GE shows why every company needs to be a software company
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GE shows why every company needs to be a software company

Jessica Twentyman — May 2015
Bill Ruh, the head of GE’s dedicated software arm, shares his insight into the challenges companies face in preparing for the ‘Industrial Internet.’

Executives at industrial giant General Electric (GE) like to refer to the huge machines the company builds — jet engines, locomotives, wind turbines and the like — as ‘big iron.’ That may make them sound dumb, but in the age of the Internet of Things (or what GE calls the Industrial Internet) that kind of big iron needs big intelligence too.

To take advantage of the opportunities presented by the Internet of Things (IoT), GE has effectively had to become a powerhouse of software – capable of collecting and analyzing the data that streams from machines that are now bristling with sensors – with the goal of improving organizations’ productivity, efficiency and safety. Its pioneering activities in this area not only provide great insight for CIOs preparing to apply IoT technologies and processes across their products and operations, they also show how the resulting big data can be the source of new revenue streams.
Industrial outcomes

The groundwork for the GE effort was laid in 2011 when chief executive Jeff Immelt announced that the company was to invest $1 billion in the Industrial Internet — a significant proportion of which was channeled towards the establishment of a Silicon Valley offshoot dedicated to the development of predictive analytics services for GE customers. Led by industry veteran Bill Ruh, the GE Software Center has around 1,200 software engineers who have introduced more than 40 new data services since its launch. The business of helping customers exploit the vast amounts of data flowing from its industrial equipment, meanwhile, is already worth some $1.1 billion annually to GE, and by next year CEO Immelt has predicted that these revenues will top $5 billion.

bill ruh
Bill Ruh, VP and global technology director at GE
“The work we do is incredibly exciting,” says Ruh. “I have a team that wakes up each day enthusiastic about building software that will drive real outcomes for the Industrial Internet.”

“We talk about the Industrial Internet [rather than] the Internet of Things because we want to make it really clear that the point here is about outcomes in an industrial context. Can I generate more electricity from my gas turbines? Can I provide a safer pipeline to push oil and gas through? Can I use an MRI scanner better, in order to diagnose more patients earlier and treat their diseases more effectively?”

His team contributes to the wider GE business in two ways. First, they work across GE, helping employees in its different business groups — which range across power and water, oil and gas, energy management, aviation, healthcare and transportation — to identify opportunities to build new digital services for customers. Second, they work directly with the company’s customers, helping them to figure out how to apply the Industrial Internet approach, with its meshing of the digital and physical worlds, in their own businesses.

Either way, at the heart of their efforts is GE’s homegrown Predix software platform, which connects industrial assets to the cloud — as well as to each other — and is based on the Cloud Foundry open-source standard for building platform-as-a-service offerings.

“For us, everything starts with the cloud and the cost to serve a customer on a particular asset,” says Ruh. “Cloud offers us the economies to bring down that cost but still provide the service on a massive scale. And what Cloud Foundry provides is greater flexibility, because as you roll out these kinds of services you’re going to work with multiple public and private cloud vendors and the ability to move across them is really important.”
Hunting unicorns

However, finding the people with the skills needed to build analytic applications on top of Cloud Foundry is not easy, says Ruh. He labels that skill-base as one of the current “unicorn talents,” along with deep-level data science expertise and industrial cyber-security capabilities.

“A lot of people call themselves data scientists. They’re not. They’re more like business intelligence people, which is fine, but we also need people with deep statistical or deep machine learning, or deep physics-based modeling capabilities,” he says. “The same goes for industrial cyber-security talent. You’ve got to be very flexible and look hard to find and attract these kinds of skills.”

This is why GE decided to set up its GE Software Center in Silicon Valley’s San Ramon, he says. “It’s to access the kind of talent that is born out of that Silicon Valley mentality. Our people come from all the ‘stuff’ that Silicon Valley’s so rich in: start-ups, universities and established technology companies.”

The fruits of their efforts have been surprising, even to Ruh. “Now, when we sell a wind turbine or a whole farm of wind turbines, we have a software offering — PowerUp — which takes data from turbine-based sensors, combines it with our domain knowledge in aerodynamics and changes the curvature of blades to adapt each wind turbine to the wind that’s hitting it. That enables operators to generate up to 5% more electricity and 20% more profit per turbine. That’s not because of anything we’ve done in the analogue world. It’s all software.”

An application to monitor oil and gas pipelines, meanwhile, is giving pipeline operators new insights into how those assets are performing. “Based on data, we can manage and monitor those and so provide new risk models to operators that enable them to see in depth what are the highest-risk sections of pipeline, where problems might occur and where investment is needed to replace areas of pipeline and mitigate the risks.”
Next generation IoT

Looking ahead, Ruh predicts that three new trends will emerge to further bolster the Industrial Internet:

Robotics  “What we’ll see is a greater use of robotics in the industrial world for carrying out inspection and support tasks in the field. The idea is that robots take on the dirty, dull and dangerous work that humans do today, augmenting human efforts to improve safety.”

Video analytics  “The use of video as a sensor is going to increase exponentially. Video can be just as good, and in some cases better, than the human eye in making observations and identifying problems before they occur.”

Wearables  “This is about how you improve a person’s ability to receive and send data while they’re working, even if they’re wearing a protective face-mask or big gloves — situations where even the most ruggedized tablet isn't going to help. Wearables for industrial applications are going to be huge, but also very, very different from what we see in the consumer space. It’s a space we’re really keen to explore.”

The data generated in those three areas will feed into Predix, fuelling richer industrial experiences and driving better outcomes for GE, says Ruh.

“If we can make sure that every asset is working as it should and every worker is safe, then we’ll have transformed the industrial world. We’ll have ignited the next industrial revolution. Those two things might not sound so sexy on the face of it but they’re going to make GE and our customers an awful lot of money.”
First published May 2015
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