The disruptive tech being developed at GE Healthcare’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center is changing the way Brilliant Machines are made.
Imagine this: A factory operator lays out component parts on his worktop. He’s putting together a vital part of an incubator, built to warm thousands of newborns in the critical hours after birth and built to last tens of years. In this important moment, there’s no room for error.
But with the Augmented Reality (AR) system switched on, the operator isn’t worried about that. The interactive light-guided system, made up of a high-resolution projector and a camera not dissimilar to an Xbox Kinect, monitors his motion and alerts him to any mistakes.
The projection on his worktop shows what the final product should look like; it even indicates the right tools to use, and flashes an affirmative green whenever a step in the assembly process is complete.
The operator is grateful for his AR help – it’s like having an extra set of hands to get the job done right.
Over at another station, an operator is dealing with component parts infinitely more complex and more intricate than they would have been even five years ago.
But instead of dealing with an assembly of a thousand pieces, components are now 3D printed, made up of layer upon layer of metal alloy printed as one single piece, offering both quality performance and greater affordability.
Meanwhile, thanks to even more technology innovation, another operator has been freed up from what’s known as “dull, dirty, difficult, dangerous” processes on the assembly line. Working with his neighboring collaborative robot or “co-bot,” the operator is freed up for value added work while the co-bot’s flexible automation handles the repetitive production work.
This isn’t the plot for a science-fiction novel, but rather the way imaging equipment like MR, CT and X-ray scanners and life sciences products will be manufactured in the very near future. It’s what GE Healthcare is working on every day to accelerate how its 70 factories around the world can adopt advanced manufacturing technology.
It’s all being developed at the aptly named Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center, home to GE Healthcare’s Advanced Manufacturing Engineering, or AME for short. Located in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the Center serves as a proving ground for the latest leading-edge technologies engineers hope will soon transform the way machines are designed, manufactured and even the way they interact with each other over the Industrial Internet – the network allowing machines to gather and interpret reams of data making them smart enough to predict their own maintenance schedules.
Jimmie Beacham, Chief Engineer in GE Healthcare’s Global Supply Chain and AME, says that this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible with these new technologies… and that’s why he calls them “disruptive.”
“’Disruptive’ technology means two things to me,” he said. “One – and this is the charter of my team here at AME – is that it can help us make advancements in manufacturing such that we can make breakthrough products for our customers and solve problems traditional manufacturing couldn’t.”
“Two — it means that, especially in the healthcare environment where there’s increasing cost pressure, we can transform supply chains to be more cost effective than ever before.”
Advanced manufacturing has experienced widespread adoption, resulting in lower price points and ease of use in day-to-day manufacturing settings. For example, AR systems that cost $20,000 today once cost close to $1M and can now be tailored to almost any industrial situation, including GE Healthcare’s factories around the world… limited only by the AME engineers’ imaginations.
“AR and co-bots got pushed hard by the automotive industry at first,” said Jimmie, “but we’re quick adopters and we’re also pushing these technologies into areas where the applications are totally new.” One example where GE Healthcare is currently using co-bots in manufacturing is at its Life Sciences plant in Oslo, Norway, where they’re assisting with contrast agent production and packaging.
Always innovating, the AME team is also looking at AR usage for other operational needs, such as verifying that someone has gowned up correctly in a clean-room environment or for the routine maintenance of critical equipment.
David Mannix, asset manager at Alliance Imaging, one of the largest radiology and clinical services companies in the U.S., recently visited the AME center. “It was impressive for a few reasons,” he said. “It clearly allows GE to promote a culture of innovation and creativity by having rapid prototyping tools to test concepts and actual designs. I think this allows the design teams to take risks and obtain feedback and verification at a low cost in a very short turnaround time.”
David, who works to drive performance excellence by introducing the latest and best-performing technology to hospitals, was shown the manufacturing process for MRI coils, causing him to reflect on how far the industry had come in a short amount of time. “I had no idea MRIs were designed with such complexity and precision,” he said. “The technology of building an actual finished CT part from a design document in which you press ‘print’ and see the actual part being made in a matter of seconds is equally amazing.”
Surrounding all this exciting technology and the related applications is an overarching platform that makes it all possible: the Industrial Internet.
“Everything we do, all the equipment we buy, is Industrial Internet enabled,” Jimmie emphasized. “We’re also leveraging the GE Store so that all our healthcare manufacturing teams can adopt these innovations quickly and economically, and we can share them with other parts of GE.”
Jimmie adds that robust, quality data is key. Brilliant Factories emerge only because of the data of brilliant machines, he notes. “And that’s what we’re making here – brilliant machines.”