The Industrial Internet of Things dominates manufacturing hype, but beyond the slick marketing, some manufacturers really are putting those powerful technologies to work. How have they used IIoT to improve their operations and produce more profit?
For a while now, General Electric employees have described the former conglomerate as a digital industrial company. The phrase has a nice ring to it, and after shedding numerous divisions, most notably in finance, it’s pretty much accurate. Whenever the company wants to put that phrase into action, it opens the doors — quite literally — to one of its brilliant factories.
Its remanufacturing plant in Grove City, Pa. — located hard in the Rust Belt, about an hour north of Pittsburgh and about an hour east of Youngstown, Ohio — is one of those brilliant factories. Decades ago, the building served as a food packaging plant. Today, after almost $200 million in investments, it has become a high-tech home for the remanufacture of diesel engines for locomotives. Floors are almost spotless. Work stations are populated with sensors.
“We’re taking digital technologies that people are really comfortable with outside of work and bringing them into work — whether that’s iPads, or phones, or just visual data,” said Jamie Miller, the former GE senior vice president and CEO of GE Transportation who was just promoted to CFO. “It was something that people could readily see because they use it outside of work.”
That mindset has allowed the plant to transition from tearing down engines upon arrival into component parts, searching for what needed to be corrected, then running it through either a manufacturing or remanufacturing line and rebuilding it. “We did that the same way for every engine on every component,” Miller said. “Now when that engine comes in the door, we already know the wear and tear on each component in that engine. We know which ones need heavy work scopes and really serious repair, we know which ones need just a little brushing up and, actually, which ones don’t need any repair at all.
“It’s condition-based manufacturing, and we’re able to tailor what we do here to rebuild that engine faster and just be more productive when we do it.”
The end results? The plant brings in about 1,200 engines and sends out about 20,000 parts every year, and its reduction in unplanned downtime fluctuates from 10% to 20% of previous numbers. “We can turn those engines around faster,” Miller said, “and get them back into revenue service for our customers.”
Which is, of course, the bottom line with any technology. GE embodies the digital factory and the marriage of old manufacturing and new tech. Its brilliant factories — Grove City is one of less than a dozen around the world — revolve around lean manufacturing principles, additive manufacturing, advanced manufacturing technologies and digital manufacturing. Its industrial cloud platform, Predix, allows customers to replicate that on a smaller level, extending industrial automation to the cloud.
All that, though, remains at least somewhat intangible, even for industry veterans. Has the Industrial Internet of Things finally moved along the hype cycle from the peak of inflated expectations and the trough of disillusionment toward the slope of enlightenment, or even the plateau of productivity?