“A Living and Breathing Thing:” GE Opens New Appliance Plant inLouisville, First in 50 Years
February 10, 2012
Patti Beyl knows GE well. As a process operator at GE’s Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky, Beyl has spent a quarter of a century making ranges, refrigerators and dishwashers. She’s been through tough times. “Three years ago we didn’t even know if we we’re going to be here,” Beyl said. Now she can celebrate.
Today GE opened a new $38 million manufacturing plant in Louisville, the first in the city since 1957. Workers at the factory will make high-tech GeoSpring hybrid water heaters whose production GE repatriated from China. “Being able to make a new thing in the U.S., that’s a big morale booster,” Beyl said. “It gives me a lot of pride.”
Home run: Process operator Patti Beyl helped bring GeoSpring to Louisville. “Being able to make a new thing in the U.S., that’s a big morale booster,” she says. “It gives me a lot of pride.” GE plans to invest $1 billion in the appliances business and create 1,300 American jobs by 2014.
GE managers decided to build the new plant in Louisville during two tense weeks in 2009. The country slogged through the worst recession in decades, costs rose and sales slumped. Keeping GeoSpring production abroad required a large investment.
The team in Kentucky ran costs calculations. If they brought in Lean manufacturing methods and cut waste, they could make the heater in the U.S. The local union was on board. “Taking waste out does not always mean taking out headcount,” said union leader Jerry Carney. “If Lean takes a job out on the line, it creates another one somewhere else.”
In the summer of 2009, Louisville managers pulled together a group of industrial designers, manufacturing engineers, purchasing managers, production operators, maintenance workers and others, and moved them to a large room in the Appliance Park. They took apart the heater and searched for savings. “With our backs against the wall we found a way and made it work,” manager Sam Duplessis said. “We’ve been in this room for nine months and everybody pulled together. It was like the perfect storm of creativity.”
The new heater was more efficient, cheaper to make and had 20 percent fewer parts than the one made overseas. “We took the gloves off and did what it would require to be competitive,” said product manager Tom Zimmer.
The production line came next. John Webster, whose official title is maintenance “moonshiner,” scavenged discarder cardboard, foam, pipes, and wire around the factory. He used the material to build quarter-scale mock-ups of the heaters and production machinery. “This helped us understand some of the concepts that the people in the room were talking about,” Webster said.
The team used Webster’s models to nail the product flow, and built a real assembly line. Patti Beyl and other other process operators nudged it to perfection. “In the past, that would be it,” Beyl said. “Engineers would build it and it wouldn’t be subject to change. But the production line is a living and breathing thing. We keep improving it and trying to make it smarter. We are all working together.”