A gas turbine service manual can clock in at 1,000 pages, about the length of a small-type version of War & Peace. Crews often haul the tomes from one remote location to another to do maintenance work. They travel on a set timetable and lack real-time information about the condition of the turbines. “If they come too late and failure occurs, unplanned downtime can cascade across the system and affect the economy,” says GE Chief Economist Marco Annunziata.
But there is a better way. Soon workers will be able to store and access maintenance information on simple handheld devices, brainstorm repairs with colleagues, and even monitor and talk to the turbines themselves. Annunziata and Peter C. Evans, director of global strategy and analytics at GE, just released a new report titled Industrial Internet@Work, which is making a case for a new way of unleashing the power of information in the workplace. They found that time and money “wasted largely due to deficiencies in how information is gathered, stored, accessed and shared” on servicing machines serving just a handful of industries could amount to more than 300 million man-hours, or $20 billion per year.
Annunziata and Evans write that the Industrial Internet, which brings together the digital and machine worlds, could help people work more efficiently and productively with machines, allow them to collaborate and share information faster, and profoundly transform the workplace. They say that “a key feature of the Industrial Internet is that information itself becomes intelligent. When workers need it, information will find them—they will not need to hunt for it.”
The authors argue that the Industrial Internet – enabled by increased connectivity, collaboration, data analytics, and cloud-based software and mobile apps – will change the work experience for hundreds of thousands of workers, from field engineers and drilling rig workers to pilots, doctors and nurses. “The Industrial Internet will empower them with faster access to relevant information, relying on analytics generating new insights, [and] mobile collaboration tools revolutionizing the way that information is shared and disseminated,” they write. “Machines will play an active part in this; connected and communicative machines will be able to self-monitor, self-heal, and proactively send information to other machines and to their human partners.”
Sometime in the near future, a wind farm engineer will travel with a wireless device that can indicate which turbine needs attention and which needs to be fixed. The same device will store and transmit technical information and enable the engineer to share video with colleagues at other locations to instantly tap their expertise.
Will machines make people redundant? Annunziata and Evans disagree. They write that companies must play a pivotal role in educating workers and teaching them new skills. Annunziata argues that “a new, highly-skilled workforce will emerge as the Industrial Internet is poised to have a significant impact.” He and Evans say that the innovations discussed in their paper will “augment and enhance the abilities of workers, enabling them to work with greater efficiency, better results, and greater productivity,” and turn “industrial operators into skilled information-workers,”
Writes Annunziata: “Workers will be racing with the new, intelligent machines of the Industrial Internet, not against them—more Iron Man than the Charlie Chaplin of Modern Times.”