Progressive Surface may be a mid-size Michigan manufacturing business, but when you board a passenger jet with GE engines slung under the wings, chances are that the company had something to do with it. For the last 30 years, Progressive, which is based in Grand Rapids, has supplied GE with high-tech “special process” machines that make jet engine parts tougher and blades more durable. “The company really took off in the 80’s, when we started to do aerospace work,” says Jim Whalen, Progressive’s vice president of sales and marketing. “That’s when GE became a customer.”
Since then, Progressive has doubled the number of workers from around 50 to 105 fabricators, machinists, electricians, and engineers, and grew annual revenues to $35 million. It also got stronger and more competitive.
New growth: GE’s Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center outside Detroit employs 850 workers and their number will grow. Local businesses like JCS Construction helped build the campus.
As GE and other customers started adopting efficient lean manufacturing, Progressive followed their lead. “We’ve taken the machines that did the same thing in 1980s and made them way smaller, way less expensive,” Whalen says. “Before we had a limited market of only a few large customers who could afford it, but now we have many hundreds of companies.”
Progressive’s GE audience swelled too. The company’s GE customers used to be the large aviation and energy businesses. But it now sells equipment such as the state-of-the-art “double spray” coating cell system to GE units like the new Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center (AMSTC) outside Detroit.
The center’s 850 researchers and IT experts develop software and data sharing systems that make GE technologies like jet engines, locomotives, and wind turbines work smarter and more efficiently. They also help fit the latest GE research into new products. “We are working on the manufacturability of innovations,” says Ron Utterbeck, GE’s chief information officer and AMSTC’s director. “Say, we come up with a new coating in our R&D centers for fan blades to make them harder. At AMSTC we figure out how we take the coating and actually apply it to fan blades in a manufacturing setting.”
Both Utterbeck and Whalen draw on a rich pool of local talent. GE employs more than 3,000 workers in the state and has committed to hiring 1,300 over the coming years. “We’ve opened up the center in June 2009 and we’ve hired 850 really talented and seasoned professionals, 90 percent of them from the state” says Utterbeck, a Dearborn Heights native whose father spent his career at Ford. The company also has more than 4,000 retirees in the state.
GE’s Michigan jobs impact goes beyond IT engineers and high-skilled machinists. AMSTC, for example, has invested $163 million in the Detroit region. Some of the money went to companies like Mark Applebaum’s JCS Construction, which helped build the research center. Applebaum, who serves as JCS president, says that his work with GE opened some 300 construction jobs and made JCS a smarter company. “The impact is far reaching,” Applebaum says. “We are able to serve better.” He says that because of GE’s “very high standard,” he upgraded his company’s IT and accounting systems and improved its online presence. All of the work went to local businesses.
Applebaum said that he trained his workers “in the GE way of doing things and it has actually enhanced their employability. In fact, I’ve lost of a couple of people because of higher pursuits. I had to replace them and go forward from there.” Let the engines of the job market roar.