From Assembly Line To Digital Thread: The Factory Of The Future Is Here, And It’s Here To Stay

October 7th was National Manufacturing Day in the U.S.. At GE, we celebrate the impact that the evolution of manufacturing has had on our economy and the everyday lives of our citizens. From the Industrial Revolution to the age of the assembly line, and now in the emergence of today’s digital and 3D printing technologies, the manufacturing industry has always been an incubator for ingenuity.

Companies all over the world are grappling with how to integrate digital capabilities into their operations. In manufacturing, we are chiefly concerned with how to maximize productivity during a time where hardware is merging with software. We see four main drivers of productivity that are changing the way we design, manufacture and service products.

1. Lean manufacturing

This is the effort to fold waste reduction principles into every aspect of the manufacturing process and strive for continuous improvements. This was a central tenet of the Toyota Production System, where the goal was to maximize employee engagement and customer value.

2. Advanced manufacturing

These techniques include the use of laser-guided cutting tools robotics, cobots, exoskeleton technology and automation. Some of these technologies are commonplace now in consumer applications. While lasers are used in everything from light shows to hair removal in salons, they are just now realizing their full potential in industrial manufacturing, improving costs and creating a more ergonomic workplace.

3. Additive manufacturing

Also known as 3D printing, additive technologies provide precision and efficiency to a degree previously unheard of and create parts that were impossible to produce. These advancements will swing the pendulum back to U.S. domestic sourcing.

4. Digital maturity

The integration of hardware and software is changing the way products are conceived, produced and installed — what the industry calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We can now embed sensors onto our machines, leverage software to gather data and use those insights and analytics to ultimately drive greater productivity. At GE, we call this the digital thread, because we weave digital capabilities horizontally through our facilities and vertically through our value chain, all enabled by Predix, the industrial cloud-based platform.

These pillars of manufacturing are not theoretical. At a GE Aviation facility in Auburn, Ala., there are 30 3D printers manufacturing fuel nozzles for jet engines—the first 3D-printed part ever approved by the FAA to fly in a commercial jet. At a GE Transportation facility in Grove City, Penn., we’ve seen a 10 to 20 percent reduction in unplanned downtime. And in Florence, Italy, equipping machines with sensors has identified optimum times for maintenance with minimum disruption to production and even add an entire production line without adding a new shift.

This vision is what we call the Brilliant Factory, and we are realizing this vision in our factories around the world. A select handful of our factories are already fitted with digital capabilities and additive and advanced manufacturing technologies and are realizing productivity gains as a result.

Manufacturing today is leaps and bounds from what the industry looked like 50 or even 10 years ago. And this has implications for the American economy and workers with ripple effects that span the world. Advanced manufacturing industries account for 24 million jobs—13 percent of all American jobs—and each of those jobs supports another 3.5 jobs throughout the supply chain. These impacts are all the more significant when you consider that we are in an age of protectionism worldwide, and companies like GE that once relied heavily on globalization strategies are now forced to localize quickly in order to maintain sustainable growth.

There will continue to be manufacturing jobs available, but the job descriptions will look different. In a highly interconnected ecosystem, it is critical for industry to join forces with local government and academia to build this pipeline of workers with the skills they need to be competitive and work in tomorrow’s factories.

Working with the Department of Education, GE will soon offer an accel­er­ated Bach­elor of Sci­ence in Advanced Man­u­fac­turing pro­gram in conjunction with Northeastern University in Boston. The pro­gram, which is expected to launch this spring, is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. We also are a founding member of Carnegie Mellon’s new additive manufacturing research consortium. This is only the start of a journey. As an industry, we need to do more. We see a future where factories are fitted with valuable technologies across the supply chain, managed by highly skilled workers earning good wages that are the backbone of the American economy.

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