Senior Product Architect Steve Froelicher is a second-generation GE engineer, following in the footsteps of his father, who joined the company in the late 1950’s. Steve’s brilliant work in the competitive appliance field has yielded several patents in his areas of expertise, which include just about everything in the modern kitchen; ranges and ovens, microwave ovens, refrigeration structures and control algorithms. He has received a technology leadership award for his work on washing machine suspension.
Q. What got you into the appliance division?
I grew up in the Louisville area, my father worked here at General Electric, and so growing up I knew a little about the field. I got my mechanical engineering degree from the University of Louisville and I found that there were plenty of challenges here in appliances; there were all sorts of materials, manufacturing processes, designs. It’s a surprisingly sophisticated business. I’ve enjoyed it.
Q. Your father working for GE must have influenced your career choice.
Oh it did. My father always had a high regard for GE. He thought it was a good company all the time he was here. So I knew GE was a good company before I came on board.
Q. Your latest project for the appliances division is the Single Double Wall Oven. Tell us about its genesis.
What this product does is it puts two separate cavities in the space where one cavity exists. So then you can control those cavities independently, you could use the top one to cook a pizza and you might put a turkey in the lower one, for example.
The initial concept didn’t come from me at all, it came from some ideas that were being kicked around by our innovation department and our industrial design department. Where I came in is I’ve got some expertise in airflow and heat transfer and also part design, that sort of thing. So I was asked to develop an airflow model for the oven.
Q. I understand your team did this all in record time?
A number of innovations had to take place make this happen, airflow, controls. What really lined up for us in this particular case is we had existing parts, materials and tools, and we also had the expertise.
We took about three weeks to kick around the design envelope and lay out all the critical subsystems into 2-D drawings and then once we were satisfied that we could fit everything in that space, and we could get the airflow we need, then we took another three weeks building the unit. Working seven days a week, you know, ten hours a day, probably something between sixty and eighty hours a week for about three weeks. It was quite a few people, and I was kind of the primary sheet metal bender, if you will, and welder.
The challenge was that in order to conserve space, the airflow system had to be modified so that we could put the controls in the door without cooking them.
Q. You’ve got several patents in a wide range of appliance lines. What are some of the things that you’ve learned at GE about the design process?
There are three things that I use as guideposts on approaching a problem or a design. One question I ask myself is, “Would I want this product in my house?” And I think from that one question, all sorts of things flow, the appearance, the craftsmanship, performance, reliability, safety, noise.
Another thing that I’ve learned from these folks here at GE is that Mother Nature always wins. She always wins. And this is something important because it keeps you on guard and keeps you in your place.
Third, there was an engineer who said to me that engineering is putting proper proportion to a creative idea to make it work. These are three tenets that I go by whenever I have a problem.
Q. What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working with the industrial design folks and manufacturing, and our charter is to come up with new product platforms, to work on new manufacturing processes and to come up with new product features.
Q. What advances in appliances can consumers expect to see in the next few years?
Since there have been such huge advances in information technology, electronics and communications, we’ll see developments in that direction. As smart phones become ubiquitous, they can become a service tool. A lot of the products we are going to offer include faster diagnostic systems. We’re also going to be leveraging those areas to get more efficient energy usage.