Is GE the future of manufacturing? IoT + nanotech + 3D-printing

The specific impetus for this post was an article in The Boston Globe about heart stents that fit perfectly because they’re 3-D printed individuallly for each patient.

GE jet engine 3-D-printed fuel nozzle

That prompted me to think of how manufacturing may change when three of my favorite technologies — nanotech, 3-D printing and the Internet of Things — are fully mature and synergies begin (as I’m sure they will) to emerge between the three.

I’m convinced we’ll see an unprecedented combination of:

  • waste elimination: we’ll no longer do subtractive processes, where a rough item is progressively refined until it is usable.  Instead, products will be built atom-by-atom, in additive processes where they will emerge exactly in the form they’re sold.
  • as with the stents, products will increasingly be customized to the customer’s exact specifications.
  • the products will be further fine-tuned based on a constant flow of data from the field about how customers actually use them.

Guess what?  The same company is in on the cutting edge of all three: General Electric (no, I’m not on their payroll, despite all my fawning attention to them!):

  • Their Industrial Internet IoT initiative is resulting in dramatic changes to their products, with built-in sensors that relay data constantly to GE and the customer about the product’s current status, allowing predictive maintenance practices that cuts repair costs, optimizing the device’s performance for more economical operations, and even allowing GE to switch from selling products to leasing them, with the lease price determined dynamically using factors such as how many hours the products are actually used.  Not only that, but they practice what they preach, with 10,000 sensors on the assembly line at their Durathon battery plant in Schenectady, plus sensors in the batteries themselves, allowing managers to roam the plant with an iPad to get instant readings on the assembly line’s real-time operation, to fine-tune the processes, and to be able to spot defective batteries while they are still in production, so that 100% of the batteries shipped will work.
    They’re also able to push products out the door more rapidly and updating them quicker based on the huge volumes of data they gather from sensors built into the products: “… G.E. is adopting practices like releasing stripped-down products quickly, monitoring usage and rapidly changing designs depending on how things are used by customers. These approaches follow the ‘lean start-up’ style at many software-intensive Internet companies. “’We’re getting these offerings done in three, six, nine months,’ he [William Ruh] said. ‘It used to take three years.’”
  • They’ve made a major commitment to 3-D printing, with 100,000 3-D printed parts scheduled to be built into their precision LEAP jet engines — a big deal, since there’s not a great deal of fault tolerance in something that may plunge to the earth if it malfunctions! As Bloomberg reported, “The finished product is stronger and lighter than those made on the assembly line and can withstand the extreme temperatures (up to 2,400F) inside an engine.”  They’re making major investments to boost the 3-D printers’ capacity and speed.  Oh, and did I mention their precedent-setting contest to crowd-source the invention of a 3-D printed engine mount?
  • They’re also partnering with New York State on perhaps the most visionary technology of all, nanotech, which manipulates materials on the molecular level. GE will focus on cheap silicon carbide wafers, which beat silicon chips in terms of efficiency and power, leading to smaller and lighter devices.

GE is the only member of the original Dow-Jones Index (in 1884) that still exists. As I’ve said before, I’m astounded that they not only get it about IoT technology, but also the new management practices such as sharing data that will be required to fully capitalize on it.

Thomas A. Edison is alive and well!

My O’Reilly blog post about how the IoT will transform manufacturing

Posted on 29th April 2014 in 3-D printing, Internet of Things, M2M, manufacturing

Woopiedoo! I have a post in today’s O’Reilly SOLID blog (which is, among other things, promoting their SOLID conference in SF next month) about how the Internet of Things will transform manufacturing.

In it, I emphasized the manufacturing variation on the two transformative aspects of the IoT that I think will characterize its effect on every aspect of our lives and economy:

  1. for the first time, we will have real-time information on the current state of all sorts of things
  2. we will also be able to share that information, again, on a real-time basis, with everyone who could benefit from that information.

We’re already starting to see signs of that transformation, with GE’s Durathon battery factory (with 10,000 sensors on the assembly line plus others designed into the batteries themselves), SAP’s Future Factory, and Siemens’ Electronic Works factory.  As the price, size and energy demands of sensors continues to plummet, the trend will accelerate.

As a result, manufacturing will no longer be isolated from real-time activities in the rest of the enterprise:

  • “Designing sensors into products, rather than adding them on retroactively, will allow companies to identify defective products immediately, rather than waiting for post-production testing.
  • The built-in sensors will also allow companies to create new revenue streams. They will be able to sell customers real-time data on product operations that will allow the customers to optimize their use, and they may also choose, instead of selling the products, to lease them, with the price determined dynamically based on how much the product is actually used — take, for instance, jet turbines that are now priced on the basis of how many hours they actually operate.
  • The product design cycle will accelerate. Companies will be able to monitor a product’s actual usage in the field, then implement more rapid upgrades.
  • ‘Just-in-time’ supply chains will become even more efficient as real-time production data triggers resupply orders, just as distribution systems will become more closely integrated on the other end of the production cycle.”

The SOLID conference focuses on the convergence of hardware and software. It’s about time the two are fully integrated, and the results will be incredible!



First survey of C-level execs’ view of the IoT

For a big project I’m working on, I’ve fruitlessly combed the Web for surveys of C-level executives’ view of the Internet of Things — until now!

ARM has just released results of a worldwide June survey, “The Internet of Things Business Index: a quiet revolution gathers pace,” that included many C-level executives, which the Economist‘s Intelligence Unit did for ARM about respondents’ attitudes toward the IoT.

I’d strongly advise you to read the entire report for a reality check on the current state of the IoT (provided, of course, that the sample population really reflects corporate attitudes as a whole — in my mind, that’s a big if, because most companies just haven’t been disclosing much information about IoT initiatives. Of course that might be because they view IoT initiatives as a real strategic advantage!).

I was happily surprised, given the low level of business media coverage of the IoT until recent months, to see how many of those surveyed knew about the IoT and were actively involved in planning for corporate initiatives, although most of those initiatives were only in the early research stages and most companies weren’t convinced the IoT would be of major near-term benefit.

The report concluded that companies are taking the IoT seriously, although without a lot of public notice:

“The Internet of Things (IoT) is an idea whose time has finally come. Falling technology costs, developments in complementary fields like mobile and cloud, together with support from governments have all contributed to the dawning of an IoT ‘quiet revolution’. Now, after more than a decade of slow progress, the business community is beginning to look seriously at the IoT—to the extent that a mere 6% of business leaders believe that the idea of IoT is simply hype…”

Here are the major findings:

  • “over three-quarters of companies are either actively exploring or using the IoT. The vast majority of business leaders believe that it will have a meaningful impact on how their companies conduct business, yet there is some divergence about the wider effect it will have”
  • “optimism about the IoT is not yet matched by investment.” 96% expect to use the IoT in some way within 3 years, but they aren’t spending much on it: only 30% have increased their IoT spending by double-digits since 2012.
  • 61% think “companies that are slow to integrate the IoT into their business will fall behind the competition.” Consider yourself forewarned!
  • only 24% felt that the IoT would be “very relevant, used by the majority of the business” within the next 3 years.
  • “A lack of IoT skills and knowledge among employees and management is viewed as the biggest obstacle to using the IoT more extensively. To address these gaps, organisations are training staff and recruiting IoT talent, raising the potential for IoT talent wars. Others are hiring consultants and third-party experts, seeking to build knowledge and identify successful IoT business models.” (sounds like a lot of opportunity for our ilk!)
  • Here’s one that particularly resonated with me because of my relentless emphasis on collaboration as one of the “Essential Truths” of the IoT: “Companies must learn to co-operate with players across industries, including competitors…. businesses must be willing to adopt a different mindset. Successful IoT rollouts require interconnected networks of products and services, but few senior executives currently expect their business to become more co-operative with competitors as a result of the IoT. ” Oops: too bad for you — it ain’t just a technological shift, but an attitudinal one as well!
  • It’s going to lead to a data explosion. While companies think they’re up to this challenge, “….prior experience of storing and analysing large amounts of “big data” may lead them to underestimate the additional talent and skills needed to spot new uses and revenue steams emerging from it.” It will also increase needs for security and privacy. 

The Economist chose the ARM report as the setting to announce a new IoT Business Index, which will be updated to track progress toward actualizing the IoT. In the benchmark edition of the index, most businesses are in the “research” stage (at  point 4 on a scale of 1 to 10). They are more likely to use the IoT at this point for internal operations and processes instead of external products or services. As I’d expected, European companies are in the lead, and, among industries, manufacturing is the leading one. Hmm: wonder if that means a growing number are installing sensors on the assembly line?

The survey included 779 senior business leaders, among whom almost half (49%), were C-level executives or board members. The sample included:

  • 29% from Europe, 29% from North America, 30% from Asia-Pacific, and  12% from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.
  • 19 industries. About 10% each from financial services, manufacturing, healthcare, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, IT and technology, energy and natural resources, and construction and real estate.
  • The sample is evenly split between large firms, with an annual revenue of more than US$500m, and small and mid-sized firms.

All in all, I think this is an important reality check in terms of commercialization of the IoT. It seems that it’s increasingly on the corporate radar, but that hasn’t translated into a lot of concrete action. It will be interesting to track annual updates of The Economist‘s IoT Business Index to see if analysis turns into action.

It’s Official: Tom Friedman Anoints the IoT; Plus Jobs Issue Is Raised!

Posted on 16th September 2013 in 3-D printing, Internet of Things, M2M, maintenance, manufacturing, services

OK, the Internet of Things is officially a Big Thing: Tom “World is Flat” Friedman wrote about it in the Sunday NY Times.

Friedman, searching for evidence of American “exceptionalism” in a bleak landscape of Capitol Hill paralysis, etc. zeroed in on GE’s “Industrial Internet” initiatives as a ray of hope. As he wrote,

“I wanted to see what new technologies, and therefore business models — and therefore jobs — it might be spawning that public policy, and education policy, might enhance. I have no idea whether or how G.E. will profit from any of these breakthroughs, but I saw the outlines there of three radically new business trends that the United States should want to dominate.”

One of those themes was how 3-D printing could streamline the design and production process.

The second, which I wrote about earlier, was the concept of crowdsourcing design, in particular the contest GE held to design a new jet turbine mount (more about that later!!!).

Finally, Friedman zeroed in on the IoT, specifically widespread use of sensors:

“Lastly, we are on the cusp of what G.E. calls ‘the Industrial Internet’ or the ‘Internet of Things’ — meaning that every major part of a G.E. jet engine, locomotive or turbine is now equipped with online sensors that constantly measure and broadcast every aspect of performance. Computers capture all this big data and use it to improve everything from the flight path to energy efficiency.”

He gave several examples, such as wind turbines and hospital beds, where data from sensors can help to optimize efficiency and cut operating costs. He pointed out that the data allows GE to create new services “… that offer not just to manage an airline’s or railroad’s engines, but how fast all its planes or trains go, how flight and train schedules are coordinated and even how its equipment is parked to get optimal performance and energy efficiency (aside to marketing managers: what kinds of services would the IoT allow you to introduce, perhaps replacing actual sales of products with leases based on use? Think about it!).

Friedman concludes, “Watch this space, even if Washington doesn’t: When everything and everyone becomes connected, and complexity is free and innovation is both dirt-cheap and can come from anywhere, the world of work changes.”

Indeed! Nice to have someone with Friedman’s clout recognizing the IoT is a paradigm shift!

MEANWHILE: Make certain to read the comments following the column. They are primarily negative, and zero in on one thing: the IoT’s threat to jobs. In particular, the critics focused on the GE engine mount design contest.  One was particularly pointed:

“According to CNNMoney, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt pocketed $25.8 million in total compensation in 2012. That’s about $20,000 every hour and a half. How come 8 geniuses cost only 90 minutes of CEO time?”

You’ve gotta agree, $20,000 ($7,000 to the winner) is a pretty paltry sum considering what GE gets in return, and given readers’ suspicions that companies may let go their salaried designers and instead exploit freelancers (I’ve thought the same about some of the incentives offered by Innocentive member companies for some of the crowdsourcing projects that they’ve offered), you can bet that there will be more criticisms in the future if this becomes a common practice.

The IoT will undoubtably result in loss of some jobs — disruptive technologies do that — although optimists say they will create jobs as well. But if companies don’t want to reap a lot of criticism for their IoT initiatives, they’d better put some thought into the job creation aspect as well!


GE Crowdsourcing Design For 3-D Printing Project

OK, I admit to losing all sense of objectivity on this one! After all, it hits all my sweet spots:

  • Internet of Things (AKA General Electric’s “Internet of Things”)
  • 3-D printing
  • crowdsourcing/collaboration.

As I wrote earlier, about GE’s collaboration with Electric Imp and Quirky, this exemplar of Industrial Age might (what could be more powerful than a GE locomotive???) really seems to get it that the Internet of Things is as much about new attitudes of collaboration and sharing data as it is about Internet technology.

GE jet engine mount

So it’s no surprise that Industry Week reports on a new GE initiative, soliciting crowdsourced designs for a new jet engine bracket that will be produced through 3-D printing.

As Christine Furstoss, technical director of Manufacturing and Material Technologies at GE Global Research, explains:

“‘For any industry to be successful, you really need to develop communities or ecosystems of partners and thought leaders…

‘No sustainable, established industry technology exists without multiple players, multiple styles of thought, multiple ways of growing … We feel like one of the best ways to stimulate that, to find the newest and best ideas, is to start with open collaboration.'”


Contrast that attitude with what is still all too prevalent, as summarized by Paul Horn, former senior vp of research at IBM:

“Horn remembers a time before open innovation — a competitive, suspicious era when innovative and great, transformative ideas were only allowed to grow in a tightly sealed vacuum.

‘When we built the Almaden Laboratory at IBM in the early 1980s, we put it south of Silicon Valley on purpose,’ he recalls. ‘In those days, our biggest fear was the leaking of intellectual property out into the valley.'”

I suspect that one of the biggest obstacles to full realization of the IoT’s promise will be the difficulty of leaving that old zero-sum game, my-gain-is-your-loss mentality behind!

I wasn’t aware that this latest competition, to design a 3-D printed bracket strong enough to support a jet engine on a commercial plane, is part of a 2-year crowdsourcing initiative, with approximately $20 million in prizes for products, designs and processes, especially in 3-D printing:

“‘We’re trying to find thought leaders in this area — people who may know through a technique they’ve devised or a piece of software that they’ve found or just their own experiences what is the best way to design with additive for real industrial parts,’ Furstoss explains. ‘We’re really at the birth of industrial additive technology. This is a way for us to build support for that community of makers.'”

Furstoss says the crowdsourcing competitions are no knock on GE’s own 50,000 engineers: “‘We have a platform in place that can put a student in his dorm on the same plane as our engineers,’ she says. ‘We’re making sure that people who may have ideas, may have skills, may have things to offer have an opportunity to bring them forward, no matter who they are.'”

It’s that kind of openness to not only new technologies, but also new management practices, that will give GE a huge head start over competitors that have yet to come to grips with the new reality: the Internet of Things!


#IoT breakthrough! 3-D printing tiny batteries to allow “smart dust”

Posted on 1st July 2013 in 3-D printing, energy, Internet of Things, M2M

Last Friday my wife and I were driving through the wilds of Utah (aside: wow, is the West different from The Hub of the Universe!) when we chanced upon SciFri, which was doing a great segment about cool government-funded energy research (no, not the Solindra picking winners-type stuff, but real basic research that can lead to quantum leaps in performance).

One of the speakers was Prof. Jennifer Lewis, who has the all-time greatest academic title:  Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences! Go biomimicry (just a little reminder, BTW, that nature has already solved every problem that we, as an advanced, information-based economy, face. Think not? The answer to your problem lies just outside your window: we’re just too divorced from nature to be able to see it!)!

OK, got that out of my system…..

Now for the big news: Prof. Lewis’ team and their associates at the University of Illinois have invented the Holy Grail for Internet of Things sensors: lithium-ion batteries the size of a grain of sand, created through 3-D printing (as you may remember, I blogged recently about the role 3-D printing could play in fully-realizing the IoT’s potential. Little did I think it would be this soon, and this direct a role)!

This is a game-changer when it comes to sensors: their size has been getting smaller and smaller, but the big obstacle to realizing Kristofer Pister’s vision of “smart dust” sensors so tiny and self-powered that they could be strewn about was that the batteries were still relatively big and clunky. Lewis’ breakthrough changes all of that.

lithium-ion batteries produced by 3-D printing

The batteries are built by printing precisely interlaced stacks of tiny battery electrodes, each less than the diameter of a human hair.

Here’s the process:

“In this case, the inks also had to function as electrochemically active materials to create working anodes and cathodes, and they had to harden into layers that are as narrow as those produced by thin-film manufacturing methods. To accomplish these goals, the researchers created an ink for the anode with nanoparticles of one lithium metal oxide compound, and an ink for the cathode from nanoparticles of another. The printer deposited the inks onto the teeth of two gold combs, creating a tightly interlaced stack of anodes and cathodes. Then the researchers packaged the electrodes into a tiny container and filled it with an electrolyte solution to complete the battery.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the DOE Energy Frontier Research Center on Light-Material Interactions in Energy Conversion.

This is so exciting. Now to commercialize the technology and to turn our attention to the real obstacles to the Internet of Things: privacy and security problems!

New McKinsey report on “on-demand marketing”

Posted on 29th April 2013 in 3-D printing, Internet of Things, marketing

As a follow-up to my last post, McKinsey has just written about the advent of “on-demand marketing,” citing the Internet of Things (and, I’d argue, 3-D printing!) as one of the drivers.

3-D printing could fundamentally change industry!

Posted on 29th April 2013 in 3-D printing, Internet of Things

Years ago, an old friend named Steve Clay-Young told me about how Popular Science (or was it Popular Mechanics? oh well?) mobilized many craftsmen who had metal-working home shops into an important part of the WWII munitions effort by publishing plans that the craftsmen could execute on their home lathes, etc.

I thought back to that effort when reading this Industry Week article predicting that 3-D printing “could herald a new industrial revolution.” Amen!

It also reminded me of a speech I heard by Eric Drexler, the “father of nanotechnology,” back in the ’90s, in which he talked of a bread-box sized “factory” that could sit on your kitchen counter and grind out fully-functioning machines.

“‘In theory, anything that we have today can be produced through 3-D printing. It may just alter manufacturing as we know it,’ said Simon Jones, a technology expert at global law firm DLA Piper.”

It could end the inefficiency of one-size-fits-all mass production that both generates waste (unsold products) and doesn’t really satisfy individual consumers’ needs. Add in the potential to upgrade products’ functions through the Internet of Things, and you’d really have a revolution!

I particularly loved the example of “… customized screws for broken bones which match a patient’s specific anatomical characteristics and thereby cause less deterioration than the traditional variety.” Having suffered through rehab of a tibia that shattered in 6 pieces, I could really go for that!

Bring it on: I’ve got space reserved on my kitchen counter for my 3-D printer!">Stephenson blogs on Internet of Things Internet of Things strategy, breakthroughs and management