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GE's innovation hub

From wind turbines to X-ray machines to new-age locomotives, innovations are hardly new to GE’s John F. Welch Technology Centre in Bangalore. In its decade-long existence, JFWTC’s engineers have been at the forefront of introducing new ideas and methods for GE’s business units. Rahul Sachitanand finds out how the centre has shaped up over the years. 

Rahul Sachitanand | Print Edition: April 6, 2008

Itís all about R&D: Guillermo Wille, Managing Director, JFWTC
Guillermo Wille
Until recently, for the residents of Wolf Ridge, Texas, a town of some 250,000 people, the nearby wind farm of around 100 windmills was quite a bother, notwithstanding the 150 MW of “green” electricity that it generated. Reason: the windmills can be disturbingly loud and, according to some estimates, generate up to 85 decibels (think of a jet engine screaming overhead) when in full flow. To try to find a way around this rather noisy problem, GE turned to engineers thousands of kilometres to the east at the John F. Welch Technology Centre, in Bangalore.

After working on this issue for a few months, engineers at the centre reduced the noise generated by the wing tips from an ear-splitting 85 decibels to a more manageable 80 dB. While a 5 dB reduction may seem small, experts say this reduction represents a “quantum change” in technology in the field. Such breakthrough innovation is hardly new to this centre, which is GE’s largest multi-disciplinary facility in the world. In its decadelong existence, JFWTC’s engineers have been at the forefront of innovation for all of GE’s business units. “The centre has shaped up beyond our expectations,” gushes T.P. Chopra, Chief Executive Officer and President, GE India. “All our businesses are asking us to do more highend work and they are quite happy to allocate the funds.”

 10 innvoations at JFWTC

  • Pedestrian safety bumper: It has collapsible energy absorper made of Xenoy resin and is positioned behind a vehicle's fascia. It collapses on impact, thus, saving the pedestrian.
  • Advanced combustor system: Reduces NOx emission and increases efficiency of fuel burn by 20 per cent, for GE’s GEnx aircraft engine.
  • HF x-ray: Developed for the Indian market, it uses a high frequency X-ray generator to offer high quality X-ray images at low cost.
  • GE Evolution series locomotives: It is one of the cleanest diesel-electric locomotives ever built. It generates 16 cylinders’ worth of power with only 12, and cuts emissions by 40 per cent.
  • Smart axle counter system: Developed for Indian Railways, it helps tell whether a trolley or a train has been stationed at the platform.
  • MAC 400 ECG: can take 100 ECGs with a completely charged battery Component Design for the H turbine, which is the world’s most efficient gas turbine.
  • Component design: For the H turbine, which is the world's most efficient gas turbine.
  • AutoBone Xpress: An image analysis software that helps doctors get a better 3-D image of bony structures.
  • Dual-flame stacked burner: The design incorporates 2 layers of flames by having 2 rings one above the other, offering more heating capacity without increasing the size of the burners.
  • Wind farm design and analysis: This is called micrositing. It is a special software tool developed to help customers optimise the output from windmills.

GE’s energy business is hardly the only one to make a beeline for India; across JFWTC’s verdant 50-acre campus, engineers are busy working on a range of breakthrough innovations for the corporation’s global units and have recently expanded their ambit to include the domestic market too. When Guillermo Wille, JFWTC’s Managing Director, first relocated to India back in 2000 to manage the centre, it had just 300 scientists and engineers and focussed primarily on plastics research. Since then, the headcount has grown to over 2,500 and over $120 million has been invested by GE to help fuel this facility’s innovation. The results of these investments are visible in several high-profile areas, ranging from the Dreamliner from Boeing to a made-for-India ECG machine (see Ten Innovations at JFWTC on the left).

Enhanced focus

Over the last few years, GE has made a conscious effort to up the ante on the R&D front as it seeks to be seen as a more agile company and not wallow in its 130-year heritage. Already, companies such as Apple and Google have been ranked ahead of the industrial behemoth in terms of innovation and now the conglomerate believes that R&D, and critically JFWTC, will play a critical role in this overhaul. “Starting with Thomas Alva Edison, innovation is a big deal for us,” says Wille. And, GE’s latest focus in this area is its ecomagination products, from which the company expects to get around $25 billion in revenues by 2010. GE had invested $700 million in product development in 2005 and upped this to $1.5 billion last year, with India and JFWTC at the centre of many initiatives. “This is all about less pollution, more efficiency and more power in smaller packages,” says Wille, “we undertake core research in all our product-based businesses.”

The prospect of doing cutting edge research back home has drawn several expat Indian engineers to JFWTC. Take the case of Upender Nanda. Forty years after moving to the US, Nanda returned home and to the rarefied confines of JFWTC to lead the growth of one of its emerging research units, the transportation business. As JFWTC’s General Manager, GE Transportation-India, Engineering Design and Development Centre, Nanda oversees some key developments specifically in the railroads and signalling business. He leads a team that is working on the development of a lighter 5,000 horsepower locomotive that will bear only 22½ tonnes per axle compared to 32½ tonnes borne by those run in the US.

 The JFWTC fact box

Name: John F. Welch Technology Centre

Headed by: Dr Guillermo Wille, Managing Director

Investment to date: $120 million

Size of campus: 50 acres

Location: Whitefield, Bangalore

Employees: 3,500

Patents filed: More than 680

Areas of specialisation:  Basic research, engineering and R&D for GE infrastructure, healthcare and industrial businesses

Global experience: 20 per cent of workforce

GE business units represented: Healthcare, energy, oil & gas, commercial finance, consumer and industrial, aviation, transportation, water and process technologies

Expansion planned: 400,000 sq. ft, and 10,000 employees

“We had to make this reduction through reducing the number of fans from three to two (despite high ambient temperature) and reducing the number of cylinders to save weight,” says Nanda. Elsewhere, his team is working on a hybrid locomotive that will reuse the energy generated by a machine going downstream to recharge batteries and increase efficiency. “Building the locomotive is simple; getting the battery to absorb and discharge this energy quickly continues to be a challenge,” says Nanda. Aside from locomotive engineering, his unit has become a global hub for train signalling or simply put “developing algorithms that allow coaches and trains to be as close together as possible without touching each other.”

Breakneck growth

In early February this year, Wille surprised some villagers just outside of Bangalore when he rode up on his Bullet motorbike on a Sunday afternoon. He has had few opportunities to ride his bike, hamstrung by Bangalore’s ever-increasing traffic and the responsibility for managing one of GE’s most high-profile research centres.

Upender Nanda, General Manager, JFWTC
Upender Nanda
Since his arrival in Bangalore eight years ago, JFWTC has expanded rapidly at its 50-acre campus, with the centre housing multiple global centres of excellence covering water, automotive and healthcare. When Wille first started work in Bangalore, the city had around two million inhabitants and Whitefield was yet a budding technology hub with just this centre and International Tech Park some 2 km away as the only noticeable occupants.

In the intervening eight years, not only has Whitefield become Bangalore’s IT hub, JFWTC has become the flag-bearer for highend research in India.

JFWTC contributes to new product development (and critical enhancements to existing lines) for many business units. Employees at the centre have filed 680 patents since its inception and have made breakthroughs in everything from wind turbine blades to X-ray machines to new-age locomotives.

Globally, GE made nearly 3,000 patent filings in 2007. From just one building when it first started off a decade ago, this centre is today spread across 7,80,000 sq. ft of built-up space, with another 4,00,000 sq. ft under construction. “We barely have enough space to keep pace with our growth; all our research teams are growing their headcount,” says Wille.

At GE’s global leadership summit in Boca Ranton earlier this year, another top executive, Damodhar Padhi, General Manager, India Engineering Operations, Bangalore Engineering Centre, was in the spotlight as he displayed his team’s capabilities. His showcase this time around was critical research in seemingly “quiet” wind power, specifically in reducing the noise made by the fan blades at wind farms.

India and JFWTC also have a key role to play in Boeing 787 Dreamliner getting airborne. Its focus is on designing and building high-strength fan blades for the GE 90 engine that powers the plane. Engineers at the unit faced two challenges: making sure that the engine could run at full thrust for long periods and as part of its green focus, decrease the fuel it consumes. “We have flown one million hours of safe flight and weathered 16 bird hits too,” says Padhi, pointing out that “we helped decrease fuel consumption by at least 20 per cent”.

 GE’s other global R&D centres

The John F. Welch Technology Centre is GE’s largest multi-disciplinary unit in the world, but it collaborates with many of the corporation’s other worldwide centres on its R&D initiatives. Here are the key sites across which such collaboration happens:

  • Niskayuna, New York, is a 525-acre site with 1,900 employees and focuses on a variety of areas ranging from biosciences to ceramics & metallurgy technologies to computing & decision sciences to polymer & chemical technologies.
  • Shanghai, China (China Technology Center), has 1,200 employees, and focuses on areas such as power electronics, real-time/power controls, advanced manufacturing technologies, process sensing & control, medical imaging technologies, materials science, chemical sciences, and materials characterisation/analysis.
  • Munich, Germany (GE Global Research-Europe)—just 80 employees and a technology hub specialising in energy, oil & gas, sensor, and healthcare technologies.

Engineers at another unit next door have been working on key innovations in gasification, to enhance the production of clean power from coal, a key energy source for much of the developing world. “We are working on largescale gasification that will be a game changer technology for developing markets,” says Padhi, “given the enhanced focus on going green, companies and governments are showing keen interest in this market.” Engineers at the unit have been able to reduce product development time by 66 per cent and in just 18 months since its inception, have been declared a centre of excellence in gasification.

Developing focus

While JFWTC’s focus has been on working with GE businesses in developed markets, Wille has since expanded its scope to produce products and solutions for emerging economies too. For instance, C. Maltesh, Technology and Engineering Lead, Water and Process Technology, has led the team that developed molecules to separate fat and water when meat is processed. There’s a double advantage here: you can recover meat and fat and sell it and the water recovered can be reused. At the other extreme, water is a pollutant in crude oil refining and Maltesh’s engineers have been able to develop chemicals that can separate water from the oil. “We have been able to get two patents for our technology and bagged customers in the US and India,” he says. Although water and process purification is among the newest businesses to be added to GE’s portfolio, Maltesh’s team has already grown to 545 and is expected to add another 100-200 scientists as more units clamour for his attention.

MD Wille is perhaps most proud of the development being undertaken in the healthcare business at JFWTC, where scientists are reinventing existing diagnostic tools such as X-ray and ECG to suit developing markets. According to him, engineers in Bangalore have been able to develop ECG units (called MAC 400) that are smaller than an average laptop and work on battery power, can be handled by a medical rep (not necessarily a doctor) and even diagnose images on their own. Then there is the battery powered X-ray machine that can take 100 images per charge and can, therefore, be deployed in remote rural areas. “Existing solutions in healthcare will have limited success in emerging economies. We need to look to new ways of delivering these diagnostic solutions,” says Wille. Then there is the “cool” technology that is being developed that allows doctors to eliminate multiple layers of body structure (skin, bones and nerves, and focus just on one specific area, say, arteries) to quickly locate a potentially deadly health problem. “This is not just more efficient, but also less invasive for the patient,” says Wille.

Future focus

To attract the best and brightest minds to the centre, Wille has been unafraid to look for talent overseas and to scout top-tier academic institutes here. He estimates that around 60 per cent of his staff at JFWTC have an advanced degree (masters or higher) and around a fifth have some sort of “global work experience”.

Damodhar Padhi, GM, India Engineering Operations
Damodhar Padhi
According to managers at the centre, GE prefers to look out for specific skill sets in each location (mechanical engineering, software and design in India) and not duplicate these skill sets in other countries with similar research centres. “GE has set up its R&D facilities based on a centre of excellence. Since the nature of the projects that the centre undertakes is complex, it is most likely that the work is carried out in collaboration with other units. This is where the challenge lies—the time zone differences, cultural differences and language,” says Chopra, GE’s India boss.

While Wille may have a seemingly massive pool to choose from (over 200,000 engineers graduate annually and 5,000 are conferred a PhD), he knows that the centre’s popularity will attract other global giants to set up similar units in India or Bangalore. “Already companies like Shell, GM and Pratt & Whitney (GE’s arch rival in aircraft engines) have set up shop here and I am sure more will follow,” he says. That means he’ll have to push the centre to achieve even more exciting breakthroughs to attract the best talent.

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