Updated 05-IV-2020

Winchester Lamp

Winchester Lamp Plant was opened in 1975, the final lamp factory to have been constructed by GE in America. It was built to house the company's fastest production lines for the mass production of ordinary A-line incandescent lamps. With a daily output of more than two million lamps, it became the largest incandescent lamp factory in the world - producing more than a quarter of the entire US demand. This unbelievable high capacity also made Winchester the most sensitive to market fluctuations. Following the gradual obsolescence of standard incandescent lamps, it was one of the first to be hit by shrinking volumes. This led to its closure in 2010, with the majority of production being abandoned, and some of the more specialised lamps being transferred to Monterrey in Mexico.

GE Winchester Lamp Plant, circa 2000

Address GE Winchester Lamp Plant #3447, 125 Apple Valley Road, Route 3, Winchester, Virginia, VA22602, U.S.A.
Location 39.1317°N, -78.1965°E
Floorspace 455,000 sq.ft.
Opened 1975.
Closed 24th September 2010.
Products General service and 3-Way incandescent lamps.

Start of Operations
Plans for a new lamp factory in Winchester were announced publicly on 18th October 1972, with GE's intention to build on a 127-acre tract of land at Kernstown, just south of Winchester VA. The cost of the land, building and equipment was estimated to total approximately US $ 20 million.

Construction was planned to begin early in 1973, with production due to commence in the spring of 1974. This was delayed slightly and the plant became fully operational in 1975.

Until that time GE's large incandescent lamp manufacturing was scattered across several production sites including Bellevue (OH), Cleveland/Euclid (OH), Mattoon (IL), Newark (NJ), St.Louis (MO), Warren (OH), and Youngstown (OH). Such a widespread production base stemmed in part from the way in which GE's lampmaking operations had evolved, following the agglomeration of several dozen smaller lampmakers into the National Electric Lamp Association, which was ultimately taken over by GE. The smaller factories were eliminated over time and production was concentrated at a few larger sites, which were positioned geographically in regions close to the main markets and where labour rates were advantageous. The need for such a diverse production base declined over time as transportation links within the USA were improved. It was recognised that greater economies of scale could be attained by concentrating production in a smaller number of much larger capacity facilities. In parallel the incandescent lamp business was still growing rapidly. These two challenges were met with the foundation of Winchester - first to provide additional capacity, and secondly to gradually absorb much of the general service A-line lamp production of the other smaller facilities. Not all of the other plants were closed down, but instead were retooled to focus on the production of lamps other than the most competitive A-line general service incandescent types.

Restructuring of the 1980s
The 1980s marked a painful period in the history of GE's lighting operations. The company had invested heavily in the previous years to create state-of-the-art manufacturing operations, and at the same time suddenly faced unexpected new competition.

Particularly troublesome for GE was the 1982 takeover of its smaller competitor Westinghouse, by Philips of the Netherlands. That took Philips' US market share from 5% to 21%, and the Dutch made enormous investments in upgrading and expanding its newly acquired American production base so as to further grow its business. At the same time, the Hungarian state-run lampmaker Tungsram began an aggressive attack to break into the USA with its very low cost East-European lamps under the 'Action Tungsram' brand. As if that wasn't enough, the far eastern lamp industry was beginning to become internationally competitive in both costs and quality, and GE cited further problems from rising imports of still cheaper lamps from Taiwan.

The significant manufacturing investments of the 1970s left GE with a declining market share, significant overcapacity, and challenges to recover the cost of its investments. General Electric's 'Lighting Leadership Plan' was unveiled to re-secure the company's position in the north American lighting business, and on the 7th June 1983 it was announced that 10 of the company's 42 lamp plants would close by the first quarter of 1985. In parallel it would make a $ 250 million investment to revitalise and consolidate its US lamp manufacturing footprint.

It appears to have been the intention at this time that all general service A-line lamp production would be concentrated into the newest facility at Winchester. Indeed part of the Lighting Leadership Plan even included closing its then largest incandescent lamp plant at St.Louis, which at the time was producing some 1.4 million lamps per day and around half a billion per year. Ultimately following a tremendous improvement in productivity at that site St.Louis was kept open, but all of the other plants slated for closure were shut down.

Part of the Lighting Leadership Plan included a massive $ 90 million investment to expand the facilities at Winchester. It was planned to add an additional 40 jobs to the 395-employee facility by 1985, as it absorbed the production of the closing sites. A building addition was started in 1983 and completed in 1984, to house the necessary increases in production space, and an automatic material-handling warehouse.

The Pro-80 Manufacturing Groups
To tackle the problem of GE's declining market share in the most commoditised of all lamp types, the company recognised that it must regain its position of being the lowest cost manufacturer.

Incandescent lamps were already being produced by a totally mechanised process without human intervention - a few operators being required only to set up the machines, carry out process controls, and feed them with raw materials etc. Moreover the raw materials, which were produced in vastly greater volumes than the lamps, had already seen their production mechanised to the extent that no further cost saving seemed possible. The last remaining option to further slash costs was therefore to increase the speed of production - so that the same machine attendant and factory building overhead costs could be spread over more lamps.

At the time most of GE's General Service A-Line lamps were produced on its so-called IMG3 equipment (Improved Manufacturing Group 3), which could be driven at up to 3,600 lamps per hour, or one per second. A few types were produced on earlier IMG2 equipment at around 2,400 per hour, while the most specialised types were produced on the oldest equipment, occasionally even with some operations being carried out by hand. The fastest IMG3 equipment performed well against the overseas competitors, matching the output of the Dutch Philips B-groups and the VTG-Tungsram lines of the time. Higher speeds were difficult to attain due to simple mechanical limitations associated with accelerating and decelerating the large diameter and heavy machine turrets at each index position as the lamps were carried around the machines. Increased output without the problems of excessive wear and elevated scrap levels had been achieved only by the unique Sylvania and Thorn 'Dual' machines of the 1960s, which by the 1970s had already exceeded 5,000 per hour thanks to their novel concept of manufacturing two lamps instead of one at each machine position.

Against this background, GE made ambitious plans to usurp all imaginable competition by designing a radical new machine and process that would turn out lamps at the phenomenal rate of 10,000 per hour. The mechanical constraints were to be overcome by realising the holy grail of which all lamp-equipment engineers had dreamt for several decades - to eliminate the usual stop-start indexing movement of the machinery, and to keep the lamps flowing in continuous motion throughout the entire manufacturing process.

The new machines, developed in the 1980s, were aptly named the 'Pro-80', and were only ever installed at Winchester. When they gradually came on stream and the true impact of their vast output of low-cost lamps was realised, pushing aside competitors and regaining market share, these spectacular machines became more familiarly known as 'The Walking Soldiers of GE Lighting'. Thanks to these developments, within a few years GE increased its share of the North American incandescent lamp market from 50% to 53%, and was able to earn considerably better margins.

During the period 1987-1990 Winchester's output increased by 14% from 350 to 400 million lamps per year, while employment decreased 21% from 511 to 434 workers. The impact on labour associated with lamp production costs is self-explanatory. The headcount reductions were achieved without any layoffs, and were realised gradually as older employees retired.

By 1990 Winchester had two Pro-80's in operation, lines 81 and 82, and plans were underway to install a third machine operating at 12,000 per hour. The two machines achieved a daily output of 1.7 million lamps - the balance of Winchester's output being produced on 22 of the older lines.

However speed is not everything in the cut-throat world of incandescent lampmaking. Higher output always brings the risk of financial losses through increased scrap levels, and at 10,000 per hour a lot of raw material can be wasted if the process is not kept absolutely stable. A cultural change was essential, with decisions being taken on-the-fly by the machine operators without following the usual line of command of first advising the supervisors - whose role was eliminated. Moreover to avoid the overhead costs associated with the usual 3-shift changeover system, the Pro-80 lines were driven on gruelling 12-hour shifts. The 70 workers who ran these machines were split across 4 shifts running from 6am to 6pm, with a two-week working cycle consisting of 2 days work followed by 2 days off, 3 days work, 2 days off, 2 days work, 3 days off, and then repeating again.

At one time it was considered that Winchester could accommodate a total of seven Pro-80 lines, which would together produce over a billion lamps per year. However over time it was learned that these machines were not sufficiently flexible to produce the many different kinds of lamps required from the plant. Their cost was also immense, and there were some doubts as to whether the reduced production cost could recover the cost of investment. They were therefore set up to run only GE's leading product, the most common A19 CC-8 Soft White. Although there are some references to a third line 83, it is not known if this was in fact ever installed.

Decline and Closure
The phenomenal high capacity of the Winchester Lamp Plant was for many decades its unparalleled strength - however following the gradual obsolescence of the incandescent lamp in the early 21st century, this also became its weakness. A-line lamps were no longer required in such vast volumes after government legislation forced customers towards energy-saving compact fluorescent and LED alternatives. It was no longer possible to set the machines to make the exact same product for long runs and be guaranteed of a swift sale - more frequent changeovers were required to produce the whole product range without incurring excessive expenses for holding large stocks, and the more specialised lamps which fell outside the scope of the legislation that were less severely impacted than the general service types.

This first affected the sister plant of Winchester, the giant St.Louis Lamp Plant, which was closed in February 2007. Winchester managed to run for a further two years until volumes had dwindled to the point of no return. At the end of June 2009 GE announced its intention to close Winchester a year later, in July 2010. Employees were given a customary 60-day 'idea-generation' period to propose alternatives to the closure, but as GE was unwilling to invest in producing the newer types of energy-saving lamps in the USA and preferred to source low-cost imports from China, there were no viable plans to keep the site open.

In January 2010 it was announced that there had been an unexpected surge in sales following the announcement of the federal phase-out of incandescent lamps. This was sufficient to extend the life of Winchester by several months. Production finally came to a close on 24th September 2010, with the loss of 203 highly skilled jobs. The closure was just in advance of new energy-saving regulations which would have phased out about 75% of Winchester's lamps in January 2012 across the USA, and a year earlier in California. The remaining 25% not affected by the legislation - for instance 3-Way and Appliance bulbs - were transferred to GE's existing low-cost lamp plant at Monterrey in Mexico. That facility had been boosted in 2007 following the production it absorbed with the closure of St.Louis Lamp Plant. Just after the closure, GE announced a fresh round of $ 2 billion investment in China, to boost innovation and set up joint venture suppliers.

The site, which had meanwhile been reduced to 57 acres, was placed on the market in early 2011. The asking price was a hefty $ 13 million, in view of its two well-equipped large production halls, automated warehouse, direct rail access, cafeteria, employee locker rooms, dual power grid, city water and sewer lines, and on-site storm water pond.

Factory Building, 2010 Aerial View Aerial View of entire site, 2006 14 Aerial View of reduced site, 2006 14
Factory & Car Park, 2006 14 Factory Building, 2006 14 Pro-80 Sealing Chain 4 Pro-80 Sealchain & Neck Mould turret
Pro-80 line, 1990 3

References & Bibliography
  1. GE Announcement for New Winchester Lamp Plant, Kingsport Post Daily News, 19th October 1972, p.1.
  2. GE Announces $ 90 Million Expansion, Winchester Star Newspaper, 9th June 1983, p.9.
  3. GE's Light Bulb Factory a Showcase, Frank Swoboda, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 22nd May 1990, p.8D.
  4. GE Lighting Spectrum Catalogue 9200-UK, United Kingdom, 1992.
  5. Private communication, Phil Picklap, Incandescent Production Department, GE Winchester Lamp Plant, 5th June 1995.
  6. Carton feeders illuminate GE Lighting linesPackaging World News, 31st August 1998.
  7. GE Could Shut Down Virginia Plant, Manufacturing.net News, 24th June 2009.
  8. Lights Out for Virgina GE Plant in 2010, The Hartford Business Journal, 24th July 2009.
  9. GE Plant Closing Delayed Until September, Tungsten News, 4th January 2010.
  10. It's Lights Out for GE Light Bulb Facotry in Winchester, John Henrehen, Fox TV News, 24th September 2010.
  11. Lights Out for U.S. Lamp Plant of Incandescent Bulbs, NBC News, 23rd September 2010.
  12. GE Press Statement concerning Winchester Lamp Plant Closure, September 2010.
  13. GE moves production from its lamp plant in Virginia to China, The Guardian International Edition, 11th November 2010.
  14. Google Earth aerial views, 2006.