Interview with GE's head of software, William Ruh

GE makes large industrial machines, like jet engines and locomotive control systems. William Ruh aims to pioneer industrial computing

William Ruh, vice-president for software at GE Research, heads up a team at the manufacturer that aims to pioneer industrial computing.

GE makes large industrial machines, like jet engines, wind turbines and control systems for locomotives. It is one of the UK’s largest manufacturers, employing 19,000 people. For a non-IT company, it has a surprisingly large software footprint.

Ruh runs a 200-person site in Silicon Valley specialising in developing services, powered by software and sensor networks to support its vision of zero downtime and real time controls for machine efficiency.

Ruh is building a services business at GE, powered by software, which is set to push the realms of modern computer technology. 

Consider the running of a large industrial machine connected to the internet. It could be monitored continuously and even adapt to changing conditions. He explains: “A lot of the complexity comes in [machine] operations. Software helps to optimise operations of the machines.”

Previously, he worked over six years at Cisco, where he had responsibility for developing advanced services and solutions. Ruh also worked at Software AG, where he was responsible for the growth and expansion of the solutions and consulting services team.

He says software accounts for around $3bn of licensing business at GE. It provides the energy management system for the UK's National Grid. 

Ruh's vision is to enhance GE's services business, driven by new software, sensors networks and predictive analytics to provide insight based on collecting vast amounts of data. This will enable GE to limit downtime based on machine failure and potentially improve a machine's performance by remotely monitoring it in real time.

The failings of BI

The IT industry has been developing business intelligence (BI) tools for years, so why has Ruh decided to go it alone? 

He says: “The technology providers gave us a solution to business intelligence but analytics is a lot harder than people think. Ten to 15 years ago, people were told BI gives greater insight, but the BI tools have been used just for better reporting.”

And as the world changes, reporting on historical data is no longer sufficient to keep ahead of the competition. 

The airline industry, for instance, has a massive amount of historical data on how engines run on the regular routes airlines have been running for the last 20 years. They should be able to determine engine wear and tear, allowing technicians to undertake predictive maintenance, as airlines expand their routes. “In emerging markets, we are seeing dirt and sandy environments," says Ruh. "How are these affecting aero engines?” 

"BI cannot answer this," he says. "Nor can a supercomputer."

Watson cannot tell me when this machine part will break

William Ruh

Two years ago, IBM demonstrated how its Watson supercomputer could outsmart a human by winning the US game show, Jeopardy. No matter how sophisticated such a machine or how it is programmed, Ruh does not think it can answer the kind of questions Ruh's team of technology researchers are trying to crack. 

"Watson cannot tell me when this machine part will break," he says.

Challenging predicting the future

Ruh’s team is working on predictive analytics, number-crunching real time data from the sensors on GE turbines and engines. He says the amount of data generated by sensor networks on heavy equipment is astounding. A day's worth of real-time feeds on Twitter amounts to 80GB. 

"One sensor on a blade of a gas turbine engine generates 520GB per day. And you have 20 of them," he says.

How is this data being used? He says in a wind farm the wind turbines at the front affect the turbines behind them. This may lead to vibrations causing a failure due to a stress fracture on the turbine's blades. 

"We can adjust turbines based on the wind. We adjust the blade in real time to avoid vibration." 

As a result, he claims GE is able to deliver a 2-5% improvement on the efficiency of the wind farm. 

While it is a software centre, and programming is key to the development of such services, Ruh is seeking new skills. He is not looking merely for great programmers, mathematicians or engineers, but for people who can understand the meaning of the data sets when applied to a machine operating in the real world.

"We need data scientists. It is the most in-demand skillset and we're looking for a certain kind of person," he says. 

According to global consulting firm, McKinsey, 1.5 million data scientists are needed globally. Ruh hopes to establish a software centre in the UK. 

“It is really hard to find data scientists but there are a lot of great people [who fit the role] here in the UK,” he says.

The machine social network

Beyond predictive analytics, GE is investigating human-machine-interaction, as applied to large machines.

The machine, like a human, needs to know about its location and is capable of posting status updates. Some may even be "friends" in the social networking sense

According to Ruh, a GE engine on an aircraft could alert ground engineers when the plane has landed, through its social network of engineer friends. Potentially, this would allow the engineers to be alerted that the aircraft is on the ground, so the ground team can carry out any maintenance that the engine has alerted them about through status updates.

He also sees the possibility that machines one day will understand what maintenance is being undertaken and by whom. 

Augmented reality, such as using a camera built into an operator’s headset, could also help engineer fix complex parts while onsite, or enable colleagues to see if something was fixed incorrectly. 

“We’re not building Skynet [in Terminator], but the latest manufacturing rollouts have a user interface and can be programmed to improve their operations,” he says.

The technology Ruh is developing is not science fiction. He is taking IT out of the IT department and making software a critical component in the machines GE builds. 

His approach is not about the strict rules that govern the development of safety critical software within the micro-controllers for these machines. Agile is wholly suitable for the development of safety critical systems, he says.

Ruh represents a new breed of IT leader – one who is driving business through what the experts call “digitisation”. 

The systems, now being developed at GE, are already part of two joint ventures. Taleris with Accenture, established in November 2012, will provide airlines and cargo carriers around the world intelligent operations services focused on improving efficiency. 

Caradigm with Microsoft, set up in February 2012, aims to build real-time, system wide intelligence into healthcare systems, to improve patient care and hospital efficiency.

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