GE Transportation works to fill largest order in its history
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — General Electric was building a massive new locomotive plant, but construction wouldn’t stop at the factory gates.
Building on land described as wilderness, GE planned to also build a small community that would begin with 100 homes.
That might sound like the familiar story of Lawrence Park, built by General Electric after beginning work on its Erie plant in 1910.
But it also describes what is taking place this moment, half a world away, in the remote Indian state of Bihar, where GE Transportation is building not only a new factory but also a small town, complete with a community center and shopping areas, all in support of the largest order in the history of the business.
While the steel framework of a new 500,000-square-foot factory takes shape in India — patterned after the company’s locomotive plant in Fort Worth, Texas — engineering teams in Erie and India have spent months designing, redesigning and tweaking plans for locomotives the company would build for India Railways.
The first two of those 4,500-hp locomotives, which GE engineers say represent a 20-year leap in technology compared to the freight locomotives now pulling loads across the world’s second most populous nation, have been built by workers in Erie and are ready for testing on the company’s test track.
After they’ve been tested and painted, an elaborate scheme of red and yellow, the locomotives are expected to be shipped from Erie in August and arrive in India sometime in October.
The order isn’t new. It’s been known since late 2015, just weeks after the company announced a massive downsizing of 1,500 people from its Erie plant.
At first glance, the $2.5 billion order for 1,000 locomotives would have seemed like salvation for the Erie plant, which is the designated build site for locomotives constructed for foreign markets.
But this order, like a growing number of international orders, called for much of the work to be done in the country that was making the purchase.
In this case, the order from India Railways called for the first 100 locomotives to be built in Erie and for the remainder to be built in Bihar, an agricultural region in eastern India that borders Nepal.
At a recent media event, attended by railroad journalists from around the United States, company officials were quick to acknowledge the location was one they would never have chosen. Not only was the proposed plant site in a flood plain, but it was also located in a high-risk area for earthquake activity, had spotty electrical service and no proven workforce.
But GE took the gamble.
Speaking during a video conference with reporters, Nalin Jain, CEO of GE Transportation and GE Aviation in South Asia, said the new plant, which is expected to be building locomotives by the third quarter of 2018, will train and provide jobs for about 400 people.
Bihar “is a very undeveloped place,” Jain said. “We are not only in the business of building locomotives. We are in the business of nation building.”
Building the factory meant sinking hundreds of concrete pilings 75 feet into the earth to help protect the building from potential earthquake damage.
And in what might have been an even greater challenge, it meant elevating a 70-acre building site by 9 feet.
After building a truck-worthy road to the remote building location, truck drivers worked round-the-clock, hauling an average of 500 truckloads of fill to the site each day for six solid months.
Meanwhile, design teams in Erie and India were working to perfect the locomotive they had promised to build.
Alan Hamilton, GE Transportation’s general manager for systems, propulsion, electronics and advanced controls, showed reporters how engineers and others in Erie used a virtual reality room to communicate with a second design center in Bangalore, India.
The process allows for immediate design changes and replaces the long-standing practice of building plywood mock-ups, he said.
“Before, changes could take weeks,” Hamilton said. “This allows us to do it in real time.”
Hamilton said the new locomotive leverages tried-and-true GE technology, but is built to the customer’s unique specifications that call for a lighter locomotive with two operator cabs instead of one.
In addition a wide range of technology upgrades, Hamilton said the GE locomotives will provide operators with air conditioning, a virtually unknown luxury in a country where locomotives are built to withstand operating temperatures of up to 120 degrees.
Scott Slawson, president of Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America at GE Transportation, couldn’t be reached to comment. But Slawson has said in the past he would like to see Erie workers do as much of the work as possible to fill orders placed by foreign and domestic customers.
Richard Simpson, the company’s vice president of the global supply chain, said building most of the locomotives in India, like the requirement to build a small town, was not up for negotiation.
He said the massive order will provide some stability for workers in Erie, who will be shipping 40 fully built locomotives and then 60 of what he called “complete knockdown kits.”
“It’s basically a locomotive in a box, a lot of boxes if you want to know the truth,” he said.
The terms of the order call for the locomotives to be built over the next 10 years at the rate of about two per week.
But after building a plant, a small town on the sometimes shaky and seasonally flooded land of Bihar, GE Transportation is clearly looking beyond this contract.
“This order is for 10 years,” Simpson said. “But we don’t build factories for 10 years. We build factories like Erie for 100 years. Our expectation is to continue to win business.”
Sree Deep Nangarath, who helped design the new locomotive as a member of the GE engineering team working on the project from Bangalore, hopes that’s the case.
A native of India and a GE employee for 13 years, Nangarath said he has been looking forward to the day when a machine he helped develop would pull freight through his country.
One of those first two Indian locomotives, painted for the moment in a primer green that only an engineer could love, was pulled into the sunshine outside the GE Transportation for inspection.
Nangarath smiled as he showed off the 291,000-pound locomotive, built in Erie and designed by engineers around the world.
“This is something we have been planning for 10 years now,” he said. “I had been hoping year after year that it would come. It’s a big day for me.”
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com