Pervasive Connectivity: Brilliant Is as Brilliant Does

Pervasive Connectivity Poised to Transform Our Expectations of Industrial Machines

By Joe Feeley

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Some Twitter users in New York and Boston learned of the August 2011 earthquake in Virginia well before they felt the tremors, said Bernie Anger, general manager, control and communications systems for GE Intelligent Platforms. "I think we all know we live in a connected world today."

But it's not just people that are connected like never before.  Machines throughout industry also are being networked through what GE calls the Industrial Internet, resulting in "brilliant" machines that promise to deliver unprecedented levels of performance, Anger proposed at the October 15, 2013, Connected World event in Chicago.

"So, what's a brilliant machine and how is it different from what we've been doing over the past 20 or 30 years?" Anger asked.  "Well, to build and sell equipment that performs in a connected world, you have to think about that from the center all the way through to the control system, and through to the analytics to deliver the right information back to the machines and to the people who need it to make decisions about what to do with those machines," Anger offered. "And we'll be bringing the machines to the connected world through a difficult, high-pressure environment with two or three important dynamics."

Also Read: Industrial Machine Performance: The Power of One Percent

One of these dynamics is the generational change that's already underway. "In many cases now, the way we run equipment today, whether you're an equipment manufacturer or an end user, it's very heavily reliant on individual expertise," Anger explained. "We had an engineering manager in the Bentley business part of GE where we make protection and monitoring devices for rotating equipment. We had all these high-flying electronics, but he could walk into a power plant and tell them 'This machine is going to break.' You'd ask him why and he'd tell you 'It sounds different.'"

That's part of the generational gap, said Anger. "We're going to lose a lot of that experience, and we have to find a way to replace it."

Another dynamic is the concept of massive connectivity. "Imagine the stresses and pressure of trying to start up machines in a space where there are 50 billion machine-to-machine connections," he said. "The traditional paradigm of having a human in the loop of all this -- trying to connect application A with control system B -- just isn't sustainable."

A third factor concerns the increasingly globally competitive world, added Anger. "Unless you know something that the other guy doesn't, it will be difficult to be profitable, and that carries all the way down to the machine." Further, "If you're a machine builder, your customers probably have thinner support than they once did, so they have an expectation of you as an equipment supplier to provide worldwide support for them," Anger said. "Second, the experience we all have in our personal connectivity to have access to information all around us through our mobile devices, the customer will expect it on the equipment they purchase."

With that comes managing differences in usable life. "You have to reconcile the expectations around a piece of equipment that might operate for 25 or 30 years with the technology that's running them that probably will go obsolete in three to five years," he stated.

Anger believes there are enabling technologies out there today that can help a rather conservative automation industry that has strong reluctance to change, deal with these issues in a different way.

"Think how software is linked into the operation everywhere from the sensor to the top," Anger counseled the audience. "If you're not thinking in those terms you won't be able to compete."

Connectivity is now, Anger added. "Plan your next implementations presuming connectivity is there now and ready for you," he said. "It's not totally everywhere yet, but start now and focus on the applications where it is available, and worry about the final 2% as you go on." Mobility has changed the user experience because of its broad commercial scale, and it also has changed the entry cost point for automation-capable applications.

Finally, there are the collaborative aspects of new technology that can help. With the onset of widely available, open-source code and capabilities―some of it contributed by private companies, some by individuals―95% of what you need might already be there. "Adding your unique 5% contribution, and stitching it together with what's already out there can create a much better experience," Anger pointed out.

Anger went on to look at the common threads that "forward-thinking companies" believe will be delivered by massive connectivity and smart machines. First, he said, "Nothing lives in isolation. Integration needs to be modular and self-assembling. To create value in an industrial environment, you can't be manually stitching these things together."

High-performance networks are another key, and are here now. The cloud, for example, uses existing public Internet technology layered with secure protocols underneath that. "It has to be secure, but my point is that the technology to do that exists already," Anger said.

Industry also must think about computing power differently. "When we think about not only how we run a control system today, but also how we're going to simulate its performance and design it today, and how we might run it in the future, then elastic computing is a key enabler," Anger said.

Anger spent a little time talking about Nest, the self-learning home thermostat that's as easy to install as changing a light fixture. The unit learns to save energy based on the behavior of the inhabitants, programs itself, and as it learns, it saves even more energy. This, said Anger, is the sort of thing that creates new business models. "Think about the impact this has on an energy company if each of 1,000,000 households, for example, lowered their heating or cooling requirements by a quarter of a degree. You might not notice a difference, but the energy company will. Several energy companies already will charge you a lower rate if you have one of these devices in your home," Anger revealed.

That's another way to think about a brilliant machine, said Anger. "Design a machine with an architecture suited for coming challenges, so it can learn and evolve over time and operate differently than designed."

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