Feature: GE Electric's Deborah Sherry on how the company is digitising global brands

- Technology - Sep 28, 2017

How GE Digital – the digital arm of General Electric – is transforming global brands across all industries, to achieve enormous savings that are benefiting the planet, as well as business…

GE Digital is the digital arm of the American multinational conglomerate General Electric.

Founded in 2015 to take advantage of the industrial internet, much like its parent did with the electrical revolution in the 20th century, GE Digital is creating new business models using connected software and applications to make companies work faster and more efficiently. 

GE Digital works with many of the organisations General Electric has been engaged with over the years, across literally every major industry including telecoms, consumer goods, automotive, gas and power. Its aim is to drive digital transformation across all these sectors. However, digitising businesses isn’t just about computerising operations, it's also about using renewable energy sources, which will lower costs while yielding higher financial gains; results that ultimately benefit the planet too. 

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Deborah Sherry, General Manager and Chief Commercial Officer at GE Digital Europe, explains how it’s helping the companies find these solutions. "We achieve all this by introducing equipment health asset performance management and by driving service delivery improvement through our field services software. We are building incredible software which replicate people’s equipment, called the ‘digital twin’. We do all of this on the premises, on the client’s equipment or on the cloud, depending on the context or the need. We've built all this specifically to drive the next wave of productivity gain within the industry.”

Around eight years ago, GE Digital’s CEO and Chairman Jeffrey Immelt started looking at what big digital players like Google, Amazon and Microsoft were doing to work out where the next wave of productivity and gain would come from. “He became particularly interested in this because he noticed that other people were extracting data from our equipment,” Sherry says, “and helping our clients understand the data from that to better use our equipment than we were. We knew something was coming.

"He (Immelt) realised we needed to find a way to emulate what had happened in other spheres. You had a world where, like with Uber and Apple, 2.3mn applications are growing every week on their platforms and making billions from the application economy. He understood that we had to cease acting as an intermediate between us and our clients, and to find a way to make that digital transformation ourselves. To find the next wave of productivity.”

A result of this investigation, Immelt knew that the future was about scalable platforms; leveraging them to embrace new business models while building digital software skills and abilities, internally, to make it possible. Immelt also knew that they had to launch this project rapidly just as the software world does. This is how GE Digital was born. After hiring William Ruh from Cisco as Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, they started to create what would become Predix. 

Building new systems

This operating software is designed by business, for business, with an open architecture making it possible for all users to develop whatever they require. “We built it because we wanted to run applications that were specifically designed to manage physical things and not just the digital assets; to marry digital software and intelligence with machinery. Nothing existed that could do that,” Sherry says. 

Users can plug in all their existing software so they get one view of data from across all their sites of who may be deploying different types of software around the globe. “We love to bring people along to Predix,” Sherry says, “but we're also happy for them to build their own applications to work on them too.”

There are currently 31,000 developers using the system and the number is growing every week, as are the hundreds of apps that have already been written for it. 

“Because it’s building blocks of code, like for Google or Apple, it enables rapid building and deployment of new applications,” explains Sherry. “It really shortens the cycle to deliver software that can make a difference in a business. And of course, we have a number of great software suites ourselves that sit on that, like our Asset Performance Management (APM) software, and our automation and service software that are key.”

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The APM software makes it possible to monitor equipment and its “equipment health” as Sherry says. An example is Schindler, manufacturer of escalators and elevators, which deploys Prefix around the globe to monitor all of its lifts. It has a sensor on all equipment, that through dashboards with APM software, tells engineers what needs maintenance, and when, before it breaks down.

“Gone are the days of merely a rota of maintenance that might be unnecessary,” Sherry says. “Now it’s predictive maintenance. Once you predict what needs doing, wouldn’t it be great if you had people in the field with handheld devices and software to tell them exactly what they need to fix and when? That’s where Servicemax, our field service management software, enables engineers to have exactly the right data and information they need to service equipment most efficiently.”

Bringing these types of software together means pretty much an instant diagnosis and a swift repair of any issues. Sherry uses the example of a car breaking down, with mechanics charging a substantial hourly rate just to find the problem and fix it. “By integrating them, we give you one wonderful value chain that brings it all together seamlessly,” she says. 

Full circle 

Predicting failures ahead of time ties in neatly with the model of the circular economy, which is based on wasting less while making best use of available resources. One example is with a client based in Paris which experienced a lot of wastage. By using this software, it was able complete the same process with much less waste, in a shorter timeframe, and at a lower cost. 

“Renewables is a huge area for us,” Sherry says. “We can go help a company understand that it can deploy our software to decrease its energy consumption.”

One big focus is saving on jet aviation fuel. Every two seconds a GE jet takes off, and by making a saving of just 1% in fuel, over the next 15 years, GE will make a saving of £23mn. Aside from using less fuel and the cost savings involved, this also means less pollution. 

“A global gas-fired power plant fleet could yield £50 billion, just in that fuel consumption saving. So, we do this across every industry, whether it’s for fuel, wastage in the product that you’re manufacturing, or whatever it may be,” Sherry says. 

At its power circuit breaker plant in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, General Electric achieved all of these efficiencies by deploying this new software, leading to a gain of $35mn over three years. 
The future is digital

Business operations and people’s everyday lives are becoming ever more digitised. “It’s pretty mature these days,” Sherry says. "Ten years ago, you weren't managing your life that way, but almost your entire life, certainly your kids' lives, are digitally managed. Ten years from now, you're going to see what we call the digital thread being how we manage the industry. From when you wake up in the morning and you're checking what you need to do for the day, all the way through to programming your favourite shows in the evening, everything will be digital.”

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