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The Heart of the Machine: A Look under the Hood of GE’s Industrial Business

A new generation of jet engines is giving a $144 billion boost to GE’s industrial performance. The engines and services agreements added to the company’s record $245 billion backlog at the end of 2014’s first quarter, whose results GE announced this morning.

One of them is the LEAP engine. It won’t enter service until 2016, but it has already become a bestseller, with more than 6,000 confirmed orders from 20 countries. It is being developed by CFM International, a 50/50 joint venture between GE and France’s Snecma (Safran). The company has orders and commitments valued at $83 billion for that engine alone.

The LEAP is the world’s first passenger jet engine with 3D printed fuel nozzles and next-generation materials that include heat-resistant ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) and breakthrough carbon fiber fan blades woven in all three dimensions at once. In March, GE announced the opening of a new $100 million assembly plant for the engines in Indiana.

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GE invests between 5 and 6 percent of revenues in research and development annually. The beneficiaries include GE’s wind business, which has recently introduced giant wind turbines connected to the Industrial Internet and space-frame towers that will allow operators to put wind farms in difficult terrains.

A GE wind turbine starts up at the GDF Suez Energy site in Galati, Romania. Shot by @seenewphoto. 

These “intelligent” wind turbines will soon be operational at five wind farms in Oklahoma, Indiana and Illinois. Their sensors and algorithms could squeeze as much as 420,000 megawatt-hours of extra electricity from the farms’ combined 402 turbines. That’s enough to power 33,000 average U.S. homes.

But making machines that talk to each other is not easy. That’s why last month GE co-founded the Industrial Internet Consortium with partners AT&T, CISCO, IBM and Intel. The open, not-for-profit group will work together to break down technology silos, improve machine-to-machine communications and bring the physical and digital worlds closer together. “It’s still like the Tower of Babel,” says Joe Salvo, manager of Complex Systems Engineering Laboratory at GE Global Research. “We need to bring [machines] together in powerful new networks.” GE estimates that the Industrial Internet could add between $10 and $15 trillion to global GDP – the size of today’s U.S. economy – over the next 20 years.

The connected machines already include gas turbines using hardware and software to improve the efficiency of the largest power plant in New York City and the world’s second largest aluminum smelter in Dubai. GE also just introduced the world’s largest and most efficient gas turbine that can operate at 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit – higher than a jet engine – and reach combined-cycle efficiency of 61 percent.

There’s more power in GE’s engine room. Each Evolution Series locomotive, for example, is strong enough to pull the equivalent of 170 Boeing 747 jet liners (The company also make engines for those). GE Transportation recently announced a deal to supply 233 locomotives to South Africa’s Transnet Freight Rails. Transnet moves every pound of coal and iron ore exported by South Africa, and close to a fifth of the country’s freight. That makes the railroad a key player in nation’s economic revival. Transnet plans to spend Rand 200 billion ($18.6 billion) on expanding capacity and increasing cargo volume.

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GE technology operates in the air, on the ground, but also under water. GE is helping oil and gas companies like Statoil develop underwater factories designed to recover oil and natural gas deposits that used to be out of reach.

“This is an emerging technology,” says Alisdair McDonald, business leader of subsea power and processing at GE Oil & Gas. Pumps, motors, compressors, water-treatment technology and other machines will soon be all going overboard.

Find out more about GE technology and about the company’s first quarter results from our infographic featured above.

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