The IoT Will Reinvent Replacement Parts Industry

Of all the Internet of Things’ revolutionary impacts on industry, perhaps none will be as dramatic as on replacement parts, where it will team with 3-D printing to reduce service time, inventory and costs.

I came to that realization circuitously, upon noticing Warren Buffett’s blockbuster purchase of Precision Castparts, the major precision parts supplier to the aeronautics industry.  Having read last year about yet another breakthrough innovation by Elon Musk, i.e., the first totally 3-D printed rocket engines, I was curious to see what Precision was doing in that area.  Unless my search of their website was flawed, the answer is zip, and that suggests to me that Buffett, who famously once said he doesn’t invest in technology because he doesn’t understand it, may have just bought …. a rather large dinosaur.

I noticed that one of Precision’s biggest customers is GE, which not only is using 3-D jet fuel nozzles on its engines but also ran a high-profile contest to design a 3-D printed engine mount that was open to you, me and the kids trying out the new 3-D printer at our little town’s library (note to Mr. Buffett: might be good to schedule a sit-down with Jeff Immelt before one of your biggest customers takes things in-house). As I’ve written before, not only is GE a world leader in the IoT and 3-D printing, but also in my third magic bullet, nanotech: put all three together, and you’re really talking revolution!

OK, I know 3-D printing is sloow (in its current state), so it’s unlikely to replace traditional assembly lines at places such as Precision Castparts for large volumes of parts, but that doesn’t mean it won’t rapidly replace them in the replacement parts area.  I talked to a friend several years ago whose biz consists of being a broker between power plants that need replacement parts yesterday and others with an excess on hand, and couldn’t help thinking his days were numbered, because it was predicated on obsolete technology — and thinking.

Think of how the combined strengths of the IoT and 3-D printing can help a wide range of industries get replacement parts when and where they need them, and at potentially lower cost:

  • sensors in IoT-enabled devices will give advance notice of issues such as metal fatigue, so that repairs can be done sooner (“predictive maintenance“), with less disruption to normal routine, cheaper and reducing the chance of catastrophic failure.
  • because data can be shared on a real-time by not only your entire workforce, but also your supply chain, you can automate ordering of replacement parts.
  • perhaps most important, instead of a supplier having to maintain a huge inventory of replacement parts on the possibility they may be needed, they can instead be produced only when needed, or at least with a limited inventory (such as replacing a part in inventory as one is ordered). This may lead to “re-shoring” of jobs, because you will no longer have to deal with a supplier on the other side of the globe: it might be in the next town, and the part could be delivered as soon as printed, saving both delay and money.
  • your company may have your own printer, and you will simply pay the OEM for the digital file to print a part in-house, rather than having to deal with shipping, etc.

And, as I mentioned in the  earlier post about GE’s leadership in this area, there are other benefits as well:

  • “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.
  • “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.”

Sooo, Mr. Buffett, it’s time that you come to terms with 21-st century technology or Berkshire Hathaway’s financial slide may continue.

 

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.'”

Bravo!

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!