In the News

Last week, I visited General Electric Company's (NYSE:GE) global research headquarters in Niskayuna, N.Y., located just outside Schenectady, where GE's original research center was founded in 1900 in a barn.

Since those humble beginnings, the Niskayuna site has replaced the Schenectady site and remains home to some of GE's brightest minds working on developing next-generation industrial technology and providing solutions to technical challenges currently facing the company's seven industrial segments.

During the visit, I toured the campus, met with various engineers and scientists, and got a sense of how research and development is conducted at the industrial giant. Here's what I learned from the experience.

This time around, Utica got the semiconductor riches that the Capital Region has enjoyed now for years.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that the Austrian analog chip manufacturer AMS AG will build a $2 billion factory in the town of Marcy outside Utica on a site owned by SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany.

New York state will contribute $200 million toward construction of the 360,000-square-foot facility, which will initially employ 700. It will be located across the street from SUNY Poly's Utica campus on the 450-acre Marcy Nanocenter.

Cuomo also said General Electric Co. will put a new $200 million research lab in the nearly completed 253,000-square-foot Quad-C building at SUNY Poly's Utica campus.

ALBANY — General Electric, once one of the biggest employers in Utica, one of New York’s hardest-luck towns, is coming back.

Dolloping out another economic perk to a long-maligned upstate locale, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Thursday that G.E. would return to Utica for a high-tech project in a city where it once made low-tech radios.

The announcement of G.E.’s plans to package silicon carbide power blocks at the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute in Utica was just part of what the governor himself packaged as a “transformative moment” for the entire Mohawk Valley, west of the state capital. That moment included the unveiling of a promise of a more than $2 billion investment by an Austrian company, AMS, which manufactures sensors. The company pledged to generate more than 1,000 jobs at a new “wafer fabrication facility” it plans to build in the area.

Can light create jobs?

SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany was awarded $110 million from the Department of Defense last week to assemble a $610 million federal photonics manufacturing institute.

And while the headquarters of the 124-member research consortium will be in Rochester, the Capital Region is expected to benefit as well.

That's because a significant amount of the research activities for the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics will be done at SUNY Poly's Albany campus, as well as in other labs such as at General Electric Co.'s Global Research Center in Niskayuna.

The numbers can be overwhelming. Hundreds of billions of sensors, potentially connecting tens of billions of devices, with software to control and manage it all.

But the rewards of connecting and integrating complex machinery and devices can be great.

What does it cost to build a research center from scratch these days? Gerry Rubin, who runs the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus in Virginia, estimated that his organization will spend a few billion dollars before it's clear if HHMI's research will work out. Ken Herd, who helped set up GE's new research center in Rio de Janeiro, said the building alone carried a $150 million bill.

But a steep pricetag is merely the start. While securing funds is a massive initial barrier for any new facility, a modern world-class lab also needs the right combination of appeal for researchers, planning, and flexibility for when said planning doesn't work out. And on top of that, would-be lab builders better start out with a lot of institutional support.

Don a pair of special glasses, and the image of a turbine part floats off a screen.

You can look around the side or under the part, or even stick your head inside to look around.

But don't worry about bumping it. It's virtual.

At General Electric's Global Research Center, scientists and engineers have embarked on a move to digitize just about everything, in an effort that can optimize production, validate manufacturing processes, and feed data back through to designers, all while boosting efficiency and cutting costs.

Danielle Merfeld oversees more than 500 employees around the world as the director for power electronics at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, New York.

Merfeld, 42, has worked in various roles for GE Global Research and GE Power & Water since 1999. Today, she is in charge of GE Global's electrical technologies and systems team. Part of that job is directing a $500 million New York Power Electronics Manufacturing Consortium with the SUNY Polytechnic Institute.

While our recent feature looked at the various ways to make wind hardware more affordable, researchers at GE's Bangalore technology center are looking at ways to get more out of the wind hardware we already have. They're focusing on two different areas: how wind turbines interact with the grid and how they interact with each other.


Software developers have long been able to collaborate through community sites like those based on Git and Apache Allura to contribute code, synchronize software builds, and track issues around a project. And games like Minecraft allow people to collaborate in building virtual environments with embedded behaviors—including "mods" that leverage the games' simulation capabilities to interact with other objects in a virtual world. Now, an open-source Web platform originally designed with Defense Department funding could let communities collaborate to build more tangible things—like tanks, planes, and consumer appliances.

Called the Digital Manufacturing Commons (DMC), and sponsored by a collection of universities and major manufacturers through UI Labs' Digital Manufacturing Design and Innovation (DMDI) Institute, the platform puts design, modeling, and simulation tools in reach of collaborative teams of all sizes, and allows designs to be "compiled" and tested like software projects before being prototyped in the physical world. If it gets traction, the software could open up the rapidly growing "digital manufacturing" space to allow even the smallest maker teams to partner with the largest manufacturing and distribution companies, allowing gadget-makers to scale into global players.

At this week's Big M Manufacturing Conference in Detroit, GE and UI Labs—a research center funded by a public-private partnership to help advance manufacturing technology—announced the roll-out of the Digital Manufacturing Commons, which GE Research Global Technology Director for Manufacturing and Materials Technologies Christine M. Furstoss said is "like massive multi-player online (MMO) gaming meeting the real world of manufacturing."

"Like MMO, we can build things digitally before they’re even built with raw materials in a real factory," she said.

In late May, Ars continued its global tour of GE research centers. This destination? The John F. Welch Technology Center in Bangalore, India. We spent three days talking to researchers but barely touched on all the work that goes on there. Sadly, a number of interesting looking labs weren't on our agenda (we merely saw partly disassembled hardware here and there).

However, we did talk to a number of interesting people. Two of them came from GE's Power and Water research team, which has over 100 engineers in India. Anil Rajanna and Kannan Tinnium (who got his PhD from Tulane and worked in the US for over a decade) described how research in Bangalore tackled everything from the materials used to build the wind turbines to the software that manages entire wind farms.

NISKAYUNA, N.Y. (AP) — For nearly three decades Krishan Luthra stubbornly labored away in a General Electric research lab on a long-shot effort to cook up a new type of ceramic that few consumers will ever see or use.

Now this obscure material, which is lightweight, strong and can handle extreme temperatures, is being built into the bellies of jet engines and promises to save billions of gallons of fuel in the coming decades by reducing weight and allowing engines to run hotter.

It has helped GE win jet engine orders worth $100 billion — so far — from airlines looking to shave their huge fuel bills. In the future it is expected to be used in power plants and other equipment.

"It's a dream material," says Luthra, who has spent most of his career dreaming about it.