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.