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GE pushes ahead into the software market

GE’s stated policy is to become a top 10 software company by 2020. The company set out its action plan at the start of its Minds + Machines conference in San Francisco

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Industrial giant GE has announced two strategic acquisitions: Wise.io, a machine learning specialist, and Bit Stew for data ingestion.

The company has already made acquisitions worth $2bn and has a strategy to grow its business organically and inorganically.

GE’s latest acquisitions build on its $915m purchase of field service company ServiceMax and its $496m acquisition of asset performance management company Meridium.

Buying software and services companies are part of GE’s goal to bolster the company’s flagship digital platform, Predix.

In his opening keynote presentation at the Minds + Machines conference in San Francisco, GE CEO Jeff Immelt said: “A common platform is very well known by tech companies.”

But this is a new concept for industrial companies, which are struggling to improve productivity. GE hopes it can provide the software platform and services, and bring together a partner ecosystem, to help them succeed.

Immelt said: “We have never seen the power of an industrial-to-industrial world, a network to share ideas for the future. It is a transformation, an all-encompassing change. Our job is to create more productivity through a combination of analytics and physics.”

Speaking of his focus on making GE a software firm, Immelt said: “We are in it to win, and we are committed to be successful.”

It is all about being a success in industrial software in the emerging world of connected machines, he said.

GE’s chief digital officer, Bill Ruh, who heads GE Digital, the company’s software arm, said: “The winner figures out how to take an asset and make it more efficient. I don’t think this will be a world led by startups, but by industrial companies, small, medium and large. It is not about being cool; it is about productivity in your business and differentiating your products in a way your competitors can’t.”

GE eyes software giants

The competition GE has its eyes on are the traditional software giants. IBM is applying deep learning in Watson to understand and predict the behaviour of machines. As Computer Weekly has reported previously, Watson is one of the technologies that French rail operator SNCF is looking at to help it predict train and track maintenance needs. Global ticketing system Amadeus is also looking at using Watson to ensure it can operate 24/7 without downtime.

Earlier in November at the Gartner Symposium in Barcelona, Gartner fellow Mark Raskino said: “Every industry will be digitally remastered. Every company will compete as part of a business ecosystem.”

Gartner expects many industries to collaborate on building a digital platform that supports a partner ecosystem. Ecosystems are the next evolution of digital, says the analyst firm. Such ecosystems do exist in the software world, driven by de facto standards and open application programming interfaces.

Earlier this year, GE introduced a partner programme to bolster the Predix ecosystem. Companies exhibiting at Minds + Machines include big industry players such as HPE and Dell, several IT services companies and major consultancy firms, as well as startups, all building businesses on top of GE Predix.

Ruh believes GE has the edge. “We will see industrial companies lead the way in platforms,” he said.

GE has devised the concept of a “digital twin”, representing a simulation of a real-life industrial asset, such as a turbine or a power station. Rather than IBM’s approach of applying deep learning to understand the data coming out of these machines, Ruh said GE is combining AI and statistics with physics-based modelling. “This is what you do with AI to create value,” he said.

Read more aboiut GE Predix

The goal is the same – to predict machine failures before they happen – but GE claims it can simulate the operating environment of real machines. The theory is that if the digital twin develops a fault, so will its real-life counterpart. Ruh said the company is currently running 550,000 digital twins.

Oil company BP is one of GE’s Predix customers. Ahmed Hashmi, global vice-president of upstream technology at BP, said: “Digital is the biggest driver we have. Digital offers you the opportunity to improve the top line, drive efficiency and improve reliability and safety. You have to go big, change workflows and mindset.”

Addressing delegates at the GE event, Hashmi said BP has always been a pioneer with technology, and digital is its next step. The company began using 2D seismic analysis two decades ago, he said, and then moved to 3D seismic analysis powered by high-performance computing.

These techniques were used to identify potential oil and gas reserves, said Hashmi. Now the company is looking at how to operate its assets more efficiently. “Today, only 5% of data coming out of platforms is being used,” he said.

Oil platform pilot

Last week, BP began a pilot project on its Atlantis offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico using Predix Asset Performance Management, with a custom dashboard co-developed with GE.

The software, called GE Plant Operations Advisor, works a bit like an IT security dashboard, identifying vulnerabilities via a real-time facility threat display.

It shows BP’s oil platform operators potential problems that could lead to a platform going offline or operating less efficiently.

“We are looking at all the data we gather today for hidden insight and we want to be able to act on it quickly,” said Hashmi.

BP hopes to roll out the software globally, making it the biggest deployment of GE’s Predix APM tool. Hashmi added: “When fully deployed, these advanced digital technologies will change the way we work and improve the integrity and performance of our assets around the globe.”

GE Digital is a $6bn business, which makes it a significant player in the software market. Arguably, its platform for internet-connected machines is ahead of its time. The backing from software companies and IT consultancies at Minds + Machines shows than the IT industry is looking closely at its CEO’s next step.

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