Industry Market Trends

Is GE's Industrial Internet the Future of Manufacturing?

Dec 28, 2012

You may have heard of an exciting new concept called the "Industrial Internet." And no, it has nothing to do with connecting your CNC machine to Twitter. In fact, it may be the start of major innovations in the way goods are manufactured around the globe.

The concept is similar to "The Internet of Things," a term coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999 in reference to his vision of a world tagged with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips and sensors. Ashton's concept was about combining the physical necessities of human existence (heat, food, clothing, etc.) with the connectivity of the Internet. In a 2009 article for RFID Journal, Ashton wrote:

If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things-using data they gathered without any help from us - we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.

The Industrial Internet takes this concept into the world of manufacturing and industrial technology. Jeff Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, is personally championing the idea, calling it a "revolution."

The idea is to combine analytics software with sensors on machines to gain data that can boost efficiency, productivity and more. It's about making machines more intelligent, and in some ways self-regulating. In a document released in November, GE touts the value of even minor improvements in certain industries, claiming that, for example, a 1 percent gain in fuel efficiency and reduced unscheduled maintenance would result in $30 billion for aviation over 15 years.

That's great... if you're an airline company. But what if you are a manufacturer? Moreover, what if your products have nothing to do with aviation (or rail or health care, which are two other examples GE focuses on)? What if you manufacture fasteners, transmissions, pipe fittings or centrifugal pumps? Can the Industrial Internet benefit you?

"If you think about the concept itself, of driving new insights about machines and process, it's all about getting as much intelligence out of your assets and process as possible," Mark Bernardo, general manager of automation software at GE Intelligent Platforms, told IMT.

Bernardo believes there is little difference between connecting data from a jet engine and collecting data from a grinder, CNC machine or laser cutter. "There are ways to make them more intelligent," he said.

Nearly anything that can be measured can be collected as data and analyzed. The right sensor in the right place can track temperature, moisture, tolerance, durability, surface texture, color, noise/volume levels, vibration and more. The right software can track patterns with two or more conditions. "As the humidity goes up, it causes X result on my production," Bernardo explained. "If you can know that ahead of time, there are mitigation procedures that can be put in place."

Most of the manufacturing industry, he says, is not collecting data on their processes or is doing so manually, using pen and paper. "They are relying on individuals to see patterns and out-of-spec conditions."

By taking the machines that many manufacturers use every day and making them more intelligent, industrial businesses can reap major benefits, such as:

  • Improved productivity as machines report required maintenance ahead of a breakdown;
  • More precise and automated quality control, as out-of-spec conditions are monitored and prevented; and
  • Cost reductions from reduced waste and more efficient energy usage.

A closed loop of information and analysis within a particular manufacturing operation is just the start of GE's vision for the Industrial Internet. It's when all these machines connect together, pooling data in the cloud that the "real magic happens," Bernardo said.

"Think about multiple manufacturers feeding data up into the cloud. It doesn't matter what the process is. You can see what processes are most efficient and least efficient," he added. "You can actually correlate that these raw materials generate this much more efficiency. Then you can sell that information back to manufacturers."

Of course, therein lies the catch. To gain the most benefit from this Industrial Internet, manufacturers will have to pay to play. Who will manufacturers have to pay? Why, the ones who make the software, of course (like, say, GE).

If competitors are gaining the same insights from the same data pool, won't that negate any advantage they might receive? Bernardo admitted that it will "level the playing field" for many companies, but just as no one is required to connect their PC to the Internet, so too will manufacturers have the choice of whether or not to share their data.

If that's the case, why would anyone share their data in the first place? They'll do it for the same reasons people make certain concessions in business: Cost. Bernardo insisted that any sort of public or shared data pool is going to be considerably more cost-effective for most businesses than setting up a private, closed-loop system.

GE doesn't expect to be the only player in this space. Instead, the company hopes that others will follow their lead and offer competing products and services. This would be good for everyone, as it would keep costs down and encourage more innovation and more rapid adoption.

Yet having multiple companies each with their own standards also presents compatibility problems. Immelt mentioned this in his GigaOm op-ed, saying, "A standard language for machines will unleash waves of innovation that will truly change how the world works." Bernardo insists that GE has already begun teaming with groups to establish language and reporting standards, though he declined to offer specifics.

So, when can we all log on to the Industrial Internet? GE doesn't exactly have an answer for that. Bernardo explained that, technologically speaking, the pieces are all in place - the sensors, the software and the know-how all exist today. What's missing is mainly infrastructure. And funny cat photos.