More than 250 years after steam engines ushered in the Industrial Revolution, a world-changing era defined by innovations in steel manufacturing and assembly-line production, we’re on the verge of what many consider the next Industrial Revolution—that is, the industrial internet of things (IIoT), a catchall term for the digitization of production and supply chains.
"Just think about the opportunities, the data, the insight that we can generate around that to drive productivity, be smarter, and have smarter, cleaner solutions for the world," says Deb Frodl, global executive director of GE’s Ecomagination strategy.
As the volume of IIoT data grows, and as sensors become more ubiquitous, manufacturers, logistics companies, and other industrial players will need ever-more sophisticated deep-learning systems to make sense of it all. But no one company can build all that alone. The scale and complexity of the industrial internet requires a new type of partnership, perhaps best epitomized in the recent pioneering collaboration between GE Ecomagination and Intel to find efficiencies and carbon savings across industry.
"You have companies with very specific expertise that have to work together in ways they haven't had to in the past," says Marcus Kennedy, commercial director for the industrial and energy solutions division of the internet of things group at Intel.
GE and Intel are world-class hardware manufacturers with complementary strengths, but forging a collaboration between two monolithic enterprises is no small feat. Yet the evolution of the IIoT depends on the success of such alliances. Here are some lessons learned from this powerful collaboration.
The two behemoths found a way to move quickly from the start, despite their size. "The thing you need to drive speed is high-level executive alignment," says Kennedy. "Since our organizations were already aligned at an executive level, and at a philosophical and strategic level, then the only thing we needed to do was align tactically to move forward together."
In 2015, the two teams met in Greenville, South Carolina, at GE’s fabrications plant. They walked the factory floor, chatting with managers and technicians and brainstorming areas where they could improve efficiency. "We looked at what we were each doing and decided to go after intelligent lighting," says Kennedy. That is, a networked lighting system that improves efficiency throughout the facility.
Traditionally, Frodl says, the GE mind-set has been, "It's our technology, it's invented here, this is ours." But that’s changing as the company adopts an open-source approach to the IIoT, allowing customers and even competitors to use GE technology to help build new ecosystems. "You think about all the data that's coming in from these applications that you could do even more with," she says. "That was a big decision. It is clearly a new way of doing business and thinking."
Identifying the core problem can be a challenge when there are many layers of infrastructure and data at play. Beyond smart lighting, the teams in Greenville homed in on an issue with the manufacturing of gas turbines used in energy plants. The process, which involves heating and cooling massive metal rings, isn’t always perfectly symmetrical. When deformations occur, the result is wobbly, unusable turbines and hundreds of thousands of dollars (not to mention time) spent fixing the problem.
Intel helped craft a solution by monitoring the heating and cooling with its off-the-shelf system and temperature sensor, placed carefully inside GE LED lights that transmit data to the cloud via GE’s Predix platform.
With their well-established processes and terminology, GE and Intel had to find a new way of communicating. The key, says Kennedy, is "aligning to the language of the customer. You go and find the person who has the problem, you listen to them, and then you're both in tune with that language, whatever it is."
The other aspect of developing an agreed-upon vocabulary involves "terminology alignment." The teams meet in person and approach one another almost as though they’re from different countries. "Before we get started, we'll draw a picture and say, ‘This is what we call this part. What do you call it?’ " says Kennedy. "We just spell all that stuff out. It’s extremely important and saves a lot of problems later."
A year into the Greenville project, it’s already having the ripple effect that GE and Intel executives had hoped for. The two teams have taken the industrial internet platform—GE’s Predix and Intel’s gateways—that underlies the smart lighting system developed for GE’s factory and begun deploying it at an Intel plant in Arizona. They have also used the momentum to develop a commercialized version of their Intelligent Lighting platform at Intel headquarters in Santa Clara, California.
"The wins that we have to show for this collaboration are a couple deployments and new products, all within a year," says Libby Wayman, global director of innovation for Ecomagination. "We think that will have a lot of weight in the marketplace. It might have taken a smaller company a lot longer to develop those proof points."
The Global e-Sustainability Initiative estimates that information and communications technology companies can achieve a 20% reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, simply through efficiency gains from smart devices in energy, health care, buildings, agriculture, and manufacturing. The total global cost savings: $4.9 trillion by 2030, mostly through reduced fuel and electricity costs.
Additionally, if companies like GE and Intel can pull off even a 1% efficiency gain across "digital industrials," as Frodl calls companies like GE, it would yield a whopping $15 trillion additional revenue to the global GDP over the next 20 years, according to a GE study.
None of these world-changing efficiencies happen, of course, without more collaboration—more partnerships that are equal parts ambition and experimentation. "We are learning how to experiment and try things out because you're stitching together new technologies," says Tony Neal-Graves, vice president of internet of things, general manager of the industrial & internet solutions group at Intel. "There are a lot of unknowns here. We're just starting on this journey and understanding what's possible. Just like any other revolution, we're going to go through some fits and starts."
This article was created and commissioned by GE and Intel, and the views expressed are their own.