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Hackathon heaven—driving efficiencies on an industrial scale

November 06, 2015
Enter the new digital-industrial hothouse, where the blast-furnace of ideas and the phenomenal pace of collaborative coding will blow your mind as it produces viable software products faster than you can say digital-industrial revolution.
GE’s Industrial Hackathons invite software innovators to address large-scale challenges. They’ll be mentored by programming and analytics experts from GE, and by startup gurus practised in getting ideas to market.
The experience of developing a viable product is the money-can’t-buy take away from the hackathon weekends.

These events are made for would-be entrepreneurs with a talent for solving problems using canny code. Lachlan Hope, program manager at GE Transportation is one of the mentors for participants in the Sydney Industrial Hackathon on the weekend of November 28-29. Another skilled group of facilitators will run the Melbourne-based event on December 12-13. Says Hope, “Many hackathons have been focused on consumer-facing or consumer-oriented projects; this Industrial Hackathon is a way to reorient the hackathon community to a large-operations focus.”

Mark Sheppard, CIO of GE Australia & New Zealand adds that the two weekend-long software-development marathons are “centred around real-world problems that our customers face”.

Many industrial challenges arise where people and machine assets meet. GE is looking to solve specific problems around worker safety in remote locations, operator compliance in the use of medical equipment and streamlining rail maintenance for some of the country’s major resource companies.

Solutions in train ...

Take a sample challenge posed by GE: Railway maintenance technicians often work in dirty, dusty, greasy, difficult locations and paper-based instructions are simply unwieldy—easily left behind, susceptible to damage. Computer-tablet-based instructions won’t cut it in this environment either. But what about an automated, audio-based system, which leaves hands free, directs important procedures, but is responsive to questioning?

Interested? Get railroaded into development action by this video, in which Kyle Jamieson, systems engineer at Rio Tinto, and Matt Cechner from GE Transportation give more detail about the heavy-haul locomotive-maintenance problem:

That’s just one of four suggested applications detailed on the GE Industrial Hackathon website, but developers are also encouraged to BYO ideas. “We’re providing a space where people can think about the industrial context with a fresh perspective,” says Hope. You don’t need to be an engineer to take part: “It’s more a willingness to look at a problem, understand the data, and to think about different ways to solve that problem—create an opportunity out of it,” explains Hope.

He cites automation, such as autonomous ore trucks in the Pilbara, as the “flashy” end of the industrial-programming spectrum, but adds that there are many ways to make large-scale operations more efficient, including controlling inventory and supply chains. “People still do a lot of things in an analogue way; we assume and decide things as humans,” Hope says. “But if you have a detailed data-based model of what’s actually going on—how people check parts in and out and move items around—it can solve a lot of problems and make processes more efficient than you ever thought possible.”

The power of three or four

Group dynamics, says Hope, provide checks and balances, different perspectives that help to keep programmers focused on what’s working, And having more minds at work lets you hit the accelerator on development—rapidly testing more than one theory and breaking a few prototype approaches in order to hone in on the good stuff.

Solutions will be judged on quality, scalability, business model and market validation by a panel of industry and government experts. Prizes will be awarded to outstanding teams. The intellectual property resides with each team—leaving participants the option to collaboratively take their work to market.

The experience of developing a viable product is the money-can’t-buy take away from the hackathon weekends. “As mentors, our role is to really help participants define and develop the value of what they’re doing. The nature of ideas is that people have a lot of them; helping them whittle those down to a solid solution to a definable problem is where we come in!” says Hope. The hackathon mentors will coach teams to be able to present their work as “a solid solution to a defined problem”.

Hope anticipates that the GE Industrial Hackathons will generate some brilliant solutions, and he looks forward to seeing participants have fun in the hothouse environment. His own efforts have an underlying goal—to show GE’s dedication to working with its customers in new ways that solve their business problems. “We’re not just shipping metal. We’re committed to the digital environment, and to new perspectives on the industrial world. It’s a really exciting area.”

Top image: GE’s open-plan, innovation-inspiring head office is where the Sydney Hackathon action will take place.