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No Screw Left Unexamined: This Digital Test Bed Can Track the Lives of Machines

New machines may not have souls, but they do have lives. Tracking them is the idea behind the Industrial Digital Thread Testbed. This mouthful of a name hides a clear goal: give each machine and even individual parts a digital “birth certificate,” track them through their lifetime, and make sure that the information is properly recorded. “It will give us the digital story of a part’s life from birth to death,” says Dave Bartlett, chief technology officer of GE Aviation. “This has never existed before at this level. Previously, records were disjointed and … very hard to pull together.”

The testbed is a partnership between GE and Infosys. They’ve built it under the auspices of the Industrial Internet Consortium, a group of some 200 companies working to realize the $15 trillion promise of the Industrial Internet.

For years, the way most machines and their parts were tracked was pretty basic, even in industries as advanced as aerospace: Their surfaces were stamped with identifying information that engineers could later look up in a database. Information was often incomplete, hard to retrieve and rarely amenable to software analysis.

FILE NO: 20131119-080205 GLIENT: GE/EA ENGINE: GP7200 DESCRIPTION: Emirates Test Facility, Dubai, UAE

Just like humans, jet engines, other machines and their parts will soon have digital birth certificates.

The digital birth certificates will allow manufacturers and customers to accumulate details about the life of a machine in a database which Bartlett and his colleagues have dubbed a “digital thread.” This computer scrapbook would accumulate details about the machine’s design, supply chain, manufacturing, service and even operating conditions it endured.

The implications are huge. Bartlett says the digital thread could help engineers trace problems to their root cause when they pop up. It could lead to a particular supplier or reveal that it was made using a specific material manufactured under slightly different conditions than normal.

In the beginning, the testbed will track parts made by GE Aviation in Terre Haute, Indiana. It will also include parts repaired at the Aviation Component Service Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The project will test how the industrial ecosystem functions, look for problem areas and suggest solutions. “We can show how we can work across the bigger ecosystem and how we can drive innovation and value together,” Bartlett says. “These testbeds facilitate that.”

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The digital birth certificates will allow manufacturers and customers to accumulate details about the life of a machine and even individual parts, says GE’s Dave Bartlet.

The digital thread also ties nicely to another GE effort called the Brilliant Factory — manufacturing facilities of the very near future using data analysis, connectivity and materials to optimize everything from design to supply chain and product control.

“This opens up our Brilliant Factories for other companies to innovate with us to help us develop that concept for GE and then for the wider world,” Bartlett says. “To really pull this off, we need to accommodate a wide ecosystem … that includes all of the companies working on things related to this idea.”

The beating heart of the testbed is a piece of technology called Platform Tier. It includes GE’s cloud-based Predix industrial software platform and Infosys’s analytic engine called Infosys Information Platform (IIP). Jayraj Nair, head of the Internet of Things practice at Infosys, says the testbed will integrate and test the compatibility of Predix system with the analytic insights provided by IIP. It will also survey the capabilities of equipment and software from other firms on what is called the Edge Tier and see how they work as part of a single ecosystem.

This is important since following the digital thread is not always easy. Imagine that a sensor on a jet engine identifies premature wear on a blade. To add that information to its digital thread, it must send that data through secure protocols through a secure industrial firewall. In order to leverage such capabilities from other companies, they will have to be tested to ensure they properly integrate with Predix and IIP.

Similarly, the testbed’s Enterprise Tier will check how the system operates in coordination with computer-aided design and other commercial software. “We have to get multitudes of partners to work with us,” Nair says. “That is why we are doing this together through the IIC.”

Bartlett and Nair say that testbeds will be critical to expanding the Industrial Internet – a digital network of machines, software and cloud analytics. A recent survey of more than 400 industrial manufacturers worldwide by Infosys revealed that, while 85 percent industrial companies saw its potential, only 15 percent have implemented dedicated strategies to analyze machine data.

GE and Infosys know a thing or two about how to get going.

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