Bangalore: Aesthetically built over a 50-acre landscaped campus, the John F Welch Technology Centre, or JFWTC, in Bangalore began as a strategic unit for the technology and services conglomerate, General Electric Co., or GE, to undertake research and development for its vastly diversified business. Eight years, 701 patents, and several products later, its managing director Guillermo Wille likes to call the centre a “mini GE” as all businesses of the group, with $173 billion (Rs7.36 trillion) in revenue in 2007, are represented here.
Traditionally known to use technology as a force multiplier to beat competition, GE’s centre here is using the same strategy to lure researchers and technologists, offering them a wide range of areas to work in—from jet engines to locomotives, steam turbines to solar photovoltaic cells, and molecular imaging to materials.
A perfect career trajectory it may seem, but the centre is finding it increasingly challenging to attract the right people—who can contribute to keeping the company innovative which prides itself in being among the top five innovative companies in the world despite being 100 years old. (Fast Company and BusinessWeek recently ranked GE as the fourth most innovative company after Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp.). In an interview with Mint, Wille talks about some challenges and milestones of JFWTC, which started as GE’s first research centre outside the US in 2000 and paved the way for three more in Shanghai, Munich and Singapore. Edited excerpts:
Future-conscious: John F Welch Technology Centre managing director Guillermo Wille. He says GE is building a biomass-based rural electrification unit, which can not only provide electricity to villages unconnected to the grid but also be used for water purification. (Photo: Hemant Mishra / Mint)
You have the early bird advantage but several other companies are also trying to do research here. How do you intend to be competitive?
We put a lot of work in finding the right people to work here, but now we have to work harder. We also have a track record of 100 years of being an excellent place for engineers to work in. In India, our goal is the same. Besides this beautiful campus, our scientific infrastructure makes sure that we create an excitement of personal career growth; people come to us not seeking a job, but a career.
You think that will keep you ahead of the curve?
No, I don’t think so. Every single day we have to think what can we do to keep ahead because you only keep ahead of others a few steps, if you stop you get overtaken.
We have a large number of initiatives for engaging scientists. We are also well connected to most schools (universities and technical institutions) worldwide and when our members of staff visit these places, they meet the Indians there and facilitate their return to India (GE, so to say). About 20% of 3,700 researchers at JFWTC are with global experience.
After eight years, what is one innovation/discovery that has been done in India, for India, and which you are really proud of?
We have built a portable ECG (electrocardiogram) unit, which is smaller than a laptop but works like a full-scale, expensive ECG machine. This portable unit is for rural use as it can take 100 ECGs on a single battery charge, each ECG costing just about a dollar (Rs42.6). The best part is that the unit does not require a physician; a nurse can operate it because it has all the analysis inbuilt, which can tell whether a patient needs a specialist or not.
Then, we are building a biomass-based rural electrification unit, which can not only provide electricity to villages unconnected to the grid but also be used for water purification. We are working with some government agencies and I think it’s going to be a big deal for us when it’s launched. This is part of GE’s eco-imagination projects.
What else is happening at this centre under ‘eco-imagination’ (an ambitious GE programme that will have an annual R&D budget of $1.5 billion by 2010)?
It will have revenue of $20 billion by 2010. Several projects are underway and more will be added. One of them is to reduce greenhouse emission of the centre by 6,000 tonnes annually, starting next year; currently this centre produces 23,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases. And even though we are growing very fast, greenhouse emission per capita is going down at this site. One of the ways we do it is to recycle the heat generated from the (captive) power plant to run air-conditioning at the centre.
Sure, many other corporations can follow this example, but tell us about some of the cool technology that this centre is developing.
Pretty much all work is part of GE’s global portfolio. For instance, GE NX engine, used in Boeing 787 Dreamliner, is the best GE engine so far which has a special type of combustor that was to a large extent developed and optimized here. We are also setting up a test cell for a full locomotive engine. As part of our ‘early health’ programme, we are developing nuclear imaging that can make predictive diagnosis for breast cancer.
Most large corporations are integrating their R&D more with the short-term needs of their customers. How does GE balance long-range and customer-focused research?
It’s tough to tell how we do it, but it’s pretty obvious we do it. We very much concentrate on the next quarter, but we also think how technologies will change 20 years from now.
For instance, while we work on all types of engines, we know that two decades later the whole core of the engine will be different and we are working on that. For instance, pulse detonation engines (a compact system that can go from subsonic to hypersonic speeds) will replace today’s high-pressure compressors and turbines.