It’s well documented that successful companies—especially large ones—encourage their employees to think outside the proverbial box and contribute to improving the efficiency of the manufacturing process. Great ideas are not just born in the research lab but also on the factory floor.
GE has long challenged employees at its American manufacturing plants to contribute ideas – a modern variation of the simple suggestion box – solving day-to-day problems by promoting teamwork among its 100,000-plus industrial staffers, and innovation from the ground up.
In that spirit, at GE Transportation’s 2,000-employee Erie, Pa., plant, a handrail assembly project team took a fresh look at the injury-prone process of manufacturing handrails for locomotives. They eliminated more than a mile of weld-wire, and the grinding and hammering of 25-pound sledgehammers along with it.
“Rather than trying to address the mountain of issues associated with the complex assembly process, the team re-imagined the entire design,” Rick Hersey, one of the team members, explained.
The new process uses slipcovers and bolts to connect siderails and handrails, reducing cycle time by more than 70 percent while reducing noise, physical strain and difficulty. Not only did the new process improve workplace safety, but it also paid for itself—in just 10 days. (The team even won a cost savings award at the recent International Ergo Cup Competition at the 2011 Applied Ergonomics Conference—or “the Super Bowl of ergonomics,” as team manager Mike Formaini calls it.)
A GE Aviation employee – Mike Rucker – came up with an idea for coating airfoils used in jet engines with aluminide to help combat corrosion and oxidation from the high temperatures. Rucker then worked with a team to develop the process, which is now used on many of them.
Additional teams at the GE aviation plant in Cincinnati offered suggestions on how to improve the manufacturing of a turbine casing, which had been using older, ineffective equipment.
Michael Eisenecker, a senior engineer there, said a combination of “determination, cooperation, and ingenuity” across three teams led to the adoption of a more stable process, the installation of new workstations and ultimately “played a huge role in eliminating manufacturing losses” for the part.
Just how much of a reduction? Total losses for 2010 were $143,069, Eisenecker said. As of June 3, 2011, losses totaled $12,688.
In Louisville, Kentucky’s Appliance Park, where the GE Appliance business is based, an initiative called Lean is inspiring GE manufacturing employees to do more with less. There, assembly line staffers began “moonshining,” or quickly prototyping a product or process using inexpensive materials. To create the “moonshine,” cross-functional team members are asked to come up with seven different ways to achieve a particular goal. The team then selects two or three of those ideas and mocks them up at a small scale.
“As the concepts are refined, the mockups will grow larger, until an entire factory line might be mocked up at full-size in cardboard or plastic tubing,” Mark Rinaudo, one of the “moonshining” team members, said.
It’s saving money there, too. In one example cited by the team, a supplier quoted them $3 million and a 40-week lead-time for a piece of equipment. Through “moonshining,” the team found that the necessary item could be made in-house in just 10 weeks, for $100,000.
“People know more than they think they know,” Rinaudo said. “Once you break the ice, the suggestions you get are fantastic.”