GE taps lean and green to revitalize US manufacturing with slick refrigerator launch

In launching its newest line of refrigerators, General Electric is also trying to transform American business.

Photo credit: Jason Hiner | TechRepublic

It's been almost a century since General Electric first pioneered the commercial refrigerator in the United States and it seems like it's been about that long since new refrigerators have made headlines.

GE changed that this week.

On Tuesday, GE unveiled its snazzy new line of "French-door bottom-freezer refrigerators," which feature a handful of product innovations for 21st century consumers. But, the real story was the process, where GE decided to build these premium refrigerators at a newly-revamped high-tech manufacturing facility in Louisville, Kentucky, and introduced new manufacturing procedures to drastically reduce the environmental impact of building the refrigerators.

GE credited its new "lean manufacturing" procedures as the competitive advantage that led the company to move refrigerator manufacturing back to the U.S. from Mexico, returning 600 jobs to its historic "Appliance Park" facility in Louisville — a huge plant that GE nearly closed down four years ago during the 2008 recession.

Photo credit: GE

The refrigerators that GE unveiled on Tuesday were the first ones designed and built in this new $250 million manufacturing facility in Appliance Park. The products feature a number of consumer-oriented innovations. Not all of the new features are in every refrigerator in the new line, but here's a summary of the most important new features, with quotes from GE that provide more detail:

  • Hands-free autofill: "... fully fills a glass, water bottle, coffee pot or pitcher. The dispenser's pull-out tray holds a container so you can press the button and walk away while it fills up automatically. The technology behind the feature uses sound waves from ultrasonic sensors and proximity detectors similar to those used to fill up fuel tanks in locomotives."
  • Hot water dispenser: "... first refrigerator in the industry to feature a hot water dispenser, which can heat up to 12 ounces of water in two minutes - ideal for oatmeal, a cup of tea, or a bottle of baby formula. The hot water dispenser lets you accurately choose the perfect temperature or select one of the four pre-programmed settings to simplify hot food and drink preparation."
  • Advanced water filtration: "... the most advanced water filtration system in the industry. The system has been tested and verified by an independent third party to remove 98 percent of five trace pharmaceuticals from drinking water and ice."
  • Temperature controlled drawer: "... full-width, adjustable temperature-controlled drawer with five settings for meat, beverage, produce, cheese and citrus and temperatures ranging from 32 to 40 degrees, The drawer is designed to keep specific foods and drinks at the proper storage temperature, but can also be set as the same temperature as the overall refrigerator. Colored LED lights in the drawer - red, green, blue, aqua and purple - can be set to remind you of the temperature setting you have chosen."
  • TwinChill evaporators: "... separate airflow and climates in the fresh food and freezer sections to help maintain temperature and humidity levels to keep foods fresh. The separation of the air limits the amount of humidity in the freezer, reducing freezer burn while keeping freezer odors from mixing with refrigerator odors."
  • LED lighting: "... produces lighter, crisper illumination throughout the refrigerator's interior."
  • Connected home analytics: "Some GE French door refrigerator models will also feature GE's Brillion connected home technology. On this product, Brillion technology, when coupled with a GE Nucleus, enables a consumer to receive maintenance and service alerts, monitor energy consumption, and adjust some appliance settings remotely."

Photo credit: GE

Make no mistake, these are premium refrigerators with a MSRP of $1699-$2999, but they represent the new flagship refrigerators in the GE lineup and likely the new flagship products for the entire GE Appliances division. The first ones will hit the market in June, with some of the more premium models arriving in the fourth quarter. Chip Blankenship, CEO of the GE Appliances division, said, "We are launching the largest promotional campaign in our history" to make sure consumers know about the innovations GE is bringing to the market.

As part of GE's ecoimagination push, the new refrigerators are among the first to pioneer the use of cyclopentane foam, which reduces greenhouse gases when manufacturing freezer components. "Cyclopentane will reduce this facility's carbon footprint by 99%," said Paul Surowiec, General Manager of GE's Refrigeration division.

Naturally, GE also viewed this product launch as an opportunity to trumpet itself as an example that the U.S. is a great place to build cutting edge products while reinvesting in American communities at the same time. GE held the launch in the heart of "Building #5" in Appliance Park where the new refrigerators are being manufactured, in an event that brought together government leaders, business partners, the media, and over 1,000 GE employees.

GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immault got several standing ovations from the GE workers by calling it a historic moment and a "great journey we're all going to be embarking on together." He said GE was doing the right thing by "investing in facilities like this one that can stay competitive throughout the ages."

"These products that we design we have to build in GE factories," Immault stressed. GE has said it will invest $1 billion dollars in its U.S. factories and create over 1,300 new U.S. jobs by 2014. Of that money, $800 million will go toward upgrading Appliance Park. Just before the refrigerator facility launched, GE opened its GeoSpring Hybrid Water Heater manufacturing facility in February. It was the first new factory in Appliance Park since 1957. And, later this year, GE will also open another new factory in Appliance Park to make front-load washers.

One of the big reasons that GE decided to build these new facilities in the U.S. was to implement "lean manufacturing" practices that empower workers up and down the manufacturing lines. This enables everyone who touches the design and manufacturing process to provide input and ideas on product features and better ways to manufacture the product.

"We're creating a culture of collaboration and improvement that is at the heart of the resurgence in U.S. manufacturing," said Blankenship. "With lean manufacturing... we can compete and win against anyone in the world... Our consumers are going to be the biggest winners."

It remains to be seen if what's happening in Appliance Park can became a metaphor for a larger resurgence in high-tech manufacturing in the U.S., but it's a startling transformation for one of America's classic manufacturing facilities that was nearly on its deathbed just a few years ago. Jerry Carney, President of the local IUE Union, said, "Who would have thought we would have transformed this dinosaur into what we see today."

Immault reminded everyone that consumers will ultimately serve as judge and jury of this new experiment. The new refrigerators will have to be a hit if they're going to start a movement. "We can really applaud when we start selling them, which is going to be soon," he said.

This article was originally published on SmartPlanet.


Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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