GE (IW 500/7) is transforming its operations with big data and other advanced technologies. The company has introduced the term "Brilliant Factory" to represent how it is generating and analyzing data to optimize operations at its 400 factories around the world.
"I think that we're at a very unique point in time where we have this convergence of the hardware -- the actual physical machinery on the floor, the sensors, the control systems -- with IT infrastructure and software," says Christine Furstoss, global technology director at GE Global Research in a recent GE Reports article. "They are both now converging on this nexus we call advanced manufacturing that is enabling the Brilliant Factory."
GE is a leading example of efforts that are underway at thousands of manufacturing companies to implement the next generation of manufacturing technologies. In a recent survey by Boston Consulting Group, 72% of U.S. manufacturers with sales of at least $1 billion said they were investing in additional automation or advanced manufacturing technologies. About three-quarters of these executives said these technology investments would improve productivity and 56% said they would improve the competitiveness of their products versus those made in low-cost countries.
BCG said five technology tools have the "greatest potential to influence the manufacturing landscape" and improve productivity. They are autonomous robots, integrated computational materials engineering, digital manufacturing, the industrial Internet and flexible automation, and additive manufacturing.
GE's use of big data is changing how it serves its customers as well as its manufacturing operations.At its Monitoring & Diagnostics Center in Atlanta, a team of more than 50 engineers analyzes the data that flows in every hour of every day from gas turbines and generators in 58 countries. What they are finding saved the company's customers $70 million last year.
GE's gas turbines are prime examples of how the Internet of Things works. They have more than 100 physical sensors and 300 virtual sensors. These sensors allow the company to monitor the temperature of a compressor, the thermal performance of a turbine, vibration levels of a rotor and a host of other performance measures.
GE takes the data from its physical sensors and uses it to create proprietary algorithms that can provide an early warning for more than 150 potential failure mechanisms.
For example, GE employs physical sensors that can measure the temperature of the exhaust gas of a gas turbine, explains Justin Eggart, general manager, fleet management for GE's Power Generation Services business. Then by applying physics and math calculations to this information, GE can develop virtual sensors that determine temperatures of the hot gas path all the way back to the flame.
Each day, more than 30,000 operating hours of data are downloaded from a fleet of more than 1,500 gas turbines and generators. This information is added to a 40-terabyte database of operating data GE has amassed.
Using this data, GE can provide predictive maintenance services for its customers so that they can keep equipment running longer and more safely. Since 2009, GE has been able to reduce the trip rates -- the rate per 1,000 hours of unforced outages in which turbines stop generating power -- by 25% for its 7F and 9F turbines.
"As we get better at doing predictive maintenance, we are able to extend the life of individual components and also extend the maintenance intervals on the unit," Eggart says.
This data also contribute to product development efforts. Eggart says GE's design teams use the data both to improve existing products and to design new models. GE also has councils through which it shares its experience with analytics and other issues in the turbine business with its aviation, wind energy and other businesses.
The changes in GE's business are not happening overnight and BCG cautions that it will take time for these new technologies to take hold in manufacturing widely, but it forecasts that a combination of these tools could reduce production costs by 20% to 40% and "radically redefine the dynamics of global competition in many industries."