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Over the past year, General Electric has taken the lead in tying together what chairman Jeff Immelt calls "the physical and analytical worlds." Translation: GE's many machines--everything from power plants to locomotives to hospital equipment--now pump out data about how they're operating. GE's analytics team crunches it, then rejiggers machines to be more efficient. Even tiny improvements are substantial, given the scale: By GE's estimates, data can boost productivity in the U.S. by 1.5%, which over a 20-year period could save enough cash to raise average national incomes by as much as 30%.

It's the early days, but the uses for this system in the airline industry are numerous: In 2012 about 40% of all airline costs were related to fuel and 10% related to delays and cancellations. GE estimates these self-reporting machines, such as the engines on enormous airliners, could prompt a 1% reduction in fuel, which would save the airline industry $30 billion over 15 years. Over the past two years they've been put to the test as GE worked with Italian airline Alitalia to monitor wing-flap positions and relay adjustments during landing and fuel usage, leading to an estimated savings of $46 million.

The ultimate goal: giving airlines and pilots real-time suggestions to improve plane efficiency through changing trajectory or velocity during flight and identifying early signs of faulty parts (prognostics versus diagnostics) improving safety, reliability, and cost.

*GE estimates that a 1% reduction in fuel would save the airline industry $30 billion over 15 years. It’s outfitting the latest planes with self-reporting engines, which it can monitor and then relay adjustments to. Its engineers have worked with Italy’s Alitalia airline to improve aerodynamics and fuel usage.