Fifty years ago, GE researcher Nick Holonyak walked in Edison’s footsteps when he switched on the world’s first red LED light and launched another lighting revolution. But technology moves fast and innovators must keep fighting for primacy. By 2003, Wall Street doubted GE’s lighting talent and started calling for the company to spin off the business. “There are not any big home runs or major opportunities left,” an industry strategist told Crain’s Cleveland Business.
But GE begged to differ. It passed on the advice and doubled down on its heirloom business. GE Lighting’s plant in Hendersonville, North Carolina, is a bright example of the strategy. Workers at the plant, which is nestled in the verdant foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, have been manufacturing lights for roads and parking lots since 1955. But even the mighty Smokies were no buffer to globalization and by the end of the 20th century the plant faced a stark choice, innovate of die.
GE chose the former and invested $35 million to overhaul the plant. The management brought in a new “big data” software system developed by GE Intelligent Platforms and used by clients like GM, Nissan, and Anheuser-Busch. The software, called Proficy, streamlined production by tracking myriads of manufacturing and machine data, from parts movement, to customer instructions, and product assembly. It also replaced paper with digital records. It soon cut order-to-shipment time from four to six weeks to as little as three days. With Proficy on board, productivity grew by 30 percent and the plant maintains a virtually perfect (98 percent) on-time delivery record.
Higher productivity means bigger output and more jobs. The plant hired 100 new employees over the last two years and now employs 475 workers, enough to run two shifts five days per week.
The lights they make have also radically changed. Building on Holonyak’s LED discovery, GE engineers developed advanced LED lamps that are 50 percent more efficient than existing industrial light bulbs, last longer, and allow customers cut their maintenance costs by 80 percent.
LED lights from Hendersonville illuminate streets in Las Vegas and Sydney, Australia, Walmart stores, and Marriott hotels. “We’re moving smarter and faster for customers and our newfound speed will be a major competitive advantage as the outdoor and roadway lighting segments begin to shift toward LED systems in the coming years,” said Maryrose Sylvester, president and CEO of GE Lighting. Sylvester, who got her GE start as a general manager at the North Carolina plant, said that energy efficient LEDs were a huge business opportunity. For example, GE estimates that only 1 percent of the 52-million street and highway lights in the U.S. are long-lasting LEDs.
“We all live in cities with budgets,” Sylvester said. “Our city leaders need to know how LED systems can help them.”