Middle East hungry for digitisation, says GE’s Bill Ruh

The Middle East is among the most enthusiastic regions in terms of applying digital business models to traditional industries

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The Middle East is one of the most enthusiastic regions about GE’s new digital business model, according to the man heading up GE Digital.

Around five years ago, former GE CEO Jeff Immelt took the decision to move the company into the digital age. This involved building intelligence into its products and creating a service-based business model. Today, the man charged with steering this vast digitisation endeavour is Bill Ruh, CEO of GE Digital and GE’s chief digital officer (CDO).

Since 2015, when the GE Digital business unit was formed, one of Ruh’s goals has been to link the products sold through its international business units to GE’s Predix power services that use predictive data analytics.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Ruh describes the Middle East region as one of the most enthusiastic customers of GE’s digitally powered offerings. “It’s one of the reasons the Middle East is the territory I’ve visited most this year. I’ve been three times already,” he says.

Ruh has noticed a hunger for efficiency and productivity in the region. “The Middle East is in a technology footrace globally. It’s not far behind, it’s in the same footrace,” he says.

Ruh notes that while the consumer internet was dominated by the US and Europe in the 1990s, “the rest of the world is not going to let that head start happen again when it comes to the industrial internet”.

“In terms of the early adopters, such as the Middle East, we have noted their big interest level and their rapid learning curve is moving them forward in industrial digitisation,” he adds.

Ruh says some of GE’s Middle East clients, particularly in Saudi Arabia, are initiating such transformative projects, and they could potentially leapfrog their western counterparts. “The mature world has been using last-generation technology, while the Middle East has been going for the next generation,” he says.

Saudi’s industrial transformation

As Saudi Arabia, in particular, undergoes a historic societal and economic revolution under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the appetite for industrial digitisation is growing. Ruh says he sees particular potential to leverage data analytics for healthcare, food and beverage, power, mining, lighting and manufacturing clients.

One such customer is Riyadh-based Obeikan Investment Group (OIG), which runs a food and beverage and consumer packaged goods business. GE and Obeikan signed an agreement in 2017 to work together to provide industrial digitisation for the kingdom’s food and drinks sector.

“The mature world has been using last-generation technology, while the Middle East has been going for the next generation”

Bill Ruh, GE Digital

OIG will bring strong manufacturing and domain knowledge, as well as close relationships with customers in the sector. GE will bring first-hand knowledge and best practices to the partnership, having embarked on its own journey of digital transformation over recent years. 

The two parties are currently working together to digitise two of Obeikan’s plants in Saudi Arabia, transforming them into smart factories. “The interesting thing with the food and beverage sector is it has managed to automate the last generation of technology, but has made such good productivity gains out of it that it’s moving fast,” says Ruh.

“Our [GE] team has done a good job of finding the right leaders,” he says. “If you find the right innovator and you have a very practical proof plan like we do with Obeikan, you’ll find that the people here learn fast and they’re fast followers.

Ruh says Obeikan will be layering its solutions onto GE’s Predix platform and applications. “It’s an ecosystem now. The old days of going alone are dead,” he says. “The key is you bring all the capabilities together and there will be other people involved who help deliver that solution. You find the right partners and then pull it together. The key is the architecture. This is how you can deliver something in months instead of years.”

The two parties are set to go to market to the entire region and target other food and beverage companies with their joint digital solution for the sector. “We have a number of deals that we’ve signed, and there are a few in the pipeline,” says Ruh.

 Another huge client win for GE has been the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health. GE is currently implementing a new health information system across the kingdom’s 300 hospitals. “We are delivering a patient scheduling system that’s an app. It’s like an Uber, but for healthcare. We’re also helping them with using data to evaluate performance efficiency in the system, which allows them to know where they should be investing and putting their time in,” Ruh adds.

“This is typical of the opportunities that we want to bring to the Middle East. We want to bring our previous product line based on this new technology stack and apply it to the industrial and healthcare sectors – that’s where we’re putting our time and attention,” he says.

“We always find ourselves doing a project like this in the region and then it rolls out to all the regional countries. It is our hope and belief that we can take it forward.”

There’s a lot of commonality to the technological challenges in the region’s industrial sector, he says, and any company coming to the Middle East has to meet its strong standards. “The issue of data sovereignty plays an important role in the region; this means the companies and governments we work with are respecting the data from these infrastructure companies so it stays in the country,” says the CDO.

“You have to make sure that your cloud partners are able to operate in the country, and you have to also realise that sometimes the data can’t even leave the boundaries of the walls of the countries they serve. Some companies are so sensitive that they won’t allow it to move out to the public cloud – not because they don’t trust the public cloud, but it comes down to the regulations of these industries that require that.”

Ruh also notes that there is a huge variety of different data and technologies applied in the industries. “There’s been a lot of customisation of local technologies in the past. You can’t do an IoT [internet of things] application here without realising that the level of data cleansing and the amount of work to be done can be quite daunting in certain cases.”

However, the CDO warns that the biggest challenge the region faces is bringing in and incubating the “hordes of talent needed to work in the field of industrial digitisation”.

“In my mind, this is the only thing that will get in the way of implementing the new technologies. That’s true globally, and I think recruiting talent could be one of the barriers,” he says.

Read more about digital transformation in the Middle East

  • Bill Ruh, CEO at GE Digital, outlines the company’s vision of the industrial internet of things (IIoT) in the Middle East and how it plans to transform industry through the power of the Internet
  • The Middle East has been slow to join the fintech revolution, but there is an opportunity for CIOs to help banks stride ahead as demand picks up
  • Digital channels are increasingly being used by consumers in the Middle East, but because of business reluctance, digital commerce accounts for less than 1% of the region’s gross domestic product.

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