will provide value across GE manufacturing operations by identifying opportunities and providing direction for activities to increase operational efficiencies, enable higher throughput, drive out product cost, and improve operational flexibility.
Times are very exciting at GE. There is a lot to look forward to; especially for someone who loves technology, is captivated by equipment that is making a difference in the world, and enjoys the challenges associated with improving operations for the growth and long-term viability of the business that they serve. We believe in the value of the Digital Industrial and are turning those beliefs into action.
Interested in starting your digital transformation? View our on-demand webinar today with GE Digital CEO Bill Ruh and Pitney Bowes Chief Innovation Officer Roger Pilc as they discuss how industrial companies can use IoT to transform themselves into digital industrial enterprises.