In newly built (or renovated) homes in developed countries, it’s not unusual to have thermostats that control when different parts of the house are heated or cooled. A step beyond that are more computerised thermostats that can sense whether anyone is in a room or not and adjust as warranted.
Okay, ramp up such basic industrial controls by a factor of, say, 1,000, and you will start to imagine what General Electric (GE) is starting to do with trains, power plants, hospitals — even wind farms.
Steve Lohr reported in the November 23, 2012, issue of The New York Times that GE is beginning to take lessons and approaches learned in the consumer Internet and apply them to “the Industrial Internet”. Lohr explains that although GE “resides in a different world from the consumer Internet, … the major technologies that animate Google and Facebook are also vital ingredients in the industrial Internet — tools from artificial intelligence, like machine-learning software, and vast streams of new data. In industry, the data flood comes mainly from smaller, more powerful and cheaper sensors on the equipment.” What this means, he adds, is that GE (and, presumably, others) are taking us to the dawn of an age in which machines can, if you will, communicate how they’re “feeling” and what their needs are long before they snap or break down.
Lohr reveals that GE “is putting sensors on everything”, and the illustration that grabbed me most was about the use of sensors on turbines at wind farms. Lohr cites an example of 123 turbines on two wind farms. Most of us probably think that those huge wind turbines (and Derek Markham shows what these turbines could become) are either running or they’re not. Uh-uh. With sensors, these turbines might soon be able to check wind speeds and temperature and, per Lohr, determine which turbines are safe to run during heavy weather, keeping those going while shutting the others down. And how about this: wind turbines that “can detect when they are icing up, and speed up or change pitch to knock off the ice”.
Maybe all this doesn’t tickle your interests as much as Facebook announcing the top video games of 2012. But don’t let the Industrial Internet slide off your radar. This variant of the Internet is about to bring its forces to bear on the industrial world in the same way it did on the consumer economy. That is a major wave of disruption on the horizon. Lohr says that GE is visualising ways that tiny sensors could add up to huge savings of $150 billion for companies. (GE, of course, tells its own story in this regard.)
Text messaging, instant jpg sharing, free teleconferencing, smartphones engaged in worldwide shopping – all of this is actually about managing big data in innovative ways. Sensors on everything is another indication that big data is now really getting traction in the industrial world (please see previous blog on big data) which makes the nextsensing process all the more critical to finding what needs to be next for a lot of companies.
The Internet of things affects energy, health care and fields that don’t presently use sensors at all (such as tracking lost airline luggage). And that means that, as all this grows, the kind of jobs available to young, talented technologists will be changing. GE may be the new kid in town when it comes to deploying the Internet in the marketplace, but if this $147-billion company founded in 1892 starts competing head-on with the likes of Google and Facebook, watch out, world. The Industrial Age may soon regain its lost glamour and swagger – and revitalise the world economy at the same time.