During a 2019 TrustBelt conference speech in Louisville, GE Appliances (GEA) President and CEO Kevin Nolan encouraged listeners to embrace their own valley — that workforce development challenges aren’t going to be solved by Silicon Valley. He was referring to the need to find more technical engineering talent with the depth and breadth of Industry 4.0 skills to support GE’s smart factories.

That is the year the company launched its Industry 4.0 Development Program (I4DP) to develop the talent to take on its modern supply chain engineering roles.

Collie Crawford heard about the program through a friend who worked at GEA. “He asked for my resume and passed it on to Trent Ingram, who is the executive director of this program,” Crawford said. “Trent asked if I would like to be the first into this program to help develop it from the ground up. I thought it was too good to pass up, and it gave [me] a chance to work for a larger company.” Crawford graduated from the program this year.

The program

Crawford explained that the two-year program includes four hands-on rotations of highly specialized, in-class training in industrial controls, robotics, testing and data visualization. In the first rotation, Industrial Controls, program members participate in original equipment manufacturer (OEM) design reviews and run offs to learn how to ensure the equipment is compatible with GEA’s digital plant environment. 

The second rotation is Robotics, where participants learn to incorporate robots to work with the equipment. The third, Test Group, uses software and programming developed in-house for test systems and equipment.

In the fourth and final rotation, participants continue to develop and refine GEA’s factory data visualization tool — Brilliant Factory — bringing new features to the platform on a weekly basis.

Mentoring and coaching is a big part of the experience too. “I loved learning from the engineers during my rotations and finding new applications and ways to do things,” said Crawford. “Patrick Nally, the engineering manager for controls, has really good automotive and high-volume manufacturing experience. Hakim Sultanov, advanced manufacturing engineer, helped me learn about machine vision and how you properly implement vision or cameras on a plant floor. There are so many considerations to make it work that you can’t learn [everything] in a class.”

Return on investment

This type of training costs the company thousands of dollars, but the ROI is strong. “We’ve seen great ROI with members from my team in solving big problems that save a lot of money for the business,” Crawford added. “This could be either helping prevent the need for a part redesign or finding a way to integrate new technology into our existing equipment. Then we increase our ability to do throughput or decrease cycle time.” 

“Collie has been fantastic,” said Ingram. “His structured and logical approach to the work is a credit to him — plus he can definitely see the connections between systems.

“Collie also went above and beyond to help fellow program members who followed in his footsteps,” Ingram added. “My master’s degree is in engineering management, so helping others is what it’s all about,” said Crawford. “I created guides and formalized processes so those who came behind me would have additional resources to be successful.”

Growth

With artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, the manufacturing industry has seen a huge resurgence. This is driving the need for more technical skill sets from all levels of employees. In fact, GE has added 2,000 jobs in the last five years alone. As appliances keep getting smarter, there will always be something to work on.