For futurist and X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis, times have been always been a-changin’. But never as much as right now. “We are in a period when extraordinary things are starting to happen,” Diamandis said last week at the Exponential Manufacturing summit in Boston, an event held by Singularity University, the future-facing think tank/startup incubator that Diamandis co-founded with the legendary inventor Ray Kurzweil eight years ago. “You have to surf on top of the tsunami of change or you will be crushed by it.”
One of the “exponential” concepts discussed at the conference was the digital thread, a kind of a digital birth certificate that will allow companies to monitor products at every stage of their life, from birth to death. Andre Wegner, founder and CEO of the 3D-printing strategy firm Authentise, told the audience — which included more than 500 entrepreneurs, engineers, investors and inventors — that parts will soon come equipped with sensors that will report back to the design system when the component breaks. The system will use the data to generate insights, redesign the microstructure of the material the part was made from and send it to the factory floor for manufacturing.
GE businesses have already started deploying parts of the digital thread. Take a look.
At the GE Oil & Gas turbine factory in Florence, Italy, technicians placed dozens of sensors on massive lathes and boring, milling and grinding machines on the shop floor and inside the inventory room. They monitor heat, vibrations, engineering tolerances and other factors. The data flows into the cloud for analysis and sends back insights that allow experienced human operators to make the best production decisions. “The algorithms send back five to 10 parameters that really make an impact,” says Anup Sharma, chief information officer at GE Oil & Gas. “The information is so good it’s basically like allowing an airplane mechanic to fly a plane.”
The technology allowed GE to add a whole new production line to the Florence factory — which was already very competitive — without building a new production hall or adding a new shift. “It’s helping them to squeeze more out of their facilities,” says Stephan Biller, chief manufacturing scientist at GE Global Research, who helped develop the digital thread. “I can go in and see what happens if I take a machine out. The factory will reoptimize itself instantly and the system will tell me what the consequences of adding or taking away resources are.”
GE’s digital thread unspools from Predix, a cloud-based platform GE developed at its software headquarters in San Ramon, California, for the Industrial Internet. Predix is similar to iOS or Android, but built for machines. The platform allows developers to mine industrial data and write apps for everything from MRI scanners and jet engines to entire production facilities like offshore platforms and factories. The software supplies insights to operators who use them to make the machines run more efficiently.
GE Power’s brand-new Advanced Manufacturing Works in Greenville, South Carolina, has also started using the technology. Clay Johnson, GE Power’s chief information officer, says the plant still shows only a fragment of what’s coming. He says the digital thread will be constantly moving data from customers and suppliers to GE and back. “The system will be getting real-time feedback from sensors on parts inside machines,” Johnson says. “In the future the part will realize it’s getting degraded, automatically can reorder itself to be made, and schedules the field engineer to be on-site to install it. It’s Uber for industry.”
There are some 21,000 GE locomotives pulling freight and passengers in 50 countries and Seth Bodnar, chief digital officer of GE Transportation, wants to connect them all. “We’re trying to weave a digital thread around the entire railroad operation,” Bodnar says. “The good news is small improvements can have a big impact. A 1 percent fuel-efficiency improvement has a $100 million savings benefit for customers. An increase in velocity of just 1 mile per hour can drive over $2 billion in savings to customers.” GE made the first locomotive more than a century ago, and Bodnar says the new software builds on this deep domain expertise. “A decade from now, these digital tools will take railroad productivity and efficiency to unprecedented levels,” he says. “The whole network will light up like a brain.”
GE and the Canadian government are each investing CA$20 million in a new cell therapy research and process development hub in Toronto led by Canada’s Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM). The new center will bring together researchers, universities, drug manufacturers and technology companies like GE to speed up the development and production of cell therapies and make them available to patients more quickly. “Cell therapy has the potential to cure everything from cancer to diabetes,” says Phil Vanek, general manager for cell therapy technologies at GE Healthcare. “But we need to make it affordable and scalable. In this era of increasing scrutiny of medical costs and reimbursement, we have to help our customers achieve a reasonable cost of goods.” Since cell therapy involves harvesting and reengineering the patient’s own cells, Vanek says, software and sensors could allow manufacturers to keep a digital chain of custody of those cells. “It could allow us to track cells through the whole reprogramming and manufacturing process,” he says. “We could run real-time analytics during the process and then ultimately follow the patient results. Since every patient introduces a level of biological variability, we envision smart systems in the future that could adapt the production process in real-time depending on the biology that’s coming in.”