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Two Steps Forward

Why the 'Building Whisperer' is taking sustainability to the skies

As the CTO of GE Aviation, Dave Bartlett compares planes to buildings, and buildings to living entities. What does that mean for the airline industry?

During his three-decade tenure at IBM, Dave Bartlett became known as the “Building Whisperer” thanks to his keen insights on what smart buildings have to “say” to their occupants and owners, as well as to the environment around them.

“Given the proliferation of smart sensor technology and the range of appliances and systems now available in buildings, there's an opportunity to collect data at a level that has never been done before," he told an audience at the 2011 GreenBiz Forum. In the nearly four years since, that opportunity has become realized.

By listening to buildings, Bartlett, whose undergraduate degree was in biology and ecology, began to view them as living entities. For example, instead of considering a building’s air exchange system — the compressor, air ducts, filters and other components — as merely an assemblage of mechanical parts, he viewed them as a respiratory system.

For humans and other creatures, a respiratory system strives for the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide while helping moderate body temperature and filter out contaminants.

“If you think holistically about the respiratory system of a building, it’s in place to do the same thing,” he told me recently. “But because it’s not looked at as a respiratory system, but rather something governed by ASHRAE standards, you’re doing air exchanges based on some industry standard as opposed to what’s really required by the building’s human inhabitants.”

The goal, he made clear, was to create smarter building systems that “listened” to occupants’ needs and responded accordingly, creating productive and healthy environments.

Last year, Bartlett retired from IBM after 31 years, his final year as vice president of Smarter Physical Infrastructure . But his retirement didn’t last long — about a week, in fact. He was quickly lured to become the chief technology officer for GE Aviation, among the world’s top manufacturers of aircraft engines and systems. At age 61, Bartlett and his wife Pam packed up and moved from upstate New York to near GE’s Software Center in San Ramon, Calif., about 25 miles east of where I sit in Oakland.

I recently caught up with Bartlett in San Ramon to learn more about his new gig, and how his previous work with buildings translates at 35,000 feet above the Earth.

“When you look at a plane, it’s the same challenges as a building,” he began. “My hypothesis is that there is a lot we can learn from thinking of a plane as a flying building and how it maximizes efficiency and delivers a quality environment to humans.”

Obviously, an airplane is different from a building in many ways. It is more compact but must offer the same amenities as a terrestrial building several times its size — lighting, heating and air conditioning, bathrooms, foodservice, entertainment, and so forth. It undergoes enormous stresses — huge differentials in temperature, air pressure and vibration over the course of a few minutes — that buildings never see. Oh, and it defies gravity.

High-flying data

As a business enterprise, operating a fleet of airplanes relies on razor-thin profit margins. Depending on what research you read, airlines’ profits are said to be between $4 to $6 per passenger, roughly a penny or two for every dollar of airfare. Even small amounts of efficiency improvement can mean the difference between profit and loss.

For Bartlett, that represents a massive opportunity both for GE’s customers — airlines — and the airlines’ customers — you and me: “In the newest versions of planes, like the 787 Dreamliner and the 777X, which is further out, the efficiencies that they’re pushing are unprecedented in terms of air quality as it relates to passengers, in terms of fuel efficiency and noise level. All these are things that in buildings relate to the quality of our experience.”

Improving efficiencies and experiences while hurtling through the skies begins with new materials — lightweight composites used in airframes that yield higher fuel efficiency and require less servicing.

Moreover, composite airframes can withstand higher air pressure, meaning that interiors can be pressurized to the equivalent of about a 4,000-foot elevation, compared with 7,000 feet in older aluminum-body planes. Higher air pressure leads, among other things, to reduced passenger fatigue.

But the real magic, says Bartlett, is the capability of composites to embed sensors, which wasn’t possible with aluminum frames. That makes it easier for the airplane body to “talk” to the rest of the plane, including to many of the other airplane components GE makes beyond the jet engines, such as avionics, power systems, landing gear and black boxes. As these systems “talk,” other systems can “listen” and respond.

“One of our new engines, called GEnx, can provide 5,000 data points a second, or up to half a terabyte per flight,” Bartlett explains. “That provides an ability for us to be far more aware of any anomalies that happen in real-time and respond very quickly.”Repair parts can be waiting for a plane at the gate when it lands, for example, allowing for quick servicing that reduces or eliminates downtime.

Covering your assets

There’s efficiency in all that data, not to mention enhanced safety, but it’s more than that. Getting real-time data increases the longevity of parts by predicting when something needs maintenance, thereby catching problems before they form, maximizing a plane’s time in operation — higher asset optimization, in accounting argot.

“The next level of sensor technology goes beyond asset optimization to operations optimization — that is, how do you maintain an entire fleet,” says Bartlett.

Take, for example, the process of water-washing jet engines. Airplane engines collect dirt and contaminants, which coat various parts. Dirt can clog air ducts, reducing airflow to cool the engines, which run extremely hot. When cooling is insufficient, parts wear out faster and planes burn more fuel. In some cases, an improperly cooled jet engine can literally melt.

What keeps them from doing that are the thermodynamics of the planes’ design, as well as constant cooling through a myriad of air ducts.

“We’re using sensor technology to understand the right moment to water-wash an engine, which is shown to improve engines’ fuel efficiency anywhere from half a percent to 18 percent,” says Bartlett.

“And just like changing your oil, you don’t want to do it more often than needed because that’s a waste of resources,” he continues. “But you don’t want to do it less often because you’re burning more fuel and you’re shortening the life of parts, and that has a whole sustainability impact. So what’s the right moment to do that? This is a whole new area and a great example of operational efficiency where we’re helping get more prescriptive and predictive.”

The even bigger opportunity is to harness all that data and intelligence to optimize the entire enterprise, an opportunity that has Bartlett particularly excited.

“Enterprise efficiency speaks to how to use the data coming from planes coupled with data coming from wherever else it’s available — climatic conditions, the other aircraft in the area — to understand gate availability and congestion, optimize flight paths and schedule flight crews,” says Bartlett. “And when there’s a disruption due to weather or mechanical failure, how do you help an airline get back on its feet as efficiently and quickly as possible? How do we respond in the most efficient way for the airlines with the minimum impact to the customers, doing this in a way that is going to use the least resources, fuel and materials?”

Leveraging data to such ends is where GE is betting its future. Its two-year-old Industrial Internet initiative — which marries data, sensors, analytics and “big metal” like aircraft engines and power-plant turbines — promises billions of dollars in savings for the airline industry alone by harnessing data and software to radically improve planes’ efficiency and productivity, cut energy use and waste and foster a new wave of innovation.

Last month, at GE’s annual Minds & Machines conference, designed to showcase the potential of the Industrial Internet, the company launched a suite of technologies under the brand Predictivity, a clever neologism that’s a mash-up of “predictive” and “productivity.” In the aviation sector, for example, Predictivity solutions are targeting the $4 billion that airlines waste annually through cancellations due to unplanned repairs.

It’s those kinds of opportunities that Bartlett described as “irresistible to me,” and which led him to sign up for one more professional adventure in lieu of retirement. It was also the ability to combine disciplines — his knowledge of buildings, biology and computer science with the high-flying world of aviation.

“There’s so much to be learned when you couple biology with computer science. Those different perspectives help you to think about things in a different way. I think studying airplanes will help me think about buildings in a different way.”

That’s the kind of innovative thinking that can take wing.

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