As part of this week’s focus on American manufacturing, GE Reports recently spoke to three long-time manufacturing employees at the GE facility in Houston, Texas, where some of the full suite of Blow-Out Preventers (BOPs) made by GE are assembled. The current plant was opened by the Hydril Corporation in the early 1980s and was purchased by GE in April 2008. Both on- and off-shore BOPs are manufactured at the plant, and they aren’t small objects: each offshore stack has roughly 70,000 component parts, boasts a price tag ranging from $30 to $60 million and can take anywhere from one to two years to fully assemble.
A highly-skilled workforce oversees this complicated process, and we spoke to three of the plant’s most seasoned workers: George Krummel, the Manufacturing and Shop Operations Manager, Tommy Kowis, an Assembly Specialist, and Larry Jones, a Machinist. Together the three have nearly a century of experience putting these enormous, complex machines together. (The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity).
GE Reports: Could you each explain your background working at the plant?
George: I started about 34 years ago, in September 1977 as a machiner, and I helped move equipment into this facility, so I’ve been here since before it opened. It’s been a great experience, learning from the different people I’ve worked in a lot of different roles: supervision or management, manufacturing and production production control, manufacturing engineering. Currently I’m at the main plant, which involves seaming, welding and assembly – helping oversee the operations of the whole plant.
Tommy: I started in 1978, and I didn’t have any experience in a machine shop, so I started on the floor, then I started a day shift in assembly and have been doing that for about 30 years.
Larry: I was 19 when I started, 33 years ago, first as a forklift operator. Then I went into CNC machines, which I’ve been working with ever since.
George: I just want to clarify, I was only 12 when I started. (Laughs)
GE Reports: Over the three decades you’ve been at the plant, what are some of the changes you’ve experienced?
George: In machining, you used to have a lot of workers with that skill set. After the economy went down in the 1980s, a lot of those people found other jobs in computers, for example. So we lost some machinists from that era who were true journeyman machinists. And, the old manual machines were replaced by new equipment, like the CNC machine.
GE Reports: How do all of the changes in technology affect training? How much time do you spend updating your skills?
George: So much of the training has been brought in-house, in the manufacturing area – it’s learning on the job. You look for people who maybe have a machine or controls background and bring them in to teach them the product and your process and tooling – that’s the same in our well department and in assembly.
Tommy: There is also an information exchange between the assembly group and the engineering group, where we try to improve the process by comparing information. If there’s a problem, we share it with the engineers, they work on it and get back to us with a possible fix. But they come to us, because as George said, fixes and improvements and training have to happen here where we’re working on the floor.
GE Reports: What’s the customer involvement in that process of information sharing? These are highly custom-made products, so the specs are going to vary based on customer needs – are the customers observing on the factory floor?
Tommy: I have two customers right now in assembly. We might go two or three days without a customer, but yesterday we had three there.
GE Reports: When customers observe testing of the BOPs, how long does that take from start to finish?
Tommy: Anywhere from an hour or two to maybe a week or so.
GE Reports: I have to say, if you came to observe me editing GE Reports all day, it would stress me out – is there a lot of pressure with customers around watching you work and test?
Tommy: Yes, sometimes, especially when there are problems or there’s a cut-off date coming up. Sometimes the customer has a plane waiting to be loaded with your finished product. But we get it done.
GE Reports: Larry, tell us about the level of customization for the machines – are you constantly retooling or do you have to devise processes for each individual piece you work on?
Larry: Yes, we’re retooling all the time. New products and parts are coming in all the time – so I’m constantly adjusting to them, printing out new programs for them.
GE Reports: Seems like this is constantly a work in progress – and you guys have the freedom to develop new ways of doing things, whether it’s finding a new process that is more efficient, and it’s open to tinkering and ground-up innovation – would you agree?
George: That’s right. Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve always been empowered to come up with changes and new ideas. We have awards for that. We also have “Quality Fridays,” where the employees can share ideas with the director of manufacturing. Sometimes these are quick fixes but also big ones. At this plant, the employees are the experts.
GE Reports: A stack of offshore BOPs has something like 70,000 component parts, and you guys have been here for thirty some odd years each. Could you rattle off every single piece for me? Does it become second nature?
George: Yes it does. Tommy can describe every part and how it functions, having been in assembly for 30 years. So we have a lot of engineers visiting Tommy on the floor, to help them solve problems
GE Reports: Tommy, how do you keep it all straight?
Tommy: (laughs) I’ve been doing it for a long time. I worked with the original engineers, the old-timers, who designed some of the BOPs from scratch. I have to explain to customers how all the parts work. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I still enjoy it. I feel alert and confident, and I’m still learning everyday.