An ongoing revolution in Kentucky is changing the way products are designed and built. It’s part of a new focus on attention to the environment that officials at General Electric’s Appliance Park in Louisville call the “cradle-to-cradle approach to appliance lifecycle management.”
As GE’s new assembly lines begin turning out more energy-efficient products, news stories tend to focus on money. The company’s renewed commitment to American manufacturing is providing a giant boost to Kentucky’s economy. GE’s expected investment of $800 million at Appliance Park is creating hundreds of new jobs. The annual payroll there has already climbed back up to $268 million—and it’s still growing.
During each ceremonial product launch this year the cheers, smiles, and speeches—and quite a bit of flag-waving—are exciting to watch on the evening news. TV cameras move in for close-up views as workers fasten parts together, then zoom out to show color-coded work stations along the brightly lit assembly line.
But the story of what’s happening in Kentucky is much bigger than a video clip.
To cut costs several decades ago, many American companies closed factories within the United States and moved production to other countries. As many of GE’s assembly lines within the buildings at the 900-acre Appliance Park were shut down in the late 1970s and 1980s, huge areas of hulking piles of idle, outdated machinery became covered with cobwebs.
When global economic conditions changed in the early years of the 21st century, GE took a fresh look at those old buildings. Maybe the company could cut costs by making products in America again. Popularly known as “brown fields,” those underused facilities in Kentucky had great potential to become lively once again—but how?
Reinventing the assembly line
GE’s management turned to the “Lean” concept to get ideas. Lean manufacturing is not a top-down, the-boss-said-so way of solving problems. Instead, the Lean approach makes everybody—from production workers to engineers to sales personnel—part of a much larger team. Everyone has the same goal: cutting costs by getting rid of wasted effort. The Lean approach puts the squeeze on unnecessary actions—it’s the ultimate approach to energy efficiency.
Each person, no matter his or her job title, is invited to take a careful look at every step involved in getting a product into the marketplace, then ask these key questions:
• What features does the customer really want?
• Where and how can we eliminate waste?
• For every task, small or large, is there a better way to do this?
Even after a problem seems to be solved, Lean team members keep asking questions. It’s a continuous process, always whittling away at waste to save more time, save more money, save more energy.
And it works.
Lean team efforts streamlined the new GeoSpring water heater assembly line, cutting out one of every five parts originally included.
The effort needed to put them all together is more efficient, too. New hire Ken Stone helped design the heat-exchange tubes inside GE’s hybrid water heater. “It started out taking four machines to wind the tubes, but with my idea, it’s down to two,” Stone says.
The Lean concept also carries over to the way workers do their jobs. One hourly worker figured out that it would save time and effort—and prevent injuries—by changing the way refrigerators are boxed for shipment to customers. Instead of throwing the box up and over the appliance, the worker now stands on a platform and gently places the shipping carton onto each product.
All ideas welcome
But GE’s focus on cutting out waste isn’t just about slimming down manufacturing costs or saving time and motion. GE is also applying the Lean concept to what happens before and after a product comes off the assembly line.
GE’s Lean teams discovered that consumers want more than highly energy-efficient appliances. They also want a commitment from the manufacturer to be careful about how all its actions affect the environment.
As GE began transforming the old “brown fields” at Appliance Park into busy, productive workplaces once again, it started with recycling materials removed from the old buildings. Instead of dumping the old steel in a landfill, by year’s end about 4 million pounds of metal will be recycled. Inside the renovated buildings, the company’s also installed highly energy-efficient lighting fixtures, plus innovative industrial ceiling fans that help the heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation system work smarter.
In the “cradle” of manufacturing, such attention to the smallest details of environmental impacts is a vital part of the Lean process.
During the useful life of an appliance in the consumer’s home, GE is also building in features that help the consumer manage electricity use in environmentally sensitive ways.
Then at the end of an appliance’s life, GE is getting involved in solving the problem of what to do with old worn-out items. Instead of going to the “grave” of a landfill, GE’s developing ways to give old appliances new lives through stepped up recycling. Teaming up with the EPA’s new Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) Program and Appliance Recycling Centers of America, GE encourages removing useful components from old appliances for rebirth as something new. This second “cradle” completes a total approach to revitalizing American manufacturing.
Next month: Building the skills for today’s energy manufacturing jobs