There’s a lot of hype about all things digital in manufacturing. You can’t tune in to industry media or show up at a trade show without being inundated with stories (and sales pitches galore) about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4).
But how does all that play out in the real world of actually making stuff?
GE Appliances (GEA) offers a great example of that. Their digital transformation began about five years ago, led by Dave Leone, Senior Director, Dimensional Management and his team, who won this year’s first place gold award in the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers Cup competition. What started as a humble benchmarking of the automotive industry in 2015 in a search for better methods in product design and measurement has become a company-wide effort that touches all facets of the business.
The kind of wholesale adoption of advanced technology this represents isn’t easy for a startup. It’s a lot tougher for a company that’s over 100 years old. GEA dates back to 1907, and for most of its history it was part of General Electric proper. Today, GEA is a part of Haier Smart Home.
GEA’s Appliance Park headquarters and main manufacturing center in Louisville, Kentucky, dates back to 1951. The 750-acre site hosts a total of 8,100 employees, including 1,600 design and manufacturing engineers who help develop and produce the company’s lines of washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators, and other home and commercial appliances. GEA also has other manufacturing plants in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, as well 13 U.S. distribution centers and other operations around the world.
Despite more than a century of successful business, though, just before the Haier acquisition those engineers saw the need for a change. “It wasn’t just us being curious and wanting to explore,” Leone explained. “People were asking, ‘Is there a better way?’ As we looked around, we asked ourselves, ‘What if an appliance manufacturer could adopt automotive methods–could we disrupt our industry?’”
The original focus of the efforts was on design and manufacturing tolerances. The automotive industry benchmarking that began in 2015 led to GEA’s first adoption of digital technology, 3D scanning, in 2016. That led to the establishment of a dimensional control team in 2017, and the addition of further digital tools and processes over the next several years. “Just about anything you can point a scanner at, you can digitize,” said Leone. “That unlocks the door to digital engineering. We refer to it as our single source of truth.”
Jim Beary, GEA’s Technical Expert and Instructor for GD&T, Dimensional Control, Gaging and Inspection, agreed. “Before we started, everything was pretty one-dimensional,” he said. “What our digital transformation has done is really a 3D transformation, moving us from a one-dimensional engineering space to a three-dimensional one. Engineering is now being done wholesale in a 3D environment, using things like ATOS blue light scanners for digitizing and Polyworks software for 3D inspection. We get so much rich information.”
“It has fundamentally redefined how we design products,” Leone added. “It has led to a tremendous amount of innovation, which has fundamentally changed our company.”
The up-front digital design and scanning capabilities have led to much broader applications of digital technology. “With 3D scanning, you create a digital representation of the physical part,” said Leone. “You can overlay that with the CAD design and create a ‘heat’ or ‘color’ map that visually shows how well the actual part matches the design tolerances. It’s one of the founding technologies of this entire movement. Problems that historically would have taken weeks or months to solve, today can now be resolved within hours or days. The guys who’ve been around a long time say, ‘This feels like cheating.’”
“When you’re talking about investing two billion dollars, you want to be able to point to the ways you’ve improved quality, manufacturing, and so on, and Dave’s team delivered,” added Beary. “They set us up for additional advances like digital product inspection, digital data collaboration, digital tooling validation, and 3D tolerance analysis, where we can digitally predict how all the parts of an assembly fit together. Engineers don’t want to look at a spreadsheet anymore. They say, ‘Show me the color map.’ Once we stepped into this digital world, it grew roots throughout the entire company.”
The digital transformation has indeed touched all aspects of GEA’s business. “The impact is that we now have end-to-end digital engineering,” Leone explained. “That has improved our product quality and craftsmanship, and it has enhanced our program executions. It has accelerated our root-cause analysis, and enabled us to design and build beautiful products that are in half the homes in the United States.”
“Our programs are going faster because of these tools,” said Leone. “We’re finding the same entrepreneurial mindset in other pockets of our business, like manufacturing and distribution, and that’s led to a ton of success for us. Democratizing the data is a theme throughout our business. It takes out some of the bureaucracy.
“We’re continuing to build, continuing to innovate,” Leone continued. “There’s still a lot of room to improve. We are growing the capabilities of our people, processes, and technologies. Excellence follows expertise. We’re in half the homes in the U.S., and we want to be in the other half. We’ll get there by using these tools to make great products.”