I remember it like it was yesterday. 25 years ago, there I was, a wide-eyed and eager materials engineer walking the manufacturing floor at GE Power and Water. My job was to be the eyes and ears, or you might say the inspection and sensing of plant processes and operations. I did this every day - talking to my engineering colleagues, talking to plant workers and talking to anyone who was involved on the production floor to see what problems needed to be solved.
One day, I came across an issue that had never been seen before. We had a part in one of our products that wasn’t passing one of our tests and wasn’t behaving the way it was engineered to work. The materials used for this part behaved differently, but why, and was that OK? We had requirements in place based on years of studies, testing and validation. All of the engineering that went into the part development showed it to be a good part if it passed the test, but we were getting more and more parts that looked good in every way except for passing this one test. Should we throw away all the parts, or should we look and listen differently on our factory floor to find out what was going on?
Instinct took over. I knew I had to come up with a solution, but I had many doubts and questions. Ultimately, I took a leap of faith to trust in my engineering training and trust that the test was the right one, but obviously something was different in the manufacturing or material and understanding that would make us better.
With so many unknowns, I decided I had to look at the problem in a different way.
I needed inputs not only from within my own team but from people working in other parts of the plant who had different skill sets and viewpoints to help me find answers. So that’s exactly what I did. We were able to examine the problem from every angle and perspective and discovered that the “faulty” part was not faulty at all. It looked different in our test because the material was actually tougher and better, so it responded different to our manufacturing process and the test; in the end was indeed a good, working part!
This experience taught me early on the value of looking at a problem from different viewpoints. It’s not enough to stay within your own domain area or part of an operation. Understanding and appreciating other parts of a process and vantage points is critical to forming a full picture of a given situation.
It’s not enough to stay within your own domain area
Fast forwarding to 2014. The lessons learned early in my career are all coming to bear as I work on perhaps my biggest challenge — transforming manufacturing as we know it.
And when I say transform, I mean a paradigm shift analogous to Henry Ford’s perfection of the Assembly Line. At GE, we’re calling it the Brilliant Factory.
The Brilliant Factory is all about entirely changing the way manufacturing works. I have the great privilege of leading a world-class team of 600+ advanced manufacturing engineers from around the globe in this endeavor. Candidly, the future of manufacturing has a lot of unknowns. But like the material issue resolved early in my career, that’s what makes it all the more exciting and fun.
The technology changes occurring in manufacturing are nothing short of breathtaking.
In no area has this change been greater than with the convergence of the digital and physical worlds. Software, data and analytics are revolutionizing what we can do in ways I couldn’t fathom as an early career engineer. Remember my inspection and sensing role? Today, plant engineers can monitor thousands of sensors installed in a plant that are telling them virtually everything they want to know about their operations and even more. With the power of software, problems that once took weeks, even months to solve, can now be solved in hours.
The most transformational aspect of the Brilliant Factory is the creation of a virtual digital thread that is connecting traditional parts of the manufacturing supply chain with new players that are bringing new skill sets and talents.
Realizing the vision of the Brilliant Factory will require all of us to the change the way we work. It will require us to accept and adapt to changing workforce skill sets. It will require us to reach out and connect with new partners we may not have worked with in the past.
Most of all, it will require perseverance, courage and yes, a little luck to make it all work.
In the frontiers of science and engineering, change and uncertainty come with the job. I’ve learned that how you respond to it plays a big part in what the ultimate outcome will be. Success will come when you believe in yourself, value your team, and take that leap of faith that the direction you are taking is the right thing to do.