GE's innovation hub
Rahul Sachitanand March 17, 2008Until 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.”
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).
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.
“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.”
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”.
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.
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.
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.