GE Appliances’ Decatur plant, which opened 42 years ago, is using robots, automatic-guided vehicles and other cutting-edge technology to build its top-freezer refrigerators.
• Automatic-Guided Vehicles (AGVs) can be programmed to move refrigerator doors and other heavy items through the plant, cutting down on damage to the products and eliminating ergonomic issues for workers.
• Multi-access Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arms, or SCARA, perform heavy-lifting operations, repetitive tasks and foam and adhesive applications.
• Copper tube-bending robots ensure consistent bending and flexibility in making condenser coils and compressors.
“To be competitive in the appliances industry, you must constantly look at the latest technology to improve processes and productivity,” said plant manager Renee Story. “For example, we use robots to automate processes and reduce ergonomic risks, creating a better work environment for employees.”
Story, who’s been with the company for 25 years, 24 of those in Decatur, said the use of robotics has cut down on jobs that are dirty, dull or difficult, allowing employees to focus on more rewarding work such as problem solving.
The plant on Point Mallard Drive Southeast, which produces GE and Hotpoint brand refrigerators, was recognized during a ceremony two weeks ago in Chicago for its initiatives to improve efficiency, quality and safety, being named the 2019 Assembly Plant of the Year by Assembly Magazine.
The plant is also a leader in using data analytics and lean manufacturing principles to streamline assembly lines and improve product quality, noted Austin Weber, the magazine’s senior editor, in a news release announcing the honor.
GE Appliances, which in 2016 was acquired by Haier, a China-based consumer electronics and home appliances company, announced in June 2018 that it would invest $115 million in the Decatur facility, creating more than 250 new jobs.
The investment involves building up support operations and expanding the two main assembly lines, according to Story.
“The line that makes smaller refrigerators is ramping up to full capacity now, and the second assembly line is on track to start in December,” she said. “The new support operations include a 39,000-square-foot building expansion which allows us to make more of our own plastic parts.
“Once we are fully staffed, the plant will have 1,300 employees,” Story said. “We still have 100 employees to hire between now and December.”
With 1,300 employees, the plant would be “the second largest employer in Morgan County, just behind Decatur-Morgan Hospital, which our records show has approximately 1,365 employees,” said Jeremy Nails, the president and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Authority.
Morgan and Limestone counties' unemployment rates in September were 2.1% — tied for second lowest in the state — and Lawrence was at 2.5%. A year ago, Morgan had a 3.2% jobless rate, with Limestone at 3.3% and Lawrence at 3.8%, according to data from the Alabama Department of Labor.
“With the low unemployment rate in the north Alabama area, we realize the market for talent is competitive,” Story said. “We are confident we will be able to hire the number of employees" to support the program announced last year.
"We’ve been out in the community more talking about our career opportunities and have worked hard to find people that are looking for good jobs, and it’s paid off," she said.
Addressing the impact of global trade disputes and increased tariffs, GE Appliances spokeswoman Julie Wood said the company buys more than $2 billion of materials from more than 1,700 U.S. suppliers, but domestic supply chains are inadequate or non-existent for some components. "The global trade environment enables GE Appliances to remain vital," and to keep enhancing its competitiveness and adding jobs, Wood said.
"GE Appliances has made significant changes to its supply chain as part of efforts to moderate the impact of the tariffs’ direct added cost and maintain value for consumers,” Wood said. “However, the impact is hundreds of millions of dollars” and that, she said, has affected the company’s ability to make future investments in facilities and research, workforce training and job creation.
“The magnitude of cost increases has been impossible to absorb or fully mitigate,” she said. “The costs will have to be shared with suppliers and customers as we all work together to find a way for normal market forces to once again determine costs and prices.”