Ping-Pong tables and foosball aren’t the sorts of things people typically associate with a 124-year-old company that builds turbines for power plants and engines for planes. But they are part of the package at GE’s new “Digital foundry” that opened a short walk from beaux-arts halls of the Paris Opera this summer. “You are surrounded by these contrasts of old and new; years of deep expertise and the desire to chart the future,” said Adrien Rivierre, a media manager at the place who recently showed GE Reports around. “This is the most interesting place to work in the city.”
GE has been connecting machines to the Industrial Internet of Things and transforming itself into a “digital-industrial company” for several years. The way the company sees it, the digital foundry is a place where engineers can write software that makes sense of all the data the machines produce and also incubate new ideas that could seed startups. One data scientist at the foundry, for instance, is currently building an algorithm that can sort and categorize thousands of images from MRIs made by GE Healthcare, cutting down on time technicians would have to spend doing the same work.
Most of the apps will work on Predix, GE’s cloud-based platform for the Industrial Internet. The Internet of Things already connects 13.4 billion devices, and that number is expected to jump to 38.5 billion by 2020.
But not everyone here is a GE employee. “The idea is to bring together customers, students and GE engineers and allow them to collaborate and find new solutions,” Rivierre says. “Increasingly, the best ideas in technology and industry are being sparked by chance conversations. This is the power of serendipity. Sometimes to innovate, you need a game of foosball!”
The creative stimulation is indeed everywhere. The foundry occupies two floors in the 140-year-old Le Centorial building on the Rue du Quatre Septembre, which still features towering glass and steel domes designed by Gustave Eiffel. But inside the foundry is a matrix of cleverly designed pods where engineers and data scientists collaborate on clever algorithms designed to find meaning in terabytes of data.
In fact, the sole focus of the foundry’s interior structure is to foster teamwork. Japanese architect Hidekazu Moritani, who designed the place, based his vision on the honeycomb structures of beehives. Walk into a rectangular room and you have a sense of closure. Moritani’s big idea was that hexagonal-shaped rooms feel more dynamic because you are more likely to be able to touch a wall, which was exactly what he wanted.
All of the walls are actually whiteboards so that people can write down ideas the second they pop into their minds. That way, the possibility of recalling an insight is never more than a few steps away.
During a recent visit, many walls were already filled from top to bottom with algorithms. Below them on a table, an engineer was using software code to control a model of a wind turbine. Another one was programming a drone. (GE is already building 3D virtual versions, or digital twins, of entire wind farms to optimize their design and production. The company also looking for way to use drones for remote field inspections.) “The opportunity to start something from scratch, and particularly at GE, is thrilling,” says Benoit Laurent, a software architect working at the foundry. “Here you can literally feel the motivation.” Or duck to avoid it. “We do have some flying drone competitions sometimes,” he added.
Moritani’s design also takes GE’s industrial heritage into account. He pulled down the false ceilings in each room and exposed the guts of the building — metallic beams, lighting supports and pipes. He used materials you’d typically find in a factory or power plant — reflective metal resins, wooden floor and woven, rough-textured fabric — and combined them with softer materials and furnishings.
He also wanted to avoid any “dead-end spaces,” so he designed walkways that allow people to meander around the design pods, with few straight corridors. “We want people to feel at ease,” said Moritani, who moved to Paris from Japan 11 years ago and stayed. “People come inside and when they have ideas, they don’t have to go into a meeting room and open a computer. They can start writing on the walls right away.”
The European digital foundry in Paris is the first in a series of similar spaces GE is building around the world. Another has already opened in Shanghai. In Paris, there are now 70 staff members specializing in data science, design and software development working for industries including oil and gas, power, and healthcare. GE plans to grow the number of people working in the Europe foundry to 250 by 2018.
The writing on these walls portends the industrial world’s next great developments.