IIoT: From Chaos to Order

At GE’s 2016 Minds + Machines Event, executives, partners and customers explain how the emerging digital industry is beginning to take shape.

Though the path forward for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is not yet clear, what is clear is that the move toward it is irreversibly underway. More than anything else, this was the clear message delivered by GE at its fourth annual Minds + Machines event in San Francisco this week.

To help illustrate her point about this transition, Beth Comstock, vice chair at GE, recalled a time not so long ago when corporate executives smirked at the concept of the business value of streaming media. They laughed at the idea of exchanging “analog dollars for digital pennies,” she said. But that’s exactly what happened in television as the industry reshaped itself around the streaming concept and, as a result, digital pennies became digital dollars.

This same shift is coming to industry, Comstock said.

It’s easy to see how this is already happening across industry in relation to maintenance and service. To showcase its expanding role in this industry transition, GE used its Minds + Machines 2016 event to explain how it is transforming GE itself.

Expanding on his comments from 2014 that GE is becoming a software and analytics company, Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, put a more precise target on this goal by saying that GE is planning to be a top 10 software company by 2020. Key aspects of this goal include growing revenues associated with the IIoT to $15 billion and growing additive manufacturing revenues to $1 billion by 2020.

To achieve this, Immelt said, “We’re changing people and skills within the company and investing massively in people and technologies.” He highlighted seven areas on which GE has focused over the past 12 months to support this:

  • Adding new talent and capabilities;
  • Investing in acquisitions, such as recent ones involving Meridium, ServiceMax, and BitStew and Wise.io for scaling Predix capabilities;
  • Further building out Predix capabilities, specifically the software architecture, Predix edge and control systems, expanding and automating digital twins and advancing product lines around asset performance management and services—the last two of which leverage the Meridium and ServiceMax acquisitions, respectively;
  • Implementing GE’s digital thread to improve productivity in engineering, commercial, manufacturing and service operations;
  • Continue to strengthen the partner ecosystem;
  • Expand customer productivity with new models and new industries;
  • Launching Current to offer energy efficiency as a service model; and
  • Position additive manufacturing as a digital pathway for makers and distributed productivity.

Immelt’s final point about additive manufacturing is clearly a more longer term goal for GE than, say, remote maintenance and other Industrial Internet capabilities, but it’s a trend that is fast approaching tipping point status in manufacturing as evidenced by Siemens’ recent end-to-end additive manufacturing announcement and Proto Labs 3D printing as a supply chain service business.

To highlight the transformative power of 3D printing, Immelt provided an example of how the technology is already changing turbine frame assembly at GE. The design of a turbine frame assembly used to require 300 parts and 60 engineers, Immelt said. With additive manufacturing it requires only one digital file and eight engineers. The manufacturing of such an assembly used to require more than 50 sources of parts and 40 data systems; now it requires one source and one database. Additive manufacturing has even streamlined the repair process for turbine frame assemblies, according to Immelt. What used to require five repair sources now only requires one.

Joining Immelt on stage at the Minds + Machines event was Ahmed Hashmi, global head of upstream technology at BP. Explaining how BP approached the digital industry concept, Hashmi began by saying there is a “massive digital transformation in play today.” He added that BP “thinks of digital as one technology that can affect the top line, operations efficiency, and improve reliability and safety. With digital you can have your cake and eat it too, but you have to go big. It's a complete transformation.”

Noting that his role at BP has changed completely in the past five years due to the ongoing digital transformation of industry, Hashmi said that most of that change has involved getting “comfortable with the idea of embracing digital” as much as the company has always embraced its core assets.

“Only 5 percent of the information in our assets is currently being used and that’s what were looking to get at,” Hashmi said. “We are looking to get hidden insights from all the data we own and be able to act on it quickly. That’s why we’re using GE Predix and APM (Asset Performance Management). We have the data and know the requirements, now we’re marrying that with software apps in the cloud to scale globally.”

Hashmi offered a key piece of advice to industrial companies still unsure of how to get a digital initiative started. “If you don't know what to do next, do something,” he said. “Doing something in digital is important, because it opens up the next steps in front of you. You know your business better than anyone else, so focus your digital efforts on where the value is—something that will change your business.”

Comstock’s stage-setting comments to open the event foreshadowed Hashmi’s advice to at least do something. Like neurons in the brain acting individually to enable concerted actions or ants taking on individual tasks to collectively build a complex structure like an ant hill, she said the natural direction of activity tends to create order from what may seem like chaos. “When a lot of individuals share information, complex goals can be achieved. The macro emerges from micro motives.”

So while a clear direction around IIoT may seem murky today, it’s important to realize that change seems to happen slowly for quite awhile until a tipping point is reached. Then things change very quickly and become the norm. That’s why it’s important to do something now to get started.

“Emergent change seems impossible until it happens,” said Comstock. “Then, looking back, it appears like it was inevitable.”

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