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Industrial intelligence—the biggest break a uni student ever had

This summer, in the space between one university year and the next, GE set up a real-world opportunity for students to get their hands dirty on actual, gritty industrial challenges. GE called it The Generator. And from Engineering, Mechatronics, IT and Data Science courses they came. What else would a student do with a three-month break?

“I would have been just sitting at home: eat, sleep, repeat,” says Masters IT student Ram Murali grinning at his own self-deprecating joke. Instead, says Murali, who completed his Bachelor degree in computer science and engineering in Chennai, India, before coming to UTS to further his studies, “I could tell my parents I was working for GE, and that got me some respect!”

Whatever he told the folks back home, Murali was working this summer, and working hard for GE collaborator Mirvac, in a real service-provider situation. He and teammates Civil Engineering student David Tan and Chemical Engineering student Zongyang Yao were challenged to manoeuvre data generated by the company’s crane operations to identify how Mirvac might more efficiently deploy these vital, expensive-to-run, construction enablers.

“It certainly wasn’t a cakewalk,” says Tan. “Imagine a spreadsheet with up to 180,000 rows. We didn’t have many columns: load, safe-lift load, lift radius, lift distance, wind speed, crane angle … And we had to analyse every single parameter and compare it to what’s in Mirvac’s best interests.”

Cake also became an analogy for another group that included mechatronics major Mikhail Fedulov, who were tasked with applying Predix, GE’s software platform for securely handling industrial volumes of data, to create a visualisation of jet-engine-parts data and services. The aim was to help streamline the workflow of technicians maintaining GE engines for an airline client to reduce engine downtime and increase return on investment.

Says Fedulov, who, as a result of participating in the Generator, is thinking of changing his mechatronics major at UTS to Software Engineering, “Predix is a good solution and it’s easy to build with if you don’t have much experience working with software. The Predix platform has modules, and if you have an idea of what you want to achieve, you can select modules in order to analyse or visualise or get access to something.”

His team likened working with Predix to baking a cake: ingredients (modules) from the Predix store are combined with the result that the customer can have their app cake—and eat it!

Mirvac fielded several mentors to guide and encourage the teams, as well as working as customer to the crane group. Sean Ward, group company secretary, says Mirvac was interested to experiment with the incubator model. It’s also part of the company DNA, to try to give back to the community. Plus, Ward says, Mirvac realises that the Industrial Internet will feed directly into the company vision to “Reimagine urban life”—partly on the smart-cities side of connected smart lighting and other services, but also in the largely unanalysed area of construction logistics.

“We thought the crane challenge was appropriate for the Generator program because construction is one area of our business that probably hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years, so it’s ripe for some disruption in terms of what the Internet of Things could allow us to do,” says Ward.

Getting a lift from crane data

Mirvac shared with its student team three months’ of raw crane data—which it has never before analysed—from a Sydney construction site. Murali, Tan and Yao knew nothing about construction, and had never imagined the critical role that cranes play. They had to absorb as much context as possible from Tom Waters, operations manager in New South Wales for Mirvac’s Apartments and Commercial division.

“A lot of the planning we do around construction projects is done based on experience. We wanted to engage with the data in a completely different, non-biased way,” says Waters.

Mirvac deploys tower cranes on all its projects. Their use is impacted by load and height capabilities, weather, site constraints such as site size, available street frontage for unloading materials, and the courtesies and contracts influencing Mirvac’s relationships with site neighbours.

Through unbiased analysis of automatically generated crane data, Mirvac hoped to learn more about specifics such as: “Are there efficiencies to be had in how we utilise the crane during the day? Is there a more efficient way to mobilise the personnel who attend that crane—the crane operators and materials handlers? If we’d used a bigger crane on that project could we have done more lifts? Or could we get away with a smaller crane?” says Waters.

Zongyang Yao was at first dismayed to find himself in the Mirvac group, because, he says, “I’m not studying Civil Engineering, so I thought I might not be capable of this.” But he made the illuminating discovery that his skills are transportable, widely applicable, that “there’s a connection between engineering stuff; so actually, I could do so many amazing things!”

Most of all, says Yao, he was mentored to improve his confidence, and his interpersonal and presentation skills. Through The Generator, he says, “I met a lot of people from different backgrounds, the people at Mirvac, people from GE, engineers and businesspeople—who broadened my social experience.”

Tony Tran is another participant who identified insights into company life and politics as an invaluable takeout from the Generator experience: “University is very book based, and this is very industry based. We didn’t know how companies worked. For example, I didn’t know that companies go through changes. I thought it was just, ‘Nine to five, go to the office and work’. But a lot of work is political and people based. And you have to learn to read people.”

Soft skills support hard tasks

Such “soft” skills as change management, design thinking, GE’s FastWorks agile development practices and presentation skills were imparted in a series of boot camps conducted by GE executives over the three-month intense working period. Students were also continuously, actively coached by mentors of each group, in how to prepare for and run meetings, on how to engage people in their ideas and when to pivot in response to feedback or … temporary failure.

 Reverse mentoring

“We learned a lot,” over the course of The Generator experience, says GE Digital Chief Commercial Officer Asia Pacific Mark Sheppard. “GE talks about behaving like a startup—a 125-year-old startup! And that means not having everything nailed down in terms of scope.” Sheppard praises GE employee involvement in supporting the students to develop skills on the fly and rapidly evolve solutions from data.

“Everyone who participated in running The Generator was willing to think differently about things—that in itself was a big benefit for us.”

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