Researching for the future

Research and development are essential to keep successful manufacturers ahead of the game. E&T interviews GE's Carlos Haertel.

It may describe itself as "a global infrastructure, finance and media company," but with interests from everyday light bulbs to fuel cell technology, and from carbon composites to cleaner, more efficient jet engines, General Electric Company (GE) knows that it can't succeed without also investing in research and development - including long-term research.

As well as the finance and media parts, the group's businesses include: Energy Infrastructure, covering energy, oil & gas, water and process technologies; Technology Infrastructure, covering aviation, enterprise solutions, transportation and healthcare; and Consumer & Industrial, which includes appliances, electrical distribution and lighting.

One of the key corporate functions supporting all that engineering and manufacturing activity is Global Research, with centres in the US, India, China and Europe. Carlos Haertel heads the European research centre in Munich.

"In 2004, when the centre was announced," says Haertel, "there was a focus on areas where GE thought it might be good to have a presence in Europe, to be able to partner with strong companies and research institutions, to work with important customers or simply to get access to a large talent pool in certain spaces. For example, alternative energy and environmental technology were areas where Europe had a lot more push at that time than you could find in the US.

"There were other areas, like healthcare, where you need to be close to your luminaries in hospitals, to get access to their wealth of knowledge and their specific research areas." This area is the focus of the centre's imaging technologies lab. Instrumentation is an important area of interest too, especially for materials testing and fault diagnostics.

Originally, Munich was also expected to have a strong automotive unit, working with German companies like BMW or Daimler, which were seen as more willing to absorb new technologies than the mass-market US manufacturers. However, GE's strongest link with the automotive world was new materials, so the 2007 sale of GE Plastics to Saudi Basic Industries (Sabic) closed off that avenue.

Game-changing advanced technology

Haertel estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of the projects at the centre are related in some way to alternative energy and environmental technologies, and stresses the second part of that. It's not just about power generation from renewable sources like the wind and sun, but also waste heat recovery and carbon-dioxide capture: "For example, you could treat the exhaust from a combustion engine, taking out all the sulphur and other contaminants and ultimately all the CO2."

As a corporate research centre, the bulk of Munich's activity is closely related to the needs of the businesses, but Haertel says that typically 10 per cent and sometimes 20 per cent of the research "is more of a longer-range game-changing nature: first-of-their-kind developments and proof-of-concept activities that may not easily fit into existing product lines". That work, the Advanced Technology Programme, is carried out with GE corporate funding, often supported by external research money from the EU or national governments.

However, more than half of the centre's funding comes from direct contracts with the various GE businesses, and it pays for work that is essentially concerned with supporting existing markets - either by incrementally upgrading products or giving them a major overhaul with new technology. "It's no surprise," says Haertel, "that most of what we do is about making sure our current products stay competitive and are driven continuously to the future."

A smaller element of the centre's work involves fault-finding and problem-solving: occasions where a business encounters a problem with an existing product and perhaps doesn't have the expertise or the specialist equipment to carry out a root-cause analysis or come up with a quick solution. The research centre can provide that capability, for example using radiography to investigate a material failure. "We do that, but we do not want it to be much more than 10 to 15 per cent of our activity," Haertel says.

One of the six laboratories he oversees is dedicated to carbon composites manufacturing. Work is at an early stage, but he foresees much broader industrial application of these materials in future.

Carbon composites already have a growing place in aviation, particularly with the development of the Boeing Dreamliner and Airbus A350 aircraft, but the manufacturing techniques are expensive and rely on a highly skilled workforce. Most industrial applications require high volume, high speed, high quality and low cost. The only way that can be achieved, according to Haertel, is by extensive automation, "so we have a strong interest here in automated manufacturing of large components made out of carbon composite materials. You would have a gantry system with a tape-laying head on it, that is led past your mould and will lay tape after tape in an automated fashion."

In fact, Haertel sees a centre of excellence developing in the Munich area for carbon composites manufacturing. "Some government labs are involved, and the Technical University in Munich, but also industry players who all share the same interest in making it finally viable for industry applications, to replace steel and metals in more and more applications. We are very excited about that."

Aiming for higher energy efficiency

Asked to name the technologies that are set to grow rapidly in importance, Haertel immediately cites higher energy efficiency - making better use of fossil energy, and in particular waste heat recovery. "Where you have a lot of heat being rejected, in industrial plant or small power-gen applications where combined-cycle technology may not make sense, then you have other technologies to help you turn more of that valuable heat into electricity. So you are taking more electricity out of the primary energy carrier - gas, coal or whatever you have. I think that's going to become very big and very important."

Managing demand is another growing area, and one where GE is already involved in smart metering and smart grid projects that help utilities meet demand with less primary energy input. Haertel argues that more intelligent solutions for the grid have an important part to play in the energy story alongside a much larger contribution from renewables.

Wind will continue to be the leader in renewables for a long time, he says, and has reached a high level of maturity in the 1.5-2.5MW band. Photovoltaics may be the next major growth area, but that will depend on the technology being industrialised on a large scale to bring the costs down. Efficiencies will need to improve, as will ease of implementation and use.

However, GE believes that no one technology will dominate the generation mix. Nuclear, coal and gas will all contribute, though renewables will represent a growing share.

Haertel is not unduly worried about the effects of the economic crisis on GE's research activity, saying it has grown over the years as the businesses have grown: "That growth for the moment is slower than it used to be, but we protected our investment in technology and continue doing so." He suggests that the balance between near-term and long-range programmes may shift a little, but only within the normal year-on-year variations. "Maybe next year we would look at taking the cost out of a manufacturing process, rather than an innovation to take you into a new market, but the programme we have today is qualitatively similar in breadth to the one a year ago," he says.

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