At a General Electric factory in Schenectady, N.Y., tens of thousands of tiny sensors are quietly collecting data about each step in the manufacturing of a battery.
The sensors know, for instance, how humid the factory floor was on a certain production day, and exactly how much pressure a machine applied to a particular battery component. If polymer parts come out slightly thicker one day compared with another, sensors communicate this to the operator, who can examine stats from the two days.
The company is gathering this data so it can improve its factories, determining which conditions — down to the surrounding temperature — are associated with the best products. GE is also trying to realize chief executive Jeff Immelt’s vision of the “brilliant factory”: a dynamic system in which machine parts constantly relay information to operators, who can schedule maintenance before equipment fails, all the while improving the manufacturing process. GE soon plans to use 3-D printers in new factories to customize and print new components, such as metal jet engine parts or plastic tools.
This is GE’s version of the “Internet of Things,” a term often applied to a connected network of smartphones and home appliances; GE executives call it the “Industrial Internet.”
In June, the company announced it was committing $400 million to building a “brilliant factory” in Greenville, S.C., where it plans to use higher-tech manufacturing processes to test new methods, such as replacing nickel alloys with a hardier ceramic component in gas turbines. In 2011, the company pledged at least $1 billion to developing its industrial Internet and dedicated its newest research center in San Ramon, Calif., to the concept.
“If we can take an aircraft engine, and if we can get 10 percent more time on wing for that engine, that’s worth billions of dollars to our customers,” Immelt said at the Wall Street Journal’s AllThingsD conference last year. “And the way you do that is through material science, where we’re really good. But you have to be able to do a better job on analytics and modeling failure, and things like that.”
These high-tech factories are still works in progress, said global technology director Christine Furstoss. Aside from building a handful of entirely new factories, GE is gradually adding sensors as needed to each of its 400 existing factories worldwide.
“We have machines that have very sophisticated controllers, and can collect data, and we have other machines that pretty much have an on- and off-button,” Furstoss said.
For instance, operators at a GE aviation plant in the United States recently noticed that a delicate piece of metal would often break as the factory fashioned it into a turbine part.
“We’d have to rework a lot of them,” she said. “It’s hard to keep costs in check, so we put tiny sensors on these parts as we were doing the machining — it was measuring the sensitivity in the material.”
The machine could adjust based on an individual metal piece’s sensitivity, she explained. Parts are often very sensitive to the environment, she added, but “it’s not realistic to work in a vacuum. We want to make sure we understand variability.”
GE is developing the software to manage the data collected from these thousands of sensors, Furstoss said — but it’s a challenge to build one system that GE’s thousands of suppliers could also use. In addition to its internal development efforts, last year the company invested about $105 million in Pivotal, a start-up whose software manages big data.
“One particular part might touch three suppliers and two GE factories,” she said — and it’s almost impossible to get all links in any supply chain to use the same data collection software. For GE, “it’s really [about] linking all of those systems together — being able to get the data to look the same, without forcing big systems out onto the suppliers.”
Though GE and Immelt have been vocal about the company’s commitment to the industrial Internet, its competitors — such as Honeywell and Roper — are also beginning to automate their manufacturing, according to Edward Jones Equity Research analyst Christian Mayes.
“This is something that investors are waking up to — that industrial companies aren’t these sleepy, old-fashioned companies they might have thought. They’re really starting to look more tech-savvy,” he said.