Is the Uber Model the Future of Manufacturing?

Advanced processes may drive manufacturing as a service, says GE Ventures’ Karen Kerr.

The manufacturing industry has reached its next phase of evolution. Its new traits: digitalization, automation and critical partnerships.

The industry is finally adapting to robotics. Now, cloud networks and digital models are the next logical step. Technological advancement waits for no one.

“We’re really in the midst of what many people are calling the fourth Industrial Revolution,” said Karen Kerr, senior managing director of advanced manufacturing at GE Ventures to an attentive crowd at the recent FABTECH 2015 event in Chicago. “What I want to say here today is that it really isn’t that expensive.”

Karen Kerr, director of advanced manufacturing at GE Ventures led a keynote presentation at the FABTECH 2015 event in Chicago.

Karen Kerr, senior managing director of advanced manufacturing at GE Ventures led a keynote presentation at the FABTECH 2015 event in Chicago.

Kerr spoke with the demeanor of an industry evangelist as she built the case for connected manufacturing, touching on topics from advanced fabrication to robotics field services.

To spur advancement in these fields, GE has partnered with a variety of companies including the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII).

With DMDII, GE has begun developing an open source project with the goal to build a “digital manufacturing commons” – an online platform where companies may soon connect, collaborate and change how they design and manufacture their products.

“We really want to get some end-to-end visibility into what’s happening in our supply chain,” Kerr said. “There are companies in this space like BriteHub that allow OEMs to find new suppliers – like an “eHarmony” connecting suppliers and OEMs.”

Systems like the ones GE and DMDII are creating are designed to provide opportunities for integrated design. With easy communication between partner companies over an online format, paper trails can be eliminated and file sharing could be simplified.

“What I’m finding is that many vendors, the Autodesks of the world, PTCs of the world, the folks that are making the PLM systems and design systems are experimenting with new business models,” Kerr said.

To find a start in designing these new models, Kerr suggests first turning to supply chain and logistics solutions. “I think the supply chain and logistics upgrades are the two things most helpful to [GE]. There are a lot of benefits on leveraging collaborative robots as well. Design and logistics are what I would choose as the low hanging fruit.

“The other things are business models,” Kerr continued.

“Rather than have to build a data center, you can leverage things like Amazon Web Services (AWS), that help you get into business faster. We’re experimenting with a lot of new models ourselves. We’re starting to explore manufacturing as a service. How do you tie all of these services together to make them a lot more efficient? What can you do to the manufacturing industry like what Uber has done to the taxi industry?”

Kerr suggests that the industrial Internet platform Predix may be a part of that solution.

Predix is a data mining platform for operational technology, designed to reduce unplanned downtime and improve asset output and efficiency.

“In our new jet engine, we’re collecting a terabit of data per day,” Kerr said. “We mine this data to leverage and optimize climb, how planes use auxiliary power and how they use engines while they’re taxiing.”

Useable for a variety of applications, Kerr claimed an eight percent increase in energy production with Predix for GE’s Brilliant Wind Turbine farms – equaling an eight percent increase in profit.

“When we combined the data from our machines, we found that we needed to build an industrial Cloud. We’re able to collect data from these machines and do deep analysis, real time modeling and simulation to change how the machines are acting to provide the best outcomes for our customers.”

The downside to Kerr’s suggestions is largely an issue of standardization. If a company wants to work with partners with a “digital manufacturing commons,” all parties need to be onboard the same platform.

Similarly, to profit from a system like Predix, a company needs to adopt the system thoroughly. It’s in these initial adoption stages that price tags are heavy, but Kerr assures her audience that the returns are significant enough to make a real profit.

For companies of any size looking to adopt these systems, GE has a clear plan of whom it wants to work with.

“Manufacturing really requires more digital capabilities,” Kerr said. “This will help to drive new innovation and better products. We really need brilliant minds to help us in this journey. We need brilliant minds like yours to help us continue to innovate and to move forward.”