Behind the scenes at GE's future-forward factory
It feels like a scene from a movie. I'm standing in the lobby of a brand-new research facility where video screens set in large circular stands beam the company's achievements from their high-res flat screens. Behind glass panels, engineers in slacks and button-down shirts are busy working lasers, monitoring a robot and generally doing engineer-like things. This is GE's brand-new Advanced Manufacturing Works (AMW) in Greenville, South Carolina. It's the company's first in the world and Gizmag got inside to take a sneak peek.
The facility cost US$73 million to build, and GE is planning on investing an additional $327 million into the space over the coming years. The goal of the site is to place researchers and designers in close proximity to manufacturers (the AMW is situated right next to a large GE manufacturing plant) to better improve efficiencies through new technologies and technological tweaks. The primary area in which all this tech is focused is on creating giant gas turbines for power plants around the world, although the facility does work on other projects such as wind turbines as well.
There were several key technologies showcased at the AMW grand opening on April 22. Here are a few.
3D Optical Scanner
When you're working with parts that involve natural gas and the generation of enormous amounts of energy, it's important to be precise. The 3D optical scanner at the AMW facility helps with that. The machine works by converting a video feed of a machine part into a series of coordinates, which essentially turns it into a computer model of what the part looks like. A color map is then created that highlights the difference between the actual part and its ideal design.
The system can read fluctuations from one-one-thousandth of an inch or less. "We can actually measure a new component, run it in an engine and then measure it again and you can see how it's changed," says John Lammas, GE's vice president of power generation.
The blades inside gas turbines need to have tiny holes drilled in them which serve to keep them cool as temperatures climb. Previously, GE workers would drill the holes, coat the blade in a protective ceramic material, and then someone would have to come along and clean the holes out. By using a Laser MicroJet to drill the holes, the company thinks it can eliminate the extra work and also get more precise holes in various shapes to increase the efficiencies of the blades.
The system was spotted by one of GE's engineers who saw the technology at a trade show in Switzerland where it was being used to cut diamonds. It works by using a hair-thin jet of water to steer a laser beam directly where it needs to go. The water also keeps the cutting process cool and removes debris as the laser bites into the material. According to GE's Kurt Goodwin, the AMW's General Manager, the system will eliminate about seven to eight hours of handwork per part when it gets rolled out on the factory floor in September.
"We take a coated part like this that hasn't been pre-drilled," says Goodwin. "It drills through the coating, gets feedback from the change in energy, resets the laser, keeps going through the metal, and then when it comes out through the back of the metal, it stops itself so it doesn't drill on the other side."
No factory of the future would be complete without a free-ranging robot, and GE's AMW has one of those as well. Goodwin explained that at factories such as those that make automobiles, robots on the assembly line make sense, but in a factory like GE's, with relatively low output, a robot needs to handle multiple tasks so that it can always stay busy. He compared GE's AGV (autonomous guided vehicle) to a Roomba vacuum cleaner, meaning that the device maps out the entire factory and can them move autonomously throughout it. There are no set paths for it to roam along; rather, it uses optical and laser sensors to figure out where it needs to go and avoid collisions with its human coworkers and other pieces of machinery.
One of the applications for the robot is to handle parts that can emerge from machines at 500-600 degrees Fahrenheit rather than losing time waiting for the part to cool so that a human can touch it.
It seems that 3D printing is everywhere these days, and the AMW is no exception. The facility has eight machines that it got from several different manufacturers and then altered to suit the needs of the plant. All of the machines print using metal, and they're used to output parts for machinery at a faster rate than the company was previously capable of. They're also used to create parts in a brand-new way.
"What we're getting excited about is some of the geometries you can create with this technology," says GE's additive manufacturing manager Steven Woods. "You can imagine if you can build something layer-by-layer out of metal, you no longer need line of sight. In traditional manufacturing typically we need line of sight for machine-tooled or laser-popping technology. We no longer need that and now we can do some pretty interesting things with lattice structures and things of that nature."
While checking out the machines at work, I noticed that a bank of them had names like "Storm," "Wolverine" and "Cyclops" on them. I asked Wood about how they came by their X-Men monickers.
"We failed for about four months trying to meet the requirements for our parts when we first got the machines," he says. "So initially, all the machines had villain names. Eventually, as we've tamed the beast, they are turning into superhero names."
Not only is the AMW using 3D printing to produce parts from scratch, they're also using the technology to create molds from sand to cast larger parts that wouldn't be feasible to 3D print. The technique speeds the testing of new designs from months to weeks.
Internet of Things
While the interconnectivity between machines has made news mostly in the home appliance sector, GE is using it to do more than turn on coffee makers and alert you when the wash is done. It is working on linking up all the machines in its factory so that they can communicate with each other – and with the employees. Already, AMW workers can log into the company's portal through an double-encryption-guarded VPN tunnel and get the status of any machine in the facility right from their smartphones.
"Whether we're here or whether we want to have a secure VPN tunnel from our phone inside the facility, we can do it," said GE lead engineer Kenneth Hislop. "So if we're at home or on vacation, we can see exactly what's going on."