Industrial internet bringing new potential to key sectors
Connected systems and analytics are creating new capabilities in core industries, says GE CIO
Massive volumes of data harvested from industrial sensors combined with complex analytics capabilities will introduce a new era of efficiency and productivity in many key sectors, according to Jim Fowler, VP and CIO of General Electric.
The combination of sensors gathering minute levels of data and in-depth analysis of that data will have a major impact in areas including transport, utilities, healthcare and manufacturing, as well as in smart city infrastructure, Fowler said while speaking to .GOV. GE is long established in industrial systems, he said, but the advent of sensor technology, connected through wide scale networks, is creating a new era of ‘digital industrial’ solutions which will allow organisations to extract more productivity from systems, improve safety and gain better understanding of processes.
“Within GE, we are focused on creating the digital industrial, the convergence of the virtual world of software analytics and the physical world of hardware, and the belief that those two worlds come together to drive a new level of productivity,” Fowler commented. “We are thinking about how we provide new applications and software to streamline the way railroads run, we are building solutions for power companies, and in healthcare helping them get more out of the machines they use to run hospitals.”
The prevalence of cheap, low power consumption, always-on sensors means that organisations are able to monitor many different parts of their processes, from the initial creation of industrial components, through to performance and maintenance, which in turn is creating huge volumes of data. By 2020, assets managed by GE will be creating 10 billion terabytes of data per day, Fowler said, and new digital models and solutions to manage data and analytics are enabling organisations to extract value from the mass of data that is being created.
GE has developed a number of solutions for this Industrial Internet, Fowler said, which aim to handle the scale and volume of data compared to consumer solutions. The company has created a cloud-based, platform-as-a-service analytics solution, called Predix, which pushes analytics capabilities out to the device, rather than centralising analytics functions. This allows for more timely analysis and more localised understanding.
The second part of the solution is the creation of a ‘digital twin’, a digital representation of the physical assets produced by GE, which creates a model for each asset over its lifetime, and enables data to be drawn together from all parts of an industrial solution.
“We should be able to connect that thread of information across every element of data for every one of our assets,” Fowler said. “The digital twin and the analytics that we have developed will turn that data into information that will help customers to optimise the way that they use these assets. [We are creating] a data model that allows us to connect information in a way that was never connected before. We are using the domain experience of our engineers, and getting them to put what they have in their minds into software, to build analytics and to automate [not just for] one or two assets, for fifty thousand assets.”
These digital models can have an impact in areas such as improving logistical planning for railroads, where just a one mile per hour increase in average speed can increase profitability by up to 20%, or in manufacturing where organisations are looking for annual productivity growth up to 4%, compared to 1% average at present. In other fields, organisations are looking to reduce downtime, or increase process optimisation, and in the Middle East, GE is already working with organisations including Masdar, RasGas, and a number of utilities, airline customers and others, to develop industrial internet solutions.
Another area of focus for the company in IoT, is in smart cities, where many of GE’s different operating divisions are coming together to create city-scale solutions. For example, GE’s lighting business has developed LED street lights which can also operate as sensors, which can be used in many different applications from parking management to gunshot detection.
“We have had some preliminary discussions with major government entities about solutions development in region, many of which come from our smart cities initiative where we are combining LED technology from our lighting business, software with our GE digital business and power solutions that we have across GE, to help cities be more productive,” he said.
Tapping into these new sources of data is creating new challenges, Fowler added, mainly in the areas of data sovereignty and ownership, and data security. For data sovereignty, many organisations, particularly government, do not want data to be hosted outside of their countries, so the Predix platform has been developed to run in a distributed model so that the platform can sit in-country. In data security, GE has acquired operational technology specialist Wurldtech to develop solutions to protect control systems, and the company is focused on security at all stages of product development.
“We are continually re-architecting its development process to make sure that we are designing security into products, not as an afterthought but as part of the product. One of the design principles that we take on is not just what do you want the product to do, but what do you not want it to do, and make sure that we are designing the controls into the product,” he said.
Along with product lines, GE is also expanding its partner ecosystem to add more IoT capabilities, including partnerships with systems integrators, enterprise software vendors and telecoms companies. GE and Oracle have formed a strategic partnership focused on digital industrial platforms, and the company is also a founding member of the Industrial Internet Consortium, and is committed to developing open standards for the IoT ecosystem.
Standards play an important role in ensuring security as well, Fowler explained: “The design standards that we put in place for engagements that we run carry through to our partners, so not only do we have a strong partner ecosystem, but we share the same level of design standards and security standards, and we always maintain the right to do security reviews on the products that we launch. We will never abdicate the security responsibility, regardless of whether it is being GE developed or developed in conjunction with a third party.”
With partner ecosystems being established and solutions reaching the market, there is a growing interest in Industrial Internet solutions among customers, but preliminary roll out is focused on smaller scale projects and close partnership with the customers, Fowler explained.
“Everybody believes that there is value to be had in this connection of IT and OT,” he said. “I think where we struggle the most is coming up with the one or two simple problems that we really want to go after. The problem is the scope — what you can do is so large that picking something discrete enough to get started is actually the harder problem.
“I like, and I find our customers like, a try-before-you-buy model, where they like to do small proof points, before they make large investments. On the CIO side of my job, I am not doing huge monolithic software projects any more that don’t have small proof points to show me where the value is going to come from.”