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Behind GE's feature-heavy refrigerator, a lean manufacturing strategy

Behind GE's feature-heavy refrigerator, a lean manufacturing strategy

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GE's new family of top-of-the-line refrigerators is packed with tech-forward features. But the manufacturing process behind them is leaner than ever.

LOUISVILLE -- 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, the company unveiled a snazzy new line of "French door bottom-freezer refrigerators," which expectedly offer new bells and whistles for modern consumers seeking more smarts from their kitchen appliances.

But the real story is one of process: GE decided to build these premium refrigerators at a newly-renovated, high-tech manufacturing facility here in Louisville, Kentucky. The $250 million factory introduces new manufacturing procedures designed to drastically reduce the environmental impact of making the appliances.

GE credited its new "lean manufacturing" efforts as a 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.

The refrigerators that GE unveiled on Tuesday were the first designed and built in this new facility, and they're premium in every way. Below, a list of some of the most notable features of the new line -- with a few words from the company explaining them:

  • 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."

And this line of refrigerators come with a premium price to match: between $1,699 and $2,999 MSRP.

The product family is certainly GE's new flagship line of refrigerators and likely the new flagship products for the entire GE Appliances division. The first ones will arrive to market in June. (Some of the more expensive models will debut later, in the fourth quarter.)

"We are launching the largest promotional campaign in our history" to make sure consumers know about the innovations GE is bringing to the market, GE Appliances CEO Chip Blankenship said.

The myriad features are not all dedicated to consumer convenience, however. As part of GE's Ecoimagination campaign 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 percent," said Paul Surowiec, general manager of GE's Refrigeration division.

From a corporate standpoint, GE viewed this product launch as an opportunity to demonstrate that the U.S. is a great place to build cutting-edge products -- with itself as the shining example -- with the added benefit of contributing to reinvestment in American communities, too.

As such, GE chief executive Jeff Immelt received several standing ovations from more than 1,000 factory workers gathered in Appliance Park's Building #5. Immelt called the launch a historic moment, and a "great journey we're all going to be embarking on together."

GE is doing the right thing by "investing in facilities like this one that can stay competitive throughout the ages," Immelt said. "These products that we design we have to build in GE factories."

For GE's part, that means investing $1 billion in its U.S. facilities -- $800 million is earmarked for Appliance Park, with a new front-load washing machine factory already under construction -- and pursuing a goal to create 1,300 new U.S. jobs by 2014.

"[With lean manufacturing,] we're creating a culture of collaboration and improvement that is at the heart of the resurgence in U.S. manufacturing," Blankenship said. "With lean manufacturing... we can compete and win against anyone in the world."

Will GE's efforts spark a larger scale manufacturing resurgence in the U.S.? It remains to be seen. But here at Appliance Park, it's a startling transformation for one of America's historic manufacturing facilities -- one that was on its deathbed only a few years ago.

Or, as local IUE Union president Jerry Carney asked, "Who would have thought we would have transformed this dinosaur into what we see today?"

Photos: Jason Hiner; GE

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Jason Hiner

Global Editor in Chief

Jason Hiner is the Editor in Chief of TechRepublic. He is an award-winning journalist and writes about the products, people, and ideas that are revolutionizing business with technology. Disclosure