Whether by choice or necessity, many Americans are moving to cities and living small in neighborhoods like downtown L.A. or Brooklyn’s Greenpoint. Home appliance designers are working hard to make sure modernity can move in with them.
The online design community FirstBuild recently launched a design challenge to develop a “micro kitchen,” the culinary equivalent of the Swiss Army knife that holds everything required to prepare a late night snack as well as a Thanksgiving feast. Today, it cut the ribbon on an open-design “microfactory” to produce it.
The microfactory will tap FirstBuild’s global, collaborative group of designers, fabricators and enthusiasts to crack engineering and design challenges. The plant’s small size will allow it to customize appliances through small-batch production and fast-track them to market. “FirstBuild will able to create, design, build and sell new innovations for the home faster than ever before,” says Venkat Venkatakrishnan, R&D director at GE Appliances.
Tomas Garces is changing a tool on the ShopBot CNC Router at FirstBuild, a micromanufacturing facility in Louisville, Ky.
But It’s not just the cool, young crowd that’s getting excited about small, smart and open-sourced appliances. Many empty-nested baby boomers are looking to scale down move into smaller, more efficient homes.
Lou Lenzi, who runs industrial design at GE Appliances, told Gizmodo that this “will have a huge impact on smaller living.” Says Lenzi: “It’s GE’s bet that they won’t want to lose any of the luxury or convenience they’ve had in their lives.”
Top image and above: FirstBuild’s micro kitchen concept.
There’s no shortage of red-hot ideas leaving GE labs in upstate New York, but nothing comes close to materials scientist’s Anant Setlur’s discovery. Working with a team of researchers at GE Lighting and in Europe, Setlur found and patented a way to produce a better red light.
Here’s why this is a breakthrough. A large part of how we see colors boils down to the spectrum of light emitted by the source. (Although light appears white, we can see its colored components corresponding to the particular wavelengths during a rainbow.)
Of these colors, the red has been the most elusive to produce. Deep red makes other colors like green and yellow more vivid. But to the human eye it appears dim since it moves quickly to the invisible, infrared part of the spectrum. “For a long time, we had to choose between brightness and appearance,” Setlur says. The result was a compromise that yielded displays and screens with a broad red profile with enough brightness, but also washed out yellows, greens and oranges.
LED displays with PFS phosphor makes colors pop.
Setlur and his colleague at GE Lighting applied the Goldilocks principle and started looking for a red that was just right. They found clues in a material called potassium fluorosilicate (PFS). “This material looks like pure yellowish powder that does not do much, but when you dope it with manganese, it emits a beautiful narrow red line,” he says. “We were able to coax that manganese to do the heavy lifting for us.”
Setlur says that the new LED technology could “vastly improve” the color and crispness of LED and LCD displays for everything from smartphones and tablets to TV sets. “We were able to make LEDs emit the color red in a narrow band that makes everything look sharper and cleaner than the current state-of-art technology,” Setlur says. “It really makes the pictures pop.”
This yellowish potassium flourosilicate powder manufatured in GE labs was key to making a better red light. Top Image: PFS radiates clean red light under a UV lamp in the lab.
GE has already licensed the technology to Japan’s Sharp Corp. and Nichia Corp. Both companies are manufacturing and packaging LEDs containing the PFS phosphor material for use as LED backlights in a wide range of LCD display products. Several display companies have recently launched tablets, smartphones and large screen TV’s containing these LED devices supplied by the two licensees.
Says Setlur: “It took us a few years to get there but soon everyone will be able to see the light.”
Few products say ‘American’ more than the otherworldly curves of the silver Airstream trailer. Since the first one left the factory in the 1930s, it’s become part of the country’s design pantheon, along with the Coca Cola bottle, Converse sneakers, and Levi’s denim jeans.
But like most businesses, Airstream, a division of Thor Industries, went through a rough patch during the financial crisis of 2008. “We took a very hard hit,” says Airstream’s CEO Bob Wheeler. “The market shrunk by 60 percent and our situation was pretty typical.”
Airstream RVs, which can cost upwards of $70,000, are usually made to order. “Our business is very much based on dealer confidence,” Wheeler says. When discretionary spending disappeared, things started to looked dire.
But the wheels did not come off. Many Airstream dealers rely on GE Capital for inventory financing and the financial unit stuck by their side. “They are the oxygen to the industry,” Wheeler says. “They were an invaluable resource when the recession struck. They stayed while others left the business.”
Airstream’s production line in 1934.
Airstream pulled through the economic pot hole and its business has been booming since. Orders were up 50 percent last year and another 36 percent so far this year. The company has nearly tripled its workforce since 2008, from 158 to 460 employees. “We’ve had a fantastic run, no matter how you slice it,” he says.
Wheeler’s experience reflects the latest findings of the Middle Market Indicator, a survey of 1,000 executives like Wheeler from the 200,000 U.S. businesses with annual sales between $10 million and $1 billion. The results for the second quarter of 2014 show that the segment is bullish about its future growth prospects. “The U.S. middle market appears to have shrugged off the weak first quarter GDP results,” says Thomas A. Stewart, executive director of the National Center for the Middle Market, which published the results today.
An Airstream caravan. Photo Credit: Airstream
The executives’s confidence in the U.S. economy reached 68 percent during the second quarter, the highest point since the indicator launched in 2011.
The segment’s revenue grew 6.6 percent over the last 12 months, and more than two thirds of the surveyed companies expect their revenues to keep climbing over the next year. S&P 500 companies expanded their revenues by just 3.4 percent during the same period.
The Airstream International Signature Series RV from the inside. Photo Credit: Airstream
Job growth for mid-market firms is looking promising as well. Employment within the sector increased by 3.2 percent over the past 12 months, adding an estimated 750,000 jobs. If mid-market companies deliver on projected job growth of 3.3 percent, the sector will create 59 percent of all new jobs in 2014. (Take a look at our infographics for details.)
The National Center for the Middle Market was founded as a partnership between Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business and GE Capital in 2011. Along with producing the quarterly MMI reports, the Center also funds research in areas such as globalization and innovation.
On a clear day in July 1966, New York Central Railroad engineer Don Wetzel and his team boarded a specially modified Buddliner railcar, No. M-497. Bolted to the roof above them were two GE J47-19 jet engines. Wetzel throttled up the engines and tore down a length of track from Butler, IN, to Stryker, Ohio, at almost 184 mph, piloting the experimental vehicle into the record books as the world’s fastest jet-powered train. Today, the M-497 is still America’s fastest train and the world’s speediest self-propelled locomotive (see video at the bottom of the page).
Don Wetzel stays close to trains.
In many ways, Wetzel is an unlikely hero. He was brought up by his aunt during the Depression in Cleveland, Ohio. His mother left town to run a restaurant in Buffalo, NY. His father was a truck driver for The Cleveland Press and an occasional bookie. On weekends, he would take Don on the streetcar to the train yards in the suburb of Linndale and let him run around. “One day, I was about eight, we climbed in the cab of a steam engine and they let me blow the whistle,” Wetzel says. “I was absolutely infatuated.”
Wetzel looks out of the cabin of his jet train.
Wetzel wasn’t a model student, but he loved to tinker in a shed behind his aunt’s house. When he was 16, he souped up a Whizzer motorized bicycle and gunned through the neighborhood at 55 mph. The bike was such a sensation that he was able to trade it for a 1933 Ford Coupe.
He quickly ripped off the front fenders, stenciled “Carol” - the name of his girlfriend – on the body, and turned it into a hotrod. Since he was the only senior with a car, he would sometimes take the nuns from the St. Michael School back to their convent. “The car had a stick shift and the first time it got lost in the skirts,” he chuckles. “Afterwards, the nuns did the shifting.”
Wetzel posing with his 1933 Ford coupe before he took the fenders off.
Wetzel joined the New York Central Railroad after a stint in the Marines. He signed up for a correspondence course in mathematics and physics and ended up working at the company’s research laboratory in Cleveland.
Wetzel as a Marine.
He was a pilot in the military and he quickly used his experience with jet engines, which were still fairly new at the time, to design a patented snow blower powered by a GE jet engine. From there, it was only a step to the jet-propelled train. “We wanted to prove that we could run trains faster over conventional rail and gather technical and operating data,” he says. “We didn’t think we were making history.”
There’s more than one way to get energy out of natural gas. For decades, one of the most promising methods – and also most difficult to pull off ‑ has been the fuel cell.
A fuel cell works like a battery, using a simple chemical reaction to provide energy. In fuel cells, this reaction involves hydrogen molecules abundant in natural gas and oxygen from ordinary air.
It sounds easy enough, but the process is full of pitfalls. Car companies, for example, have tried to make fuel cells work as a replacement for the internal combustion engine for more 20 years without commercial success.
But scientists in GE labs recently cracked an important conundrum involving one iteration of the technology called solid oxide fuel cell, or SOFC. The breakthrough allowed the company to start building a new pilot fuel cell manufacturing and development facility in upstate New York. The resulting technology could soon start producing electricity around the world.
The new system’s power generation efficiency can reach an unprecedented 65 percent. Overall efficiency can grow to 95 percent when the system is configured to capture waste heat produced by the process. The basic configuration of the system can generate between 1 to 10 megawatts of power.
Unlike other systems, the new fuel cell is using stainless steel in place of platinum and rare metals.“The cost challenges associated with the technology have stumped a lot of people for a long time,” says Johanna Wellington, advanced technology leader at GE Global Research and the head of GE’s fuel cell business. “But we made it work, and we made it work economically. It’s a game-changer.”
Wellington says that the fuel cell, which received financial backing from GE’s ecomagination program, can generate electricity at any location with a supply of natural gas. It can get going quickly, does not need new transmission lines and produces lower emissions than conventional power plants.
The fuel cell has no moving parts. The guts of the cell look like a stack of cookies. Each cookie is a metallic plate with a maze of flow channels cut into the bottom and a square of black “icing” on top.
Wellington, left, inside GE’s new fuel cell facility. Top image: Manufacturing equipment inside the new facility.
That icing is the core of the breakthrough that makes the solid oxide fuel cell work. It contains three layers made from special ceramic materials: the cathode on top, the anode on the bottom, and a dense layer of solid oxide electrolyte in the middle.
GE is using additive thermal spray technology originally developed to protect parts working inside jet engines to deposit the anode and the electrolyte. The cathode is screen-printed on the tile. “GE Global Research is the intellectual horsepower behind this technology,” says GE materials scientist Kristen Brosnan. “Our materials are easy to apply, can handle large temperature swings and last a long time.”
The system generates electricity by feeding hydrogen-rich fuel heated to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit through the channels cut under the anode. Equally hot air travels over the cathode. An electrochemical reaction mediated by the solid electrolyte between the hydrogen in the fuel and the oxygen in the air generates electricity, water, heat and synthetic gas, or syngas.
This syngas, which contains residual hydrogen, still holds enough energy for more power generation. Wellington’s team feeds the syngas to a Jenbacher engine attached to the fuel cell to generate additional electricity, bringing the electrical efficiency to 65 percent.
The fuel cell business grew out of GE Global Research, but it now operates as an independent unit with its own board of directors. GE is building a new pilot development and manufacturing facility near Saratoga Springs, NY, that will be manufacturing the cells. The pilot facility is already filling up with robotic thermal spray equipment, fuel cell test stations, screen printers and towering bulk gas storage tanks.
Wellington runs her pilot facility with a startup mentality. “We have all of the speed, agility and focus of a small start-up while leveraging the strength of a big company” she says.
Until recently, few engineers dared to put a part made from anything other than metal inside a spinning turbine. But Krishan Luthra had his eye on ceramics. “I thought it would be the Holy Grail if we could make it work,” says Luthra, chief scientist for manufacturing and materials technologies at GE’s lab headquarters in upstate New York. “We could get more power and savings out of our engines. It could really make an impact.”
Ceramics are strong, light and heat resistant. These traits that are high on the wish list of many industrial designers. But the kitchen variety has one fatal flaw. “When you hit it with another object, it fails catastrophically,” Luthra says.
But Luthra was not deterred. He and his team partnered with the Department of Energy and started studying a promising new family of ceramic materials called ceramic matrix composites (CMCs). One group in particular retained all the good qualities and it was tough, too.
Luthra’s team flung a steel ball flying at 150 mph at their ceramic composite to prove that it would not shatter like a plate. (Chipping was okay since it did not release large pieces of debris into a turbine.) Top image: Brain research is on the Next List.
Starting in the 1990s, it took Luthra’s team two decades to come up with a version of the material good enough for mass production. The return on their research, however, is already massive.
CMCs have found applications in the hot section of the latest gas turbines and the next-generation LEAP jet engine. Although the engine won’t enter service until next year, it is already the bestselling engine in GE history with $96 billion (U.S. list price) in orders. “We took the long view and the high potential payoff justified the high risk,” Luthra says. (The LEAP was developed by CFM International, a joint-venture between GE Aviation and France’s Snecma.)
There are other new technologies leaving GE’s labs that could help define the future. One is a new fuel cell that could free people and businesses from being connected to the grid and revolutionize localized power generation.
The fuel cell is part of the “Next List,” a set of six guiding principles for GE research and development in the near future. They include mind mapping, extreme machines, the Industrial Internet and data analysis, as well as a new generation of “super materials” that builds on the legacy of Luthra’s project (see infographic).
GE spends 5 percent of its revenue on R&D, and employs more than 2,000 scientists at eight research centers around the world. The ninth will open in Brazil this fall. “Just like we did with CMCs, we are ready to solve the world’s toughest problems,” says Mark Little, senior vice president who directs GE Global Research. “We are focused on what’s next.”
Little also talked to Re/code about the list last week.
Subscribe to GE Reports to keep track of the latest research and look for stories tagged Next List.
On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission’s lunar module carrying astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. touched down on the surface of the moon.
Over the next six hours the pair checked the lander’s systems, ate a meal of four bacon squares, three sugar cookies, peaches, pineapple-grapefruit drink and coffee, and rested. Then at 10:39:33 pm EDT, Armstrong popped the hatch, climbed down the lander’s ladder and uttered one of history’s most famous sentences into his mouthpiece: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Top Image: Buzz Aldrin is wearing The Missions sneakers.
He made that leap in boots made from a special silicon rubber developed by GE. (The company also supplied the Apollo missions with other technology. See here.)
GE, which is at its core a materials science and engineering company, decided to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the first manned moon landing by launching a limited edition of a moon boot sneaker called The Missions. The company also invited Aldrin to take over GE’s SnapChat account on Wednesday and talk about his trip to the moon and back.
Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA
They were wearing boots from a silicon rubber developed by GE. Image Credit: NASA
GE worked on the sneaker with the shoe maker Android Homme and the website JackThreads. The sneaker has parts made from lightweight carbon fiber used for jet engine components and sports a hydrophobic coating similar to materials that prevent ice from forming on wind turbine blades.
The moon boot sneaker will go on sale at JackThreads.com on Sunday, July 20th at 4:18 pm, the time the Apollo 11 lunar module arrived on the moon. Only 100 pairs will be sold, priced at $196.90, to commemorate the anniversary.
Follow @GE_Reports on Twitter for more pictures, videos and stories.
GE reported a double-digit increase in industrial profits for the first half of 2014 today. The growth has been fueled by the company’s long-term strategy to build up its industrial units, shrink its financial services business and grow investment in new technologies and research.
The company’s R&D spending, currently at 5 percent of revenues, in advanced technologies like Tier 4 locomotives, gas turbines, new materials and next-generation jet engines added to GE’s record $246 billion backlog, up $23 billion compared to the same period a year ago. This week, for example, GE and CFM International, a joint venture between France’s Snecma (Safran) and GE Aviation, announced more than $36 billion in wins for jet engines, services and other technology at the Farnborough airshow.
Images: GE manufactures, tests and repairs heavy duty gas turbines at its plant in Greenville, SC. Photography by @seenewphoto.
GE’s successful bid for the power and grid units of the French industrial company Alstom will help accelerate the company’s strategy to achieve 75 percent of earnings from its industrial businesses by 2016. The offer was accepted by the Alstom board of directors and approved by the French government in June. The deal is expected to close in 2015.
GE’s industrial revenues grew 7 percent in the last quarter. The company has benefited from an improving global economy and a rising demand for industrial goods in emerging markets. “GE had a good performance in the quarter and in the first half of 2014, with double-digit industrial segment profit growth, 30 basis points of margin expansion, and nearly $6 billion returned to shareholders,” said Jeff Immelt, GE Chairman and CEO. “The environment continues to be generally positive.”
GE’s financial arm, GE Capital, kept shrinking the size of its non-core portfolio during the second quarter.
The Middle East is quickly becoming a new global aviation hub with big plans for the future. Nowhere are those plans better visible than at giant airshows like the one in Farnborough, UK, which finished this week. Emirates and Qatar Airlines, for example, finalized multi-billion orders for Boeing’s next-generation 777X long-haul planes, building on a momentum from last year’s Dubai airshow.
The growth is giving a nice lift to GE’s aviation business, which is developing new GE9X jet engines for the 777X aircraft. A single service order from Emirates added $13 billion to GE’s Farnborough deal tally, which exceeded $36 billion. Combined with $40 billion in new business from Dubai in 2013 and other deals, GE’s aviation unit now sits on a huge $126 backlog in engines and equipment. Take a look at our infographic illustrating GE’s Farnborough dealmaking.
Top Image: Qatar’s Dreamliners are powered by a pair of GEnx engines. Photo Credit: Adam Senatori
Power management chips are like second-born kids. They do a lot of hard work, but don’t always get the recognition they deserve.
Like microchips inside computers and laptops, power management chips are pieces of semiconductor as small as a cornflake. But they move electricity (watts), not data (bytes). Their circuits help extend battery life and reduce power consumption for a broad range of devices: from smartphones and tablets to wind farms, brain scanners and jet engines. They can make machines smaller, lighter, and more efficient.
The best ones, made from a material called silicon carbide, can work at temperatures that are twice the boiling point of water where ordinary silicon chips falter. They handle megawatts of power, an order of magnitude higher than silicon, and operate at much higher frequencies, which makes them much more efficient.
But until recently, they’ve also been very difficult to make.
Manufacturing a silicon carbide chip requires as many as 300 steps performed in a clean room, and companies have to negotiate pitfalls produced by the complicated interactions between silicon, carbon and metal oxides. (The full name of the device is silicon carbide metal-oxide semiconductor field effect transistor, or SiC MOSFET.)
But scientists at GE Global Research have figured out how to bypass silicon carbide’s limitations and came up with new ways to make power management chips that could revolutionize power electronics industry and bring in big savings for users. They will provide their technology and intellectual property valued at more than $100 million to a new power electronics manufacturing consortium in Albany, NY, announced today.
GE manufactures silicon carbide chips inside a clean room at it lab in Niskayuna, NY.
The research consortium, which includes GE, New York State, the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and other industry partners, will open a shared fabrication plant that will develop and produce silicon carbide power devices on six-inch wafers.
It may not sound like much, but for the power electronics industry this is a big deal. “This will dramatically open up silicon carbide applications,” says Danielle Merfeld, global technology director for electrical technologies and systems at GE Global Research. “We want people to come to New York and take advantage of the technology.”
Ljubisa Stevanovic, chief engineer for energy conversion at the GE lab’s advanced technology office, says that scaling up production from the current four-inch wafers to six inches will nearly triple the number of chips per wafer and reduce manufacturing costs by a factor of two. “This will be revolutionary,” he says. “We could soon compete with existing silicon chips on price with a better technology. Silicon carbide is more robust, requires much less cooling and can deliver cleaner power than ordinary silicon.”
GE plans to use the new fabrication plant to manufacture power management chips for its own machines ranging from oil and gas pumps to MRI scanners. The company will license its technology to other companies using the fab to bring products to market.
Merfeld and Stevanovic estimate that the chips could make trains, planes and automobiles run up to 10 percent more efficiently, reduce the energy footprint of datacenters by 5 percent, and improve the efficiency of wind and solar farms by more than 1 percent (our inforgraphic has more examples).
Says Merfeld: “This opens a design window that did not exist before.”
GE is taking mass production to a lofty new level. The company is pulling 3D printing out of the lab and installing it at the heart of the world’s first factory for printing jet engine fuel nozzles in Auburn, Ala.
The company has spent the last several years developing technologies ranging from data analysis to machine monitoring and preventive maintenance to get 3D printing ready for production prime time. “We need to have systems in place that anticipate a failure before it happens,” says Steve Rengers, principal engineer for additive manufacturing at GE Aviation. “This has not been done before.”
A high power laser prints fuel nozzles from layers of fine metal powder. Top Image: The nozzles supply fuel to the jet engine and keep it lit. Here a GEnx engine is powering through a water ingestion test.
When it opens in 2015, the Auburn plant will be producing fuel nozzles for the next-generation LEAP jet engine, which was developed by CFM International, a joint venture between France’s Snecma (Safran) and GE Aviation.
The nozzles are five times more durable than the previous model. 3D printing allowed engineers to design them as one part rather than 20 individual parts, reducing the number of brazes and welds that would have been necessary using traditional methods.
The 3D-printed nozzles are five times more durable than the previous model.
With more than 6,700 orders from 20 countries, adding up to nearly $96 billion (U.S. list price), the LEAP is GE Aviation’s best-selling engine in history. Over the weekend at the Farnborough Airshow, EasyJet and American Airlines placed new multi-billion orders for the engines. Emirates airlines signed a services agreement for the GE9X valued at $13 billion.
The nozzles pipe fuel into the jet engine’s combustion chamber.
The new plant will be using a 3D-printing method called direct metal laser melting (DMLM). The method grows parts directly from a 3D computer drawing by melting together thin layers of fine metal powder with a high-powered laser.
The machines deposit the powder in layers that are as thin as 20 microns– a fifth of the thickness of a human hair. They generate the whole part by adding one layer on top of another- sort of like rebuilding a loaf of bread from individual slices and joining them together.
Monitoring quality throughout the entire build process is crucial, since it can take days or weeks to print a part, depending on its complexity. “We are really pushing the envelope on process monitoring,” Rengers says. “By using sensors to collect data, we can determine the mechanical properties of the part.”
The $50 million plant will operate several additive manufacturing machines simultaneously to meet demand, while employing approximately 300 workers at full capacity.
Subscribe to GE Reports to follow news from the Farnborough airshow.
At first glance, Air Asia’s fleet of Airbus A320 planes look like any other passenger aircraft. But look under the hood and you will find an array of sensors and proprietary technology developed by GE that make their pilots smarter.
That’s because the systems gather performance, weather, flight path and other data and feed it over the Industrial Internet to the cloud, so that it can be crunched by software and analytical engines built and operated by GE Aviation’s Flight Efficiency Services unit. The system looks for hidden patterns and saving opportunities, and allows the airline to cut its annual fuel bill by more than 1 percent. Doesn’t seem like much? Consider that it’s on average about 550 pounds of jet fuel - the equivalent of 11 packed suitcases - per hour of flight.
Pilots and airline managers see the results on a dashboard and use it to make better informed decisions about how much fuel they need and which path they are going to take. There are dozens of other airlines around the world already using the system, including Air New Zealand, China Airlines, WestJet, and EVA Air.
But the smarts go beyond fuel savings. GE is also working with Air Asia and the Department of Civil Aviation (the regional equivalent of the FAA) to roll out a GPS-based flight path program at 15 Malaysian airports, and another eight in Thailand and Indonesia. The goal is to improve their efficiency and possibly increase capacity.
While GPS does not sound revolutionary in other contexts, keep in mind that most aircraft still use radio beacons to determine their position. The new system, called Required Navigation Performance (RNP), was first designed by Alaska Airlines pilot Steve Fulton after going through many sweat-soaked night landings at the mountain-rimmed airport in Juneau, AK. It was further developed by GE Aviation.
“The inspiration was both frustration and concern,” Fulton said. “As pilots in southeast Alaska, we were regularly operating in difficult weather conditions with limited navigation aids. We understood that there was very little margin for error. We had training, experience, and the best in that generation of ground-based navigation equipment and the associated aircraft instrumentation. But still, even with all of that, there were times when a pilot could be put in a very tight spot.”
The system has since helped open up airports in the Himalayas, mountainous southern New Zealand, hilly downtown Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere around the world.
Subscribe to GE Reports and stay tuned for more aviation coverage from the Farnborough Airshow, which is taking place this week.
Humans have spent the last 10,000 years mastering agriculture. But a freak summer storm or bad drought can still mar many a well-planted harvest. Not anymore, says Japanese plant physiologist Shigeharu Shimamura, who has moved industrial-scale farming under the roof.
Working in Miyagi Prefecture in eastern Japan, which was badly hit by powerful earthquake and tsunamis in 2011, Shimamura turned a former Sony Corporation semiconductor factory into the world’s largest indoor farm illuminated by LEDs. The special LED fixtures were developed by GE and emit light at wavelengths optimal for plant growth.
The farm is nearly half the size of a football field (25,000 square feet). It opened on July and it is already producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day. “I knew how to grow good vegetables biologically and I wanted to integrate that knowledge with hardware to make things happen,” Shimamura says.
The farm uses 17,500 LED lights spread over 18 cultivation racks reaching 15 levels high.
The LED lights are a key part of the farm’s magic. They allow Shimamura to control the night-and-day cycle and accelerate growth. “What we need to do is not just setting up more days and nights,” he says. “We want to achieve the best combination of photosynthesis during the day and breathing at night by controlling the lighting and the environment.”
Shimamura says that the systems allows him to grow lettuce full of vitamins and minerals two-and-a-half times faster than an outdoor farm. He is also able to cut discarded produce from 50 percent to just 10 percent of the harvest, compared to a conventional farm. As a result, the farms productivity per square foot is up 100-fold, he says.
By controlling temperature, humidity and irrigation, the farm can also cut its water usage to just 1 percent of the amount needed by outdoor fields.
Shimamura got the idea for his indoor farm as a teenager, when he visited a “vegetable factory” at the Expo ’85 world’s fair in Tsukuba, Japan. He went on to study plant physiology at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, and in 2004 started an indoor farming company called Mirai, which in Japanese means “future.”
The concept took off in 2011, when GE approached Shimamura with an idea for using advanced LED lights to illuminate the farm. The LEDs last longer and consume 40 percent less power than fluorescent lights. The companies started testing the technology in March 2012 and came up with the final design a year later.
The farm is producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day.
GE engineers used proprietary technology to make the lights thin enough to fit inside the stacks, provide uniform light and endure the high humidity inside. “That way, we can put in more growing racks and increase productivity dramatically,” says Tomoaki Kimura, country manager for GE Lighting Japan.
The GE Japan team believes that indoor farms like the one in the Miyagi Prefecture could be a key to solving food shortages in the world. Mirai and GE are already working on “plant factories” in Hong Kong and the Far East of Russia. Says Shimamura: “Finally, we are about to start the real agricultural industrialization.”
Few people mention marine iguanas, honey bees and oil sands in the same breath, but scientist Brian Gregg believes the combination might hold an elegant solution to a hard engineering riddle.
Extracting oil from oil sands generates copious amounts of low grade waste heat. Iguanas and bee hives have evolved unique mechanisms to efficiently turn thermal energy into something useful. “Many of the cleverest machines have a biological underpinning, and these two species are very good at maintaining and regulating their heat,” says Gregg, who is part of GE’s Global Research team in Alberta, Canada. “We are casting our net very wide.”
So wide that GE’s ecomagination program with technical support from other government and industry partners have launched an open innovation challenge with up to $1 million in cash and seed funding to improve the energy efficiency of oil sands extraction in Canada. Anybody in the world can participate.
The challenge targets two goals: reducing greenhouse emissions from generators producing steam used for extracting oil from the sands, and finding new ways to capture waste heat at the other end of the process. “Groups are taking big swings at ideas that are at least 10 to 15 years out,” Gregg says. “But we also need solutions that can be quickly and easily adapted for facilities already in the field.”
Gregg says that improving the efficiency of installed steam generators by 3 to 5 percent would have a tangible impact on the environment. “It’s not going to change the world, but we could roll it out fast and now,” he says.
Many oil sands operations harvest oil by using a process called steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD, pronounced sag-dee). The method injects hot steam into an underground reservoir holding natural deposits of a thick, oil-saturated sand. The steam softens the thick oil, allowing it to flow into wells where it is then pumped back to the surface. So-called “central processing facilities” then separate the produced oil and water, and recycle as much as 95 percent of the water for reuse in the process.
For the recycling to work, they must cool the water from 150 degrees Celsius down to 90 degrees. (Existing water treatment systems cannot process water above that temperature.) “Right now, that heat energy is lost,” Gregg says. “But we believe there must be some clever heat pump or other design out there to harvest it. That’s where we want the open innovation challenge to come in.”
Gregg hopes the participants will look to unusual places for inspiration. Like the marine iguana, for example. The lizard, which is native only to the Galapagos, cannot control its internal body temperature. This could be a problem when it hunts for food in the cool Pacific ocean. But the world’s only sea-going lizard evolved a system of vessels that quickly contract and expand and keep its temperature stable.
Honey bees are also very good at keeping temperature stable inside the hive, turning on the heat by gathering together and reducing it by fanning their wings. “I’d like to see some cool solutions,” he says. “No pun intended.”
The challenge to solve both problems has two stages. The winners will share up to $1 million in prizes and seed funding to further develop and commercialize their ideas. The first round of submissions is due on September 30, the second on March 15. You can find more details about the challenge and how to submit ideas on its website.
Top photo: A marine iguana. Credit: Brian Gratwicke
There is more to the Internet of Things (IoT) than FitBits and smartphone-controlled thermostats. While consumer goods are some of the IoT’s most visible applications, they’re just one part of the vast and game-changing phenomenon that could soon encompass 200 billion connected devices and add trillions of dollars to the economy.
In fact, experts estimate that the IoT will resonate strongly in the “invisible” industrial sector, capturing and analyzing data generated by drilling rigs, jet engines, locomotives and other heavy-duty machines.
This network is called the Industrial Internet and it’s already helping companies shave costs and boost performance. Union Pacific, America’s largest railroad company, has improved productivity by wiring its locomotives with sensors that monitor parts and supply data to algorithms that try to predict whether a component might break down and when. “Industrial data is not only big, it’s the most critical and complex type of big data,” says Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of GE. “Observing, predicting and changing performance is how the Industrial Internet will help airlines, railroads and power plants operate at peak efficiency.”
GE is developing sensors that could be printed inside machines. Top Image: Maintenance crews can already gather data from jet engines like the GEnx.
GE is betting big on the Industrial Internet. The company believes the network could add $10 and $15 trillion – the size of today’s U.S. economy - to global GDP over the next 20 years. Its software arm has developed a software platform called Predix that allows Union Pacific, as well as oil drilling companies, wind farms, hospitals and other customers to perform prognostics, reduce downtime and increase efficiency.
Capturing Big Data and transmitting it to dedicated servers presents its own set of technological and logistical challenges. That’s why GE, AT&T, Cisco and IBM teamed up this spring to launch the Industrial Internet Consortium. The goal of this open, not-for-profit group is to break down technology silos, improve machine-to-machine communications and bring the physical and digital worlds closer together.
To do that, member companies will pool their R&D capabilities to develop common server architectures and advanced test beds to standardize key components of the Industrial Internet.
Bill Ruh, vice president of global software at GE, recently told Mike Barlow of the O’Reilly Radar blog that turning data into usable insights will require an industry-wide effort – channeled by organizations like the IIC – to produce standardized infrastructure and processes that are fast, accurate, reliable and scalable.
Massive gas turbines are also getting connected to the Industrial Internet.
While the possibilities of the Industrial Internet are just beginning to be harnessed, companies aren’t waiting around. In a speech to power company executives, Wall Street analysts and investors at the Electrical Products Group Conference this spring, GE’s Immelt said that by the end of the year, he expected GE to launch over 40 “Predictivity” industrial analytical applications, which could generate more than $1 billion in revenue for the company.
The Internet is no longer just about email, e-commerce and Twitter, says Joe Salvo, manager of the Complex Systems Engineering Laboratory at GE Global Research. “We are at an inflection point,” he says. “The next wave of productivity will connect brilliant machines and people with actionable insight.”