GE moves to automate industrial field service operations
GE seeks to automate industrial field service operations
Credit: GE Reports

GE moves to automate industrial field service operations

During this week’s Minds+Machines conference in Berlin, General Electric (GE) made two announcements aimed at changing the nature of industrial field service operations.

As might be expected from an event with this name, much of the focus was on the path to digital transformation for industrial companies, with discussion around increasing customer visibility of assets front and center.

Part and parcel of any increase in the visibility of assets – be that a railway network, a wind turbine or pipeline on an oil rig – is greater insight into the health of those assets. In any industrial environment, this is welcome news, as downtime due to maintenance costs both time and money, and broken machinery costs even more to replace. Furthermore, when it comes to manual inspections of industrial assets, for example wireless cell towers, employees are often at significant risk of injury should they make a mistake.

Automating field services

To circumvent these problems, GE has made two announcements. Both new announcements are aimed at helping customers to manage the entire asset lifecycle, increasing productivity and operational efficiencies that can open the door to future business growth.

First, there was news of the integration between the ServiceMax cloud-based field service management product with GE’s Asset Performance Management, or APM, which uses data and cloud-based analytics to improve the reliability of assets. This integration has been delivered to enable customers to better monitor their assets and act preemptively to avoid downtime or send a maintenance technician to act upon a problem quickly, and with the right tools.

Second, GE has launched a new data-driven company called Avitas, which aims to fuse automated inspection services with current manual inspection processes. Speaking to media, Alex Tepper, managing director at GE Ventures, acknowledged that many of GE’s customers are currently spending millions of pounds on manual inspections by field service workers gathering data, and four times as much as that on maintenance.

The Avitas offering will make use of predictive analytics, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver what GE calls “advanced inspection services”. This includes tools such as robotic crawlers, UAVs, AUVs, and digital sensors.

The offering from Avitas uses GE’s Predix IoT platform, but can integrate data from external sources, such as the weather. Combining this data, the system identifies any defects in industrial assets automatically and recommends optimal inspection and maintenance schedules. Customers will be able to access inspection data in real time through an inspection platform that includes customized dashboards and reports. The platform also includes 24/7 live alerts that enable customers to monitor their data from any location.

GE claims that, by reducing high-risk tasks through data automation, it can make inspection processes safer and more efficient through data automation, decreasing costs by up to 25 percent.

While Tepper could not mention customers by name, he said that the technology is currently being used by companies in the oil and gas, transportation, and energy industries as a managed inspection service by GE certified technicians.

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Augmenting manual work

“We realized that by using robotics to automate a variety of these inspection solutions, we have the ability to dramatically increase safety – taking people out of harm’s way – increase efficiency, and increase productivity by partnering and integrating with ServiceMax and APM to take the data that we generate and fusing that into the models to decrease turnaround time and increase uptime,” Tepper said.

However, Tepper was quick to suggest that GE is looking to augment the experience of the worker, and not replace them – a subject debated globally. The robotics are “fused with manual inspections,” Tepper said. “[When operational] we fuse the interpreted information from the robotics with the sensor information from manual sensors. In addition, we paired up with operation and performance data via APM or other means, so that all of a sudden you holistically understand the current state of a piece of equipment. We have predicted algorithms that are risked base to figure out ‘when is it more likely that this [asset] is going to have a problem and how do you predict this?’”

GE is clearly taking the notion of machines replacing minds seriously. In a white paper on the Future of Work released yesterday, GE suggests that companies like itself can use “data analytics to identify emerging skills” to “reduce the frictions between qualified workers and appropriate jobs not only at the country level, but at the regional and municipal levels too.”

This point was corroborated at Minds+Machines by Patrick Franklin, vice president & general manager of applications at GE Digital, who said “nobody complains that the navigator in your car is no longer there”, referring to how Sat Navs have now removed the need for passengers to use maps, making driving both easier and quicker. Ultimately, Franklin said, “digital adoption for workers is about ‘does this make it better?'”

And for GE, digital applications and the industrial internet of things is all about making current processes and operations better beyond just field service operations. “Everybody should be starting” with IIoT, said John Gordon, chief product officer at GE Digital. “All industrial customers should be on a path today to start.”

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