Emerging Tech investigate

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.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

21 comments
lissaneor
lissaneor

Energy efficient appliances are quiet important to make a healthy future. Nature are saving us from number of climate changes which are not in the favor of human beings. From last few years Ge appliances and   several others are working to make most modernize appliance for home and kitchen as well. 

http://french-door-refrigerator.net/enjoy-ge-gfe27gsdss-water-and-ice-french-door-refrigerator-with-capacity-of-26-7-cu-ft/ is quiet nature friendly and most updated refrigerator by Ge now a days.  
chiefski76
chiefski76

"Immelt's firm stands as Exhibit A of a successful and profitable corporate America standing at the forefront of the recovery. It also represents the archetypal company that's hoarding cash, sending jobs overseas, relying on taxpayer bailouts and paying less taxes than envisioned." - Huffington Post.

Move GE Medical Electronics back to Waukesha, WI from Beijing, start paying your fair share of corporate taxes, and re-employ the 34,000 Americans you put out on the street!

BobP64
BobP64

Sure, build the BIG BULKY stuff here that is, in reality, about as LOW TECH as you can get. They only did this because the SHIPPING was killing them. BUt, the HI TECH stuff like the MRI MACHINES - IMMELT MOVED TO CHINA!!! This guy is a friggin LIAR and can not be trusted.

Ret.Miles
Ret.Miles

If a business can improve the over-all value offered to consumers by either lowering costs more than quality is reduced while not reducing quality below a minimum that the consumer will accept (if quality is reduced at all), or by increasing quality more than the cost is raised while not raising the cost above what the consumer will accept (assuming the cost is raised at all), or by offering the consumer more or better choices, then outsourcing is a good thing. We are consumers first. It is our most important role as economic actors. Try not consuming, and you'll die. Try completely not consuming and you'll die within seconds. Our consuming is why we do what we do -- why we work, why we trade, why we forego some consuming now and save so that we can be assured of consuming later, why we invest savings (and that is what creates jobs), and why we give to others we care about (either emotionally or practically). Workers are consumers first. The self-employed are consumers first. Managers and employers are consumers first. Sales people are consumers first. Investors are consumers first. People dependent on government and taxpayer funds are consumers first. So whatever is done that benefits consumers benefits us all. So, with that in mind, here is my question. If our standard of living has improved over the past 30 years or so as our economy has matured and we have increased international trade and moved away from domestic manufacturing, why do we automatically assume that moving some manufacturing back is a good thing? Note how expensive these refrigerators will be. Part of that is because of the more expensive technology used (which will come down in price as production, competition and technological improvements advance), and part is because the product is initially targeted toward high-end consumers (and that will also change with costs decrease and competition increases). At the same time, much of the high price of the refrigerators is due to being made where capital equipment, buildings, regulations, land and labor are more expensive. If this project does not offer better returns to investors and better value to consumers than what could be achieved by outsourcing, then this is a publicity stunt. If GE has developed a way to domestically provide the best return and value (i.e., the best improvement in the standard of living for consumers), then that is huge news because of that, and not because manufacturing jobs were "returned" to the U.S. Ultimately GE has a fiduciary responsibility (i.e., a moral responsibility) to seek ways to maximize returns to its investors, and a practical responsibility to offer value to its customers. That's what matters.

Brownshoe Sailor
Brownshoe Sailor

When are they going to start paying taxes. I paid more last year than GE did, and I'm a retired veteran.

bear_it999
bear_it999

....move their manufacturing to Mexico in the first place? Was it just to jettison their more experienced workers (who had better benefits) and replace them a few years later with a fresh batch of workers? Sorry, not buying into the GE PR machine's message and certainly not buying any GE products either.

adornoe
adornoe

At $1700 to $3000 price tags, the little people won't be spending their money with those "high-end" appliances. Hopefully, there are enough well-off people who will find the refrigerators attractive, otherwise, it's back to Mexico, where the costs of production might bring down the prices to more affordable levels for the mainstream consumer. Having said that, it's good to have those jobs come back, but, I'm just laying down the facts for "practicality".

jmackeyiii
jmackeyiii

most of the lean ideals which is attributed to the Japanese culture are actually ideas they came to the US to learn many years ago. We just did not do them and they did. Now we as a culture are realizing that those ideas are good without understanding it was a part of our long forgotten roots.

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

After all, as wages stagnate or drop, costs for furthered education rise (as companies now want people with 4-year degrees for $12/hr jobs that would never make use of the skills learned during that tenure)... Biochemists spend $150k for $60k/yr jobs. The people who study and work keep seeing losses. How can you justify the devaluation of work while supporting the, let's face it, leeches that "invest" only to demand a return on it, which now even comes at the cost of wages themselves... GE has a responsibility to its profit margins first and foremost. We can either have middle class wages, or a 2-tier system. You are advocating the latter. How do you know you will be at the top?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I guess the trees have finally gotten organized to charge us for our use of their waste products... do they threaten an embargo? They gonna keep it in if we don't pay up? Anyway, our most important economic activity is not consuming goods. Consuming goods is just the way the economy of individuals is interconnected into an economy of nation. Our most important economic activity (unless we're blue-blooded inheritor class leeches), is to do work. Work creates value, and value is what we exchange for money, which we then exchange for goods and services. No work, no consuming.

Ret.Miles
Ret.Miles

It's the consumers who pay taxes, not businesses. What's wrong with the customers of some business not "paying" taxes, which the customers of other businesses must pay, is that government arbitrarily gives some businesses advantages that other businesses don't receive. That's not capitalism, that's mercantilism, and it's unjust.

JCitizen
JCitizen

I've been in industry for 30 years and I've seen lazy shiftless workers that the union won't let the company fire, absolutely ruin it for everybody. We tried to convince our younger union members that we need to offer the company value so we can not only keep our jobs but get a raise down the road; but they wouldn't listen and acted like the world owed them a job; so guess what? The factory at my last location was busted up and part of it was moved to Arkansas where people are glad to have a job, and the rest of the unskilled labor went to Mexico. I figure GE has found a way through automation and factory floor engineering to make money off even lazy Americans. The problem becomes, they also need to be educated skilled workers - and our schools are falling down on that job too!

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

Why do people say "If wages go up, so will product costs"? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJDhS4oUm0M (there's a fun video to listen to...) But given corporations sit on trillions (which a quick web search will confirm), that not only proves "trickle down economics" is a lie sold to the masses, but it proves somebody pocketed the difference as selfish profit, and maybe those folks should be sacrificing a little as well. In short, they have redistributed wealth from the wealth-creators (WORKERS) and sent it to themselves. Especially with pay stagnating or dropping, the mainstream consumer will be on par with the Chinese or Mexican workers in time... oh, but their economies are building - how does 50 cents per hour help them when the same wage would be impossible to live on here? ;) http://www.realitybase.org/journal/2009/3/10/the-american-dream-died-in-february-1973.html http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/01/vicious-cycle-stagnant-wages But I digress.

adornoe
adornoe

and then come back to tell us which system works and which system destroys societies and civilizations and countries. Your ideas are the exact opposite of what makes for wealth creation, and successful economies. The worker is always the victim to those that don't understand economics. Do go and learn something about what makes for successful economies and societies. You have things completely azz-backwards, and you'd be much "better off" in places where your ideas have been implemented or are being implemented, such as Cuba and Venezuela. If you want to take a peek at what happens when your type of stupid ideas are implemented, look no further than Greece. How successful are they; how successful are the socialist economies of Europe? You have no idea about what has created the messes we have now, and you likely will always be blind to the facts. Now go pick up a copy of "Economics for Dummies". Or, go to Cuba and Venezuela and learn first-hand what your ideas bring to societies.

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

Especially your last paragraph, about the value of work. Why should people work harder when the only impetus is the crack of a whip? (And is it really cheaper to put up nets around high-rise buildings to prevent the stock, I mean workers, from killing themselves in our oh-so-compassionate culture...)

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...but is it fair that GE should be exempt from paying taxes while hundreds-of-thousands of less politically connected businesses do not?

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

And they aren't lazy... How do you define "lazy"? Or "union", for that matter? And don't worry, nobody owes YOU anything either. Just don't tell your regurgitated shtick to people like the police, firemen, military, EMTs, or anyone else for that matter... especially when you need them... In short, your neo-communist belief is not appreciated in this country. Lastly, the queen of your beliefs was proven to be an utter hypocrite as well: http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/149721/ayn_rand_railed_against_government_benefits,_but_grabbed_social_security_and_medicare_when_she_needed_them/?page=1

adornoe
adornoe

The wealth creators are NOT the workers. The people who create the wealth are the entrepreneurs, and the investors who take the risks with their money, and the idea people, and the creative and those work the long hours and have the know-how to run businesses and to make them work. The workers are beneficiaries, and not the wealth creators. Sure, without the needed labor, a lot of companies would not even get started, but, the spark to initiate a business, comes from the people I mentioned above, NOT the workers, who are, essentially, dependent upon the risks that the wealth-builders take. No wealth would ever be possible without people taking risks, not only with their time and effort and ideas and minds, but with their wealth. Without that wealth being invested into the economy, we'd have just another Venezuela or another Cuba or another Somalia. So, do try to get into the real world, where idealism is nice to have, but, practicality rules reality.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...because he is right; ultimately it's only consumers from whom the corporation gets its money who ultimately pay the tax. The only thing such taxes do is attempt to bury the tax burden from consumers. It also serves to make our exports more expensive and less competitive internationally. What is unjust about GE is that they've exploited political influence in Washington that few other people or organizations have. It's certainly not fair to their competition. This "crony capitalism" is destroying what is left of the free market.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

He says that while it's not the company but its customers who are paying, it's still unjust.

adornoe
adornoe

you continue to be left ignorant about the realities around you. Wake up! The demons in society are not the ones you keep pointing your fingers at. Liberals and progressives are anti-capitalism and anti free-markets, and they are the real communists in society. Get a clue. Better yet, get two clues.