Case Study: Lighting the path to brilliance

Feb. 26, 2019
The site evaluated itself and completely revamped every process.

By David George, engineering manager, and David Martin, plant manager at Current by GE’s Hendersonville Factory

What makes a factory brilliant?

For Current by GE, a truly brilliant facility not only employs smart technology, but leverages the right intelligent platforms and ecosystems to drive a faster and leaner facility. GE has nine factories nationwide that have earned the title “brilliant” due to their digitization efforts—emerging technologies ranging from collaborative robots to real-time production displays to using light fixtures to track assets in the facility. One factory making strides in its digital efforts is located in the small town of Hendersonville, North Carolina…home to Current by GE. 

Since 1955, the Hendersonville plant has produced outdoor-lighting fixtures, both traditional and LED street and parking-lot lighting products. In 2011, as the market was transitioning to LED and competition from abroad was increasing, the site took this opportunity to evaluate itself and completely revamp every process, from order-entry through manufacturing.

Establishing a foundation

The first step for Hendersonville’s transformation involved coming up with a site vision that would be the guiding force going forward. The vision ended up being “become customer-centric,” which meant looking at all processes through the eyes of the customer. Though very simple, it was transformational when applied to our processes.

Getting started we wanted to build a great foundation onto which we could build for years to come. So, we divided the site into three major processes:

  1. Order / information flow
  2. Materials manufacturing
  3. Shipping

The goal was to simplify and streamline each of the processes, ensuring they work together in harmony for best customer results.  

We ended up switching from a traditional batch-manufacturing model—one that was “make to stock, forecasting and expediting” —to a “make-to-order” pull system. This new system operated on a first in / first out basis, all starting with a customer order. This presented some challenges to the site, as we make more than 10,000 unique SKUs a year.

The trial started with one product line. Once the processes were simplified and debugged and we were happy with the results (order-to-ship cycle time reduced from eight to two 2 weeks, fill rates were up 30+ points to 96%), the next phase began: digitize the new processes to further enhance them and spread these efforts to all products.

The initial digitization effort was focused on eliminating the printed “work order” packet and the need for the operators to interact with the ERP system. An MES system was developed to provide all information to the operators digitally, and each station was outfitted with a touchscreen—along with bar-code scanning that eliminated the need for operator ERP usage.

Lessons learned:

  • Optimize the whole organization, not just the department
  • Simplify, then digitize 

Sustain and improve

The changes were spread to all product lines, but the next issue became evident. How do we sustain the improvements made and continue to improve the factory?

To sustain, we learned we had to establish “standard-work” for all processes. Keeping this “standard” method for a given process would both allow us to sustain the improvements and provide a standard to improve upon.

To improve, we started doing monthly, week-long workouts to address a given issue in the factory. The workouts were 40 hours dedicated to improving a problem with a cross-functional team, including affected operators from all shifts. The focus of the workouts was to eliminate hard work for operators. 

The next step on the digital side was also obvious. It was to take advantage of all the technology on the floor—PLCs, sensors and PCs—and gather data about production, downtime, cycle times and line stops. All this data was available at the SKU level and could be rolled, sorted and diced anyway we needed it. 

We also used that data to provide real-time production displays to all assembly lines—production level, goal and customer. These boards enabled everyone to see how each line was performing to their goal at any given time.

Lessons learned:

  • GEMBA—go to the place of work and observe
  • Operators are the process experts
  • Aim for better, not perfect

Lean culture of empowerment

At this point it really becomes about empowering the operator and realizing they are the key to a highly successful factory. Providing staff with a “call button” where they can request assistance from any support group—maintenance, IT, engineering and quality—and have a text message sent and response time tracked in our system enables us to get feedback and suggested improvements (large and small) from the people on the front line.

The digital improvements continue with collaborative robots aiding the assembly process, using our lights to track assets on the factory floor and our AllSites software managing energy use.

One unique digital solution is exception alerting; we now have the system send text messages when something is outside parameters—a line goes down, a quality defect is found, etc. Exception alerting enables us to take advantage of the data we collect and truly make an impact. 

Lessons learned:

  • Establish a lean culture
  • Encourage servant leadership—Think “how can we help?” with a very high ratio of what we say and what we do
  • Empower our employees—they are the secret sauce

The results

Becoming a customer-centric factory by simplifying and then digitizing. Our new processes have yielded outstanding results, including:

  • Customer cycle time—reduced from eight to two weeks
  • Customer fill rates—up from 60 to 95 percent
  • Plant productivity—units per man-hour have doubled
  • Inventory turns—up from four to ten
  • Infiltration & inflow rate—cut in half, to a mere 1.25

Brilliant, don’t you think?