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A Scientist Walks Into the GE Store: Sharing Ideas Helps Engineers Leapfrog Competition

The first GE research lab opened in a barn behind a scientist’s home in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1900. Three people worked inside the wooden structur before it burned down a year later.

It was an inauspicious beginning for one of the largest corporate research institutions in the world. GE Global Research now employs 3,000 people and runs nine labs in the United States, Brazil, China, Germany, India and Israel.

Over the years, the labs have employed several Nobel laureates and developed breakthrough technologies like LEDs, brain MRI and new ceramic composite materials called CMCs for next-generation jet engines.

But they don’t keep the patents for themselves. The scientists share their insights with an army of 47,000 engineers working inside GE businesses: from healthcare to oil and gas and aviation. The real payoff comes when they can use the same technology, say, CMCs, to build a better jet engine as well as to improve on a gas turbine. Mark Little, who runs GE Global Research, calls this approach the “GE store”.

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Top image: Parts made from ceramic matrix composites (CMCs), like this turbine blade, will have applications inside jet engines as well as gas turbines. Above: In 1900, the GE store fit inside a barn. GE Global Research now employs 3,000 people and runs labs around the world.

One of the best examples of this technology interchange is GE’s latest Evolution Series diesel-electric locomotive called Tier 4. (It is the first locomotive that meets the U.S. government’s strict Tier 4 pollution limits.)

The locomotive’s power, fuel and exhaust systems, turbochargers and other technology combine contributions from six different GE businesses. GE engineers used them to reduce NOx emissions by 76 percent and particulate matter emissions by 70 percent, compared to previous models. The train engine could also save customers $1.5 billion in expensive infrastructure changes they would otherwise have to make to meet the new EPA regulations.

Once you start looking under the hood of GE machines, you can find the GE store everywhere. The company’s fleet of mobile power plants, for example, uses technologies originally developed for jet engines. The wind business has been looking at superconducting magnets developed for magnetic resonance machines to maximize electricity output. GE CT technology can probe the the brain as well as aircraft parts and pipelines.“The business of research is not the business of Eureka moments,” Little says. “It’s the business of planning, strategic approaches to things, hard work, and patience.“

The GE store itself is an innovation that might spread. “In the university we talk a lot about collaboration [and] discovery through bringing together disciplines,” says Yale biologist and Nobel winner James E. Rothman, who as former chief scientist at GE Healthcare still visits GE labs in Schenectady. “I have never seen it work anywhere as well as at GRC… That sort of non-quantifiable knowledge has a way of leveraging [itself] across the whole of GE.” Take a look at our videos with scientist explaining the GE store and technology applications across different GE businesses.

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