How GE got on track toward the smartest locomotives ever

These sensor-packed locomotives compute some 150,000 data points per minute. CNET Road Trip 2014 got a chance to see how they're built.

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A General Electric locomotive being assembled at the company's factory in Fort Worth, Texas. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

FORT WORTH, Texas -- After making most of its locomotives in a century-old plant in Erie, Pa., General Electric has also recently started producing in Texas what it says are the most efficient in the history of the industry.

This spanking-new factory, located beyond the 190,000-spectator Texas Motor Speedway in the northeastern part of the state, is tricked out with the latest technology, and GE says a new model of the locomotives coming off the assembly lines next year will last at least 20 years and generate 70 percent less emissions than the trains it made just a year ago.

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to Fort Worth to see how a locomotive, specifically GE's Evolution, is built. First introduced in 2005, the Evolution can be found pulling trains in 10 countries, and there are now more than 5,000 of the engines in use worldwide.

Built along with a nearby sister facility for a total of $235 million, GE's new factory turned out a single locomotive the first month it opened, in January 2013. Seventeen months later, it's making more than 200 trains a year. For now, GE sells each one made here to BNSF, the massive rail freight company. Later this year, the facility will start delivering to Union Pacific, another major rail freight company.

'Traceability and geneaology'

At the heart of the plant's technology infrastructure is GE's Proficy system, which it uses to collect, archive, and distribute production information around the company. GE began using Proficy in 2011 and rolled out the system here a year ago, Here's how it works:

Using an iPad, every operator on the factory floor can enter data about the work they're doing. That information then instantly gets sent to anyone involved in the project and the piece of data entered into Proficy thus becomes part of the record. That introduces "traceability and genealogy" into every step in the assembly process, says Richard Simpson, a vice president in GE Transportation's global supply chain.

Taking a glance at their iPads, supervisors can check the real-time status of every station throughout the factory, down to the individual component level. If the status flashes green, everything is fine. If red, that means someone's behind schedule. And the system can auto-generate emails and send them to the appropriate people, in case someone needs to know immediately about an issue.

The Fort Worth facility has done away with the paper assembly manuals that predominated at GE's older factory the last hundred years. Part of that stems from a corporate initiative to go paperless. But it's also a grudging nod to reality. GE's says it's unrealistic to expect employees in possession of manuals to replace every outdated page with updated information. Instead, when changes are made to assembly procedures, they're entered into the system and instantly updated on everyone's iPads, saving paper, and preventing people from working off of old information.

Rolling power plant

A brand-new Evolution features 250 sensors that pull in 150,000 data points per minute turning the locomotive into a "rolling power plant," according to Simpson. With the sensors measuring so much real-time information -- weather, oil pressure, temperature, speed, and so on -- the idea is to be able to determine how the locomotive is performing at any given moment. That up-to-date mechanical health check is going to be crucial to customers like BNSF or Union Pacific who lose a lot of money when there is downtime.

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A finished GE Evolution locomotive, ready to be delivered to BNSF, outside the Fort Worth factory. General Electric Transportation

That's where another GE tool comes into play. Known as Predix, it is an industrial-scale analysis software platform that helps users predict when something is going to go wrong. If a rail company can see that one of its locomotives is going to fail soon because the performance of certain components indicates trouble, it can pre-empt the problem rather than watch the locomotive break down when it should be pulling cargo.

A lot of money is on the line. According to Simpson, every 1 percent increase in efficiency in the rail industry is worth $1.8 billion. And some of that improvement can come on the manufacturing side, he said, where there is currently about 2.5 percent inefficiency. While he wouldn't quantify how much more efficient the Fort Worth facility is, he allowed that it is "significantly" more so than the Pennsylvania factory.

Making a locomotive

Although there are thousands of parts in a 440,000-pound locomotive, one that can pull the equivalent of 170 Boeing 747s, yet use just one gallon of fuel to pull a ton of cargo 500 miles, the process of making one is actually quite straightforward -- at least to an outside observer.

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More adventures from Road Trip 2014

Check out the latest from Daniel's trip to the best tech spots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and more.

    To begin with, workers take two I-beams and connect them -- making the locomotive's 120,000-pound platform. That platform enters the production line upside down because it is easier, ergonomically, to install the first components. Then it's flipped right side up for the installation of the trucks (which are assembled in another part of the factory). Once that's done, it's time to start adding the major components -- first the auxiliary cab, which houses all the locomotive's electronics, and then, just in front of it, the operator cab, from where the locomotive is driven. After that, workers move to the rear of the platform and add the radiator cab, where all the cooling systems are located. Next, the 12-cylinder, 4,400-horsepower engine and alternator combo is mounted. Finally, everything is connected electronically and mechanically.

    When assembly is complete, the locomotive's electronics are tested, and then it's sent to the paint shop. The last step is 40 miles of on-track testing. Assuming everything is in working order, it's then readied for delivery. These are not products that sit idle once they're sold. More often than not, because BNSF is so busy, they are hauling cargo the same day they are handed off.

    So how much does a GE locomotive cost? Simpson says they probably cost less than people might commonly assume. Still, he said, these are machines that weigh more than 400,000 pounds with thousands of components designed to last for two decades. In other words, he added, "they're expensive." But he'd love it if they cost even more.

    Standing inside a flood-lit, million-square-foot factory can make you feel very small. But when you look around and see locomotives in various stages of manufacture, all you can think about is how cool trains are.

    Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.

    Updated 6/22 at 7:55 p.m. PT to correct misstatement the state of GE's Erie, Pa., locomotive production.

     

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