Imagine that you are in charge of the service center for a global energy infrastructure company. It’s Friday afternoon and you are ready to go home when you receive an urgent call from a customer. She needs a critical oil pump component within the next 12 hours or her business will lose millions of dollars. Concerned? Don’t panic.
“Previously, managers would have to check their inventory and then start calling and emailing other locations to locate the part,” says Peter Koudal, supply chain technology leader at GE Global Research. “Companies often store this information in disconnected databases, computers and spreadsheets that need to be checked manually.”
Now they can tap into the all-seeing “Elastic Cloud.”
Koudal and his team of software engineers built an inventory system that allows supply chain managers in distress to look up millions of parts from their browsers. Koudal calls the technology Elastic Cloud because it’s able to access, sort, index, model and merge complex information stored inside computers anywhere in the world, and transfer it to a large enterprise cloud server.
“We have the ability to see everything instantly by location and warehouse, and create customized dashboards where you can select what you need,” he says. “Within seconds, the manager will know if he has the part, if he can assemble it from spare components, or whether some of the components need to be shipped or quickly manufactured.”
GE machines work in northern Norway and other remote corners of the world.
The system is so fast because it works with data stored in computer memory, rather than rooting through traditional hard disk storage. The idea is not new, but falling memory prices made it economical.
Computer scientists Hasso Plattner and Alexander Zeier compare this in-memory access to getting a glass of water out of the kitchen faucet, rather than fetching it from a well half way across the world. “This orders-of-magnitude difference in access times has profound implications for all enterprise applications,” they write in their book on the topic. “Things that in the past were not even considered because they took so long, now become possible, allowing businesses concrete insight into the workings of their company that previously were the subject of speculation and guess-work.”
Koudal’s system uses advanced mathematical models to locate and sort the data, and even identify demand patterns for individual components. “This is a key part of the system,” Koudal says. “You can see instantly everything that’s available in the network, even things that are being manufactured. This gives your business great predictability.”
Koudal says that companies ranging from healthcare to transportation could use the system to shrink and optimize their inventories and supply chains, and reduce costs and downtime. It could also help GE and others build the “Brilliant Factory,” an enterprise of the future where designers, suppliers and production engineers collaborate online, develop products and virtually test production without actually touching any materials or machines.
GE’s Oil & Gas business is already using the Elastic Cloud platform to track inventory in its artificial lift business, which builds pumps that extract oil from deep wells. Many of the business unit’s warehouses are located in remote parts of the world, and the system helps with optimizing inventory. The idea is that Friday afternoon fire drills will become a distant memory.