Jesse Schrimpf didn’t study additive manufacturing in school. But when a 3D printer showed up at his plant in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the GE Healthcare engineer decided to give the machine a whirl. One of the company’s European factories was seeking to improve a production line, and Schrimpf came up with a clever design for a tray that enabled workers to quickly fill it with product — small vials filled contrast medium for medical imaging — and then use a collaborative robot, or cobot, to move it around.
Production redesigns tend to be expensive affairs. In this case, the trays — there were thousands of them in the factory — were made by injection molding. Normally, Schrimpf would design a new master mold, order a wooden mold prototype costing as much as $20,000 from a supplier and wait as long as four weeks for the delivery. He would test it, make tweaks and repeat the process. The costs quickly added up.
But with the 3D printer at his disposal, he could print a mold that performed better than the wooden kind in just two days on-site and for $1,000. The printer, which creates 3D objects directly from a computer file, enabled him to incorporate changes into the next design version with his keyboard and a mouse. “These trays are just an enabler for a bigger automation project,” says Schrimpf’s boss, Jimmie Beacham. “It will help the workers focus on tasks where they can add more value and save the factory significant money.”
Schrimpf is in many ways the poster child for GE’s new “brilliant learning” program the company is launching for employees around the world this week. It includes “massive open online courses” in several languages, workshops, “immersion boot camps on lean manufacturing” and other training designed to help employees get ready for the arrival in the factory of 3D printing, big data, robotics, digital and lean manufacturing and other advanced technologies. “Today, manufacturing is driven by productivity — and when combined with the merging of hardware and software, the need for a highly skilled labor force is becoming integral to the success and modernization of our industry,” says Philippe Cochet, GE’s chief productivity officer. He said that “at a time when the creation and retention of U.S. jobs in America’s manufacturing cities is more important than ever,” the brilliant learning program could help secure these jobs and “become a model for the industry.”
The time is nigh. “U.S. manufacturing job openings are quickly outpacing the supply of qualified candidates, resulting in a growing gap in the industrial workforce,” GE Chief Economist Marco Annuziata and Margid Abraham, executive chairman of Upskill, recently wrote in Harvard Business Review. They cited a 2015 Deloitte study projecting “3.5 million manufacturing jobs available over the next decade in the U.S., 2 million of which will go unfilled. This is a continuation of an existing trend.”
GE is launching “brilliant learning” to change things. The model feeds into the company’s idea of the Brilliant Factory, a plant that uses big data, software sensors, new manufacturing methods and robotics to increase productivity. GE businesses are busy rolling out the concept at 17 sites in Japan, India, Italy, Mexico and also the U.S, and more are in the pipeline. “We will continually see new ideas, trends and technology,” says Hayley Davis, the GE global supply chain learning leader who helped design the curriculum. “A big part of the Brilliant Factory is making sure that we are ready to take advantage of some of those things.”
Training tens of thousands of employees can be a tall order. GE is relying on “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, to first “raise awareness about the key elements of the Brilliant Factory including lean, digital, advanced manufacturing and additive technologies,” Davis says. “We need everyone to understand the mechanics of the Brilliant Factory and why it’s important. This is the ground level of the learning program.”
Next, Davis said, in-person classes for employees in specific roles will take place at GE factories that showcase “brilliant” applications such as the “moonshine” workshop. The workshop encourages individuals to find bespoke solutions for specific business needs, “rather than going out to the market and saying: Let’s shoehorn in the closest thing we can find,” she says. “You are not going to sit in a classroom and look at a PowerPoint.”
The company also plans to invite outside experts and academic institutions to share their insights and best practices. “We want to make sure that we aren’t just drinking our own Kool-Aid,” she says.
Davis is part of the human resources team for GE’s supply chain. After spending close to a decade at GE facilities in both the U.S. and Europe, she learned about the Brilliant Factory about a year ago. “I heard about it but really didn’t understand what it was,” she says. “When I came into the role, it became very clear to me that we had to build a learning framework. The Brilliant Factory is the future. But we have to come up with some way to make sure that people understand it and have the right skills to work inside it.”
Davis says that just like the Brilliant Factory, “brilliant learning” will keep growing and evolving. “Right now, we are on this Brilliant Factory journey,” she says. “In the same vein, we won’t be telling people there are 20 things we can do to build a Brilliant Factory and those things will stay the same for the next 10 years. This is an iterative process, and we cannot stop changing. This won’t be going away.”
Davis wants the curriculum to become a way of life that will enable employees like Schrimpf to take advantage of the tools the Brilliant Factory puts at their disposal. “What if there are some parts of the manufacturing process that could be made more efficient with 3D printing,” she says. “We want employees to be asking: ‘What is the most cost-effective way? What makes most sense? What’s the safest way of doing it?’ There are many different ways you can make a factory brilliant.”