8/6 General Electric Research Facility in Bangalore (3 of 6)

The first day in Bangalore, we were headed to a day trip at the General Electric campus. I woke up to the pleasant surprise of a high-quality complimentary breakfast including made-to-order eggs. Our car arrived at 7:45 and we napped on the way to the GE campus. Brad said he hoped it lived up to my expectations as I was very excited to see R&D in an industry setting, and I was in awe all day long. We began with an overview presentation about the expansive GE company, and I was surprised to learn that NBC is a branch of GE. I was especially interested in the wind turbine discussions, and our host made special note of the need for cheap, high quality products.
The GE campus is a clean, first-rate oasis within the bustling, polluted city of Bangalore. The security is such that we had to show passports and get visitor ID badges before entering, and we were required to have an escort the entire day. The clean campus is about 55 acres across and is filled with soft, green grass, ponds, a Japanese rock garden, ducks, flowers and bushes with multicolor leaves. There are outdoor meeting places in little huts for when technology isn’t required and so the employees can enjoy the usually perfect climate. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a room with real-time video conferencing so people on opposite sides of the world can discuss business face to face. Additionally, the campus generates its own power, specifically because sensitive experiments cannot rely on the sometimes-intermittent Indian electricity.
The cafeteria is open air with large white tents as ceilings, and there is a serious focus on employee health and happiness. The meal options list calories and there are extensive options. The campus is open to employees 24 hrs a day, hours are flexible and work is productivity-based. All of the people we met with were passionate and excited to share their accomplishments with us. The campus has a very nice lounge with pool tables, ping-pong, chess, an Indian board game and a TV. There are organized IM games and sometimes afternoon team-building activities such as bowling and paintball. There is a gym with long hours and physiotherapy and a fitness consultant. The company is clearly interested in supporting employee physical and mental health, and hoping to bring Indian citizens who went to the states for college back to their home country to work. Approx. 30-40% of employees got their degrees in America, and everyone speaks clear English.
The first branch of the tour was right up my alley. We visited the ceramics synthesis, processing and characterization labs. We saw phosphorous-based LEDs and CFLs, and a very kind woman who has a background in Mat Sci and a PhD in solid-state chem showed us the powders they combine to achieve different shades of white light. The new light technology is chip-based and so is not yet affordable enough to be commercialized but has the potential to replace all mercury-based bulbs. The labs used to make SOFCs but the project funding was cut because it is not yet ready to be commercialized, as Zach and I suspected. They had no screen-printer but plenty of other fancy ceramics processing machines. There were more furnaces than I’d ever seen in one place and one even runs a 100% hydrogen environment.
The labs are kept very tidy and there are strict safety rules. Shoes required in labs, unlike at IIT Madras. (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wrap my mind around that, especially if it is supposed to be a top university. I just don’t understand why they don’t practice lab safety despite cultural norms.) We visited the metallurgy lab and the most interesting part was the Ni-based electrochemical storage devices (batteries which may replace Li-ion). They were hooked up in small furnaces to potentiostats and with thermocouples that reminded me of home. They are also working on magnet-based refrigeration techniques using rare-earth metals that cool when demagnetized. The metals are magnetized which causes them to increase in temperature, a coolant is run over them and then when the magnetic field is removed the further decrease in temperature has potential as highly energy efficient cooling that is not limited by Carnot. This project, unlike the SOFCs, has secured funding for over four years now, and thus they are making significant and regular progress. The GE business plan is based on innovation, and the company sells entire departments such as the plastics research as soon as the technology is in demand on a large scale.
Throughout the visit, Prof. Dunand and his energy-efficient materials class was often called to mind and I was inspired to sit through his class again if it fits into my schedule next year. I was surprised at how much information I retained but it couldn’t hurt to hear everything again. I need to remember to thank him for such a valuable and interesting course.
After a lunch break, our marathon tour session continued. We visited the polymer synthesis lab, where many solutions were spinning in complicated tube set-ups in fume hoods and the lab benches were covered in bottles holding raw ingredients. In this wet chemistry lab, they explained that they deal with chromography determining what molecules make up the polymer chains. They also examine leeching in normal conditions to analyze safety for human contact, specifically for shoes. One man explained that he works for the FSA – the Foot Safety Authority of the EU. Who know that such a thing even existed. We walked next door to the characterization lab where they test the Tg with DSC machines and host the only flame tester in the world, a fully robotic system in a big black box. There were two TEM prep stations, a TEM, two SEMs and two giant magnets used for looking at the molecular structure of the monomers (I can’t remember what this last one was called). Then, in one of the coolest parts of the tour, we went downstairs and into a very loud room. It was filled with probably 20 giant machines that simulate any weather conditions you could imagine, and polymers were spinning around in rain or strong UV light. These machines are the only in the world, and have special coding for different climates and countries. Man can control the weather!....inside a complicated box that is monitored 24-hrs a day. After weather testing the polymers are color-tested, because that’s a very important part of polymer performance. For example, they are trying to create a polymer that will replace glass for car windows, but it must not yellow under normal weather conditions. It also must withstand wiper blades in sand, dirt and water without scratching and so they were running a 10,000-cycle test on a little piece. These polymers would be lighter than glass while performing the same with more options for sporty shapes.
After a pleasant walk across campus, we came to the building that holds the biomed engineers. They are working on two MR scan machines, with 1.5 Tesla and 3 Tesla magnets inside. The developments they are most proud of is the imaging possibilities without using a bloodstream dye, which is too dangerous for many patients to use and requires very specific scan timing in which a 3-5 second delay could cause failure. Additionally, they are working on a “coil” or a receiver that works for the entire body rather than only one part at a time such as shoulder or spine or brain, as current technology requires.
One of the most inspiring presentations was on EDS machines by a young engineer who received his education in India and works with a team of 5-6 people to create EDS machines which examine heart health from all angles. He showed us a line of the products which range from simple and portable to “top of the line,” meaning very expensive and complicated. The beauty of the project is that he and his team realized that for India, where electricity is not at a constant frequency and not always available or reliable in rural areas, it was necessary to invent a special product (you’ve probably seen this commercial!...). They created a simple EDS machine that is a very affordable price, makes a print out on the spot, charges fully in about 3 hours and can then perform 500 EDS scans before needing to be charged again, designed specifically for doctors to take to rural India, where much of the population resides. They also designed an EDS specifically for use in China, and they are working on a universal mix between the simple and the complicated. This engineer was clearly proud of the work he has done in his 5½ years at GE, and offered an inspiring presentation that impressed me very much.
Our last stop was the NDE lab with our host. We skipped the airplane engines, steam turbine and wind turbine building because the work is theoretical and watching people on computer screens doesn’t make for an interesting tour. The NDE lab, on the other hand, has giant X-Ray defect testing machines inside a meter-thick concrete wall. The lab is moving towards 100% digital imaging (duh, who still uses film?), increasing productivity. The biomedical department originally designed much of this technology, and then NDE realized it would be useful for them as well. We saw the custom-made eddy current testers that can be easily carried to the field and are much faster and easier to use than a single probe tester. As far as ultrasonic defect testing, they had devices called PIGs that are fully-contained systems that can be sent hundreds of miles down pipes and provide a comprehensive data set of the structural health. There are also permanent sensors that can be installed at places of interest and work wirelessly to examine pipe wall depth. The lab often works to build theoretical models and then perform experiments to check accuracy, just as we will be doing at IIT. WHEW, that’s the end!
You think this was a long entry? Just imagine how long the tour was. I left with a sore back and feet and needing to nap, but in awe at the expansive campus and product range. The facilities were much more impressive than anything I’ve seen in a university setting, and the work environment seemed to foster happiness and success. The trip was inspiring and I wish I had more time to talk to the engineers about what path led them to a job at GE and what keeps them there.
I’m having a great time, but I’m also starting to feel very homesick, specifically because I miss my friends like crazy. I’ve never been on a trip longer than about 10 days, but we’re only about 1/3 of the way done. It’s an internal conflict because this is an incredible experience and of course I don’t want it to be over yet, but I grow weary and home is a long stretch off. We will be traveling until August 13th, and it will be wonderful to get into a routine on campus. I’m sick of living in hotel rooms, and I haven’t been sleeping very well. I blame the malaria pills, and the weird dreams are about my friends thus making the homesick situation even worse. I don’t mean to complain, just to say that I love my friends and family and think of them every day.