The industrial internet of things (IIoT) is still a fairly recent phenomenon, but over the last couple of years, it’s been evolving rapidly. Industrial giants and startups alike have rushed in to build the foundation with highly sophisticated sensors, edge computing, predictive software, and other technologies.
The consumer internet is the better-known digital powerhouse, of course, but it’s this growing connectivity within factories and power plants and supply chains that stands to remake business operations the world over and to move the needle on global issues such as climate change.
Here, Deb Frodl, global executive director of GE Ecomagination, the company’s growth strategy for solutions that marry economic and environmental outcomes, explains this emerging IIoT market and how optimizing industrial equipment actually hits home for companies of all kinds as well as consumers.
What does the industrial internet of things look like as a business opportunity?
It’s still early days, but the opportunity is significant. That’s why GE has really been transforming itself over the last couple of years. We now call ourselves the “digital industrial.” Because we’re leading the way on the industrial internet. Customers need to improve productivity and, at the same time, reduce emissions. When you combine digital solutions with hardware solutions, you’re able to maximize efficiency and resource productivity. You’re reducing fuels, improving emissions, and improving water through these solutions—doing more with less.
We have done some hypothetical analysis around just what a handful of digital solutions scaled across a few industries could really mean annually: They could save $80 billion and reduce carbon emissions by over 800 million tons. That’s huge for industry and for the world.
Why is the growth of the IIoT accelerating now?
The cost of sensors—the sensors you put on industrial machines to monitor them and gather data—has come down 50%. You’re now seeing the potential of 60 billion connected machines by 2020. That allows us to not just have the data, but to do the insights and the analytics to help drive productivity and efficiency.
How are these technologies—the sensors and real-time analytics—changing the way GE itself works?
We produce world-class hardware, as well as deliver service contracts for some of the most important industrial organizations in the world. But oftentimes we have to be reactive around a manual maintenance plan. We respond to equipment problems after they’ve already occurred. Today, with the sensors, the software, and the monitoring we’re able to do, we can be proactive and get ahead of the issues with aircraft engines or wind turbines or power plants before they happen, providing maintenance plans for each specific piece of equipment based on where and how it operates. We can also see ways to improve costs and environmental impacts by optimizing efficiency during operation. We call this operations optimization. That’s absolutely game-changing.
How meaningful is that for customers?
If you think about the industries that we’re in—for instance, aviation and sub-sea oil production—having that predictive element means no unplanned downtime, which can be incredibly costly. Knowing in advance before a maintenance challenge or a break in a pipeline is absolutely an imperative for our customers. Providing insights that allow our customers to optimize their operations also helps them increase their productivity and lower their costs, fuel consumption, and emissions. That is meaningful to our customers and bigger global challenges.
It sounds futuristic. How do predictive maintenance and operations optimization work in the IIoT?
We build an analytical, physics-based, digital model of hardware—a train engine or an oil derrick, for example—that leverages data to predict what will happen to it next. It sounds like a lot more black magic than it actually is, but simply put, we build a digital model—what we call a digital twin—of how we know these machines should work, and then we compare it to the actual data provided by the sensors and look for any discrepancies. It’s an approach that can work as well in aviation as it does in energy. And it allows us to get peak performance out of that physical hardware.
What sort of improvement are we talking about?
Our Digital Wind Farm—which combines our hardware, applications, and our IIoT platform, Predix—can optimize the entire farm over its life span and help our customers add 20% productivity or more clean energy output. That’s equivalent to $100 million in value for that wind farm.
GE works on some very specialized industrial projects, but the IIoT needs to work across the supply chain as a whole. How do you build a framework that can span industries?
We’ve invested in what is really the world’s first operating system for the industrial internet, our Predix platform. The industrial internet is different from the consumer internet—the volumes of data, the variety of data, millions of machines connected together. Industry has unique needs compared to the consumer world. Earlier this year, we opened Predix up to customers, competitors, innovators all over the world. There are now some 19,000 software engineers and developers currently developing industrial applications and microservices on the platform today, in a safe and secure environment—customers like Schindler and RasGas as well as partners like AT&T and Tata Consulting.
Why is it worth the risk of allowing others, even competitors, to access GE’s platform?
As you can imagine, as a 124-year-old company, there was a bit of debate around, should we open it up or should we keep it closed? But at the end of the day, we need new muscle. We need partners. We opened it up so we could go faster and build out the ecosystem as a whole.
How does this help companies looking to have a positive impact on the world?
Every day we talk to companies from across sectors that are looking to reduce their energy and water use for a number of economic, environmental, and societal reasons. In many cases, companies have made the hardware and operational changes that are helping them reduce their impacts. Now we have the opportunity to leverage digital solutions on top of all that. You only need to think of how smartphones have allowed us to use energy more wisely or navigate traffic more easily to imagine the potential of creating apps that can help industry do the same.
This article was created and commissioned by GE and Intel, and the views expressed are their own.