November 12, 2012 9:09 pm

GE branches out to software domain

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GE is a name synonymous in the US with power plants, jet turbines and railway locomotives rather than software - even though the company was one of the so-called “seven dwarfs” in the 1960s which, along with IBM, helped usher in the mainframe era.

Early last year however, GE tapped Bill Ruh, a computer industry veteran with more than 25 years of software and services experience, to become the head of its new global software development team based in San Ramon, California.

The mandate Mr Ruh was given was to hire 400 software engineers to develop the software code needed to run the next generation internet - what GE and Mr Ruh call the “industrial internet” or “the internet of things”.

Just as the internet remade the landscape of consumer industries over the past decade, Mr Ruh contends that the next decade will be seen as the decade of the industrial internet. “We’re at a point where there are more machines connected than people,” he says. “The ability to collect data and manage it ... this idea of ‘big data’ has suddenly come on the horizon and the analytic capability to act upon it is beginning to build up.”

Although the companies in most of the sectors that GE serves tend to be traditionally conservative, Mr Ruh believes that because the need for productivity gains is so high, “the [big data and analytics] lever is too big to ignore”.

Probably the first area for GE to focus on is how to use the insight gleaned from “big data” to decide when and where to repair equipment. “The goal is really zero unplanned downtime,” he explains. “If we could get to that in every industry, I think that’s game-changing.”

For GE that means taking all the data and physics-based models that have been developed for a particular product and then coupling them together to identify when to repair something.

For example he says: “If an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging scanner) is down, you can’t generate revenue. If you’re selling a valve for oil drilling and you have a problem with the valve, production goes down. If an (aircraft) engine goes down, passengers are stuck and not happy. If a utility goes down in the winter, they have problems. That’s a really bad thing for everybody.

“You don’t want to over-repair,” Mr Ruh explains. “That you can’t afford, but you don’t want to under-repair. How do you optimise that? That is probably the first opportunity.”

The next step he says will be for every business to look more closely at operations management, perhaps even view it as a category on its own.

“For us it’s not just analysing a gas turbine, it’s about taking that real-time data and creating models that optimise the performance of that gas turbine. We can then use that real-time data and change the configuration of the controllers and optimise the entire environment so we can get a one, two, three or even four per cent increase in fuel efficiency”

To illustrate the point, Mr Ruh turns to a completely different sector and highlights an application called AgileTrac that GE has developed for Mount Sinai hospital in New York. GE’s software team worked with the hospital to create a bed management system that keeps track of patients, all the major devices that go around the bed and the beds themselves using electronic tags.

The hospital, which has 1,171 beds spread throughout a 2.7m square-foot facility, uses real-time data and clinical workflow patterns to uncover patterns and provide its operations team with the ability to predict capacity bottlenecks, improve patient flow and enable remote monitoring to reduce liability.

GE believes that the system could help hospitals, which face enormous cost pressures, to make better use of their resources and reduce inefficient asset utilisation. By some estimates this “wastage” currently costs the healthcare system $100bn globally and the average US hospital $10m per year.

Similarly, Mr Ruh’s team has developed software designed to improve the efficiency of water companies using cloud based monitoring, data collection and a system of alarms. Among early customers for the system, South Korea’s K-Water group claims it has reduced its annual costs by $58.5m, cutting costs for operations management and reducing both its chemical and power usage.

Mr Ruh believes the connected world also holds the promise of new careers and jobs we can’t yet fully imagine. As greater volumes of data become available for pinpointing equipment arrivals, identifying facility issues and remedies as well as calculating efficient operating points, he believes new industries will evolve to support and exploit the opportunities created.

“We are going to see the rise of the idea of ‘data scientists,’ which is a term that is now picking up popularity,” he says. “We don’t have a degree programme called data scientist yet and we are still trying to figure out what they are. But all of this is going to require analytics and without those analytics none of it is achievable. Big data is a problem without analytics. So we need data scientists to create the right analytics, and that I think will be the gating factor for everything.”

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