GE, the 'Industrial Internet' and radical efficiency

For example, says GE, achieving a 1 percent fuel savings across the entire global airline fleet would save $30 billion over the next 15 years. A similar 1 percent improvement in the efficiency of gas-fired power generation would save $66 billion over that same period. A 1 percent improvement in railroad efficiency adds $27 billion to the total. (Note that these examples — planes, trains, and power plants, as well as healthcare devices — are GE’s bread and butter. GE’s report didn’t delve much into other parts of the industrial world, such as logistics, supply chains, and manufacturing.)

What the report makes clear is that industrial companies are no longer just about “big iron” — planes, trains, power generators, and the like. Today, software, intelligence, connectivity, analytics, sensors, diagnostics, integration, user interface, and materials science are key parts of industrial companies’ ecosystems.

All of which makes the Industrial Internet (and VERGE) a powerful platform for innovation. GE gets a bit hyperbolic on the subject, calling it the third wave of innovation, after the industrial revolution (machines and factories that power economies of scale and scope) and the Internet revolution (computing power and rise of distributed information networks). In the Industrial Internet, advances in software tools and analytic techniques provide the means to understand the massive quantities of data that are generated by intelligent devices.

GE sees vast potential in "things that spin" — millions of rotating machinery around the world: motors, turbines, compressors, pumps, fans, blowers, generators, rollers, conveyors, and more, from simple electric motors to highly advanced computed cosmography (CT scanners) used in healthcare. Each of these assets is subject to temperature, pressure, vibration and other key metrics, which can be monitored, modeled, and manipulated remotely to provide safety, enhanced productivity, and operational savings.

This is already happening, says GE:

Companies have been applying Internet-based technologies to industrial applications as they have become available over the last decade. However, we currently stand far below the possibility frontier: the full potential of Internet-based digital technology has yet to be fully realized across the global industry system. Intelligent devices, intelligent systems, and intelligent decisioning represent the primary ways in which the physical world of machines, facilities, fleets and networks can more deeply merge with the connectivity, big data and analytics of the digital world.

As we’ve made clear with VERGE, all of this is a significant sustainability play, encouraging systems thinking across organizations and value chains, tapping into vast new opportunities for energy and operational efficiency, and rethinking and retooling business models and value propositions in ways that dramatically dematerialize and decarbonize the economy.

From what I’ve seen so far, GE seems to be deliberately downplaying the sustainability value proposition here, to the point of sustainability being conspicuous in its absence. At last week’s San Francisco event — which included presentations and panels with a number of big brains from the technology world — the words “climate change” weren’t spoken. If the S-word was mentioned, I didn't hear it.

Next page: Is ecomagination over?