Nearly 100 members of the Manufacturing Leadership Council gathered in Greenville, South Carolina last week to see first-hand how General Electric’s 1.5-million square foot heavy duty gas turbine factory is embracing digitization, a transformational effort that involves an array of new technologies, significant process changes, and, above all, cultural change at the 48-year old site.

ML Council members toured the gas turbine factory, where 50 and 60 Hz gas turbines undergo final assembly and testing, as well as GE’s two-year old Advanced Manufacturing Works incubator facility, whose mission is to be a “bridge” between new technology and production ideas, such as 3D printing and the factory floor. After the tours, a town hall-style roundtable was held where ML Council members described their own journeys to the factory of the future, including what their factory models might look like, what worker competencies and skills will be needed, and the increasing threat of cyber attacks.

What ML Council members saw during the GE tour was a factory in the process of transforming to achieve higher levels of operational efficiency and performance, which is symbolized in GE’s “Brilliant Factory” concept. Manual work is still performed in many areas of the Greenville factory, but sensors are being incorporated into equipment in order to generate information about their state, and more automation is being brought in to reduce costs and speed time to market.

In one of the factory’s turbine blade cells, for example, GE is remaking a predominantly manual-intensive operation in order to reduce labor and cycle time. Right now, the cell consists of 12 machines, four operators per shift, requires a 15-day cycle, and has a cost of about $46,000 per shift.

Using advanced robotics, the future state of the cell is envisioned to consist of three machines, one operator per shift, a four-day cycle time, and a cost of just over $9,000 per shift. GE said that the three operators who will be displaced by the automation will be reassigned to other functions in the factory.

In the maintenance department, computer screens in a control room monitor equipment factors such as vibration and energy consumption. GE maintenance officials said their goal is to “not run to failure anymore”, and instead, to use digital tools and information to get ahead of potential equipment problems proactively. In the huge Greenville factory, the payoff of a highly digitized and automated maintenance model can be significant. GE’s maintenance savings goal in Greenville is $900,000; the maintenance department is about half way to that target today.

All of these transformations on the factory floor, and in the maintenance department, will require potentially difficult behavioral changes on the part of the people who work there. “It is a big cultural change when you take data available to one person, and make it available to everyone,” said one GE official. “One of the biggest challenges when automating and getting data, is getting people all the way up the line used to it. It can be uncomfortable for them. I’ve had many conversations where people got defensive. So you’ve got to go through change management first. And you’ve got to explain why.”

At the Advanced Manufacturing Works facility, ML Council members saw 3D printing and robotics systems as well as laser micro jet technology, which GE officials said improves “hole popping” in various materials. Staffing at AMW is noticeably different than in the gas turbine factory. GE officials said AMW requires “T-shaped” people – those who have deep experience in a particular area, but are also able and willing to work with others collaboratively. The staffing model, they said, is one-third from GE Power, one-third from other parts of GE, and one-third from outside.

AMW “needs people who want to be innovative and also collaborative,” one GE official said. “It took a lot of energy to find the right team. Having said that, these are not necessarily people I would want running a production shop. They are not as good at operations; they’re more inclined to look at step changes as opposed to continuous improvement.”

At the roundtable session following the tour, ML Council members discussed what their factory footprints or models might look like in the next 10 to 15 years. The choice of approach – large factories; hub and spoke factory configurations; or a set of micro factories, among other models – depends upon a company’s business and the types of products it makes.

One Council member, from a major pharmaceutical manufacturer, said that his company will employ a range of production models that mirrors the many business segments it operates in. “Stronger localization, flexibility of supply chain, and technologies such as 3D printing will lead to a more dispersed model,” he said.

Another Council member, from a major industrial equipment and parts manufacturer, said his business will require larger factories in the future, but with the flexibility to make different products. And a member from a major electronics company said that his company’s future factory footprint would be more regional, but vertically integrated.

Workers in these future factories, regardless of the models, will need to be much more tech savvy and able to work collaboratively, ML Council members said. And they will have to learn how to handle vast quantities of data coming from the pervasive connectivity of plant floor equipment and devices, from the supply chain, and from smart products delivered to customers.

“The challenge as we get more digital is developing a self-confidence in the workforce to believe in data,” one Council member said.

But earning that trust, given the increasing threat of cyber attacks, isn’t going to be easy. ML Council members were unanimous in voicing concern that cybersecurity was going to get more complicated and riskier in the future.

“Things will get better when we get away from passwords,” one Council member said.