Digital technologies will touch and transform every business sector. No industry will be completely safe from either nimble venture capital backed startups or disruptive “new economy” organizations born of the digital age. Industrial companies founded at the tail-end of the 19th century would not be expected to reside at the forefront of digital change and experimentation. But this is exactly where we find General Electric. The 125 year old company has embarked upon a remarkable transformation of its people, technology and overall business model to embrace an impressive digital strategy in a relatively short period of time.
However, I’d be remiss without mentioning that the digital shift has not resulted in immediate changes to operating results. In successful companies, continual reinvention is the name of the game even when business is good. General Electric however has endured a number of challenges over the past decade (e.g. financial crisis, share price, executive shakeup, activist investors) but the company does deserve credit for its impressive shift to digital while addressing a myriad of ongoing challenges.
GE has invested significantly in machine learning, artificial intelligence, open source software development, 3D printing, internet of things (IoT), internet connected drones and all the accompanying personnel required to make its digital ambitions feasible. General Electric has stated an audacious plan to be one of the world’s top ten software companies with sales and services worth as much as $15 billion by 2020 . The company will have invested $6.6 billion, from 2011 through the end of this year in transforming itself into a “digital industrial” company .
Bringing Good Things to Life
Back in 2009, former CEO Immelt was speaking with scientists working on the development of new jet engines. From this experience he learned that the engine sensors were generating large quantities of data from every flight but that the company was not maximizing the potential benefits of the accumulation. Traditionally, sensor data was analyzed real time by a technician to gauge current performance and then that data was discarded.
Immelt visualized a future where the company’s sensor data data would be worth as much as the machinery itself . Two years later, the company established GE Digital as a separate corporate unit headquartered in San Ramon California. Immelt realized that a separate unit needed to be established in order to keep it from being stifled by the legacy organization.
“The San Ramon complex, home to GE Digital, now employs 1,400 people. The buildings are designed to suit the free-range working ways of software developers: open-plan floors, bench seating, whiteboards, couches for impromptu meetings, balconies overlooking the grounds and kitchen areas with snacks” .
The company even embarked upon an ad campaign where it poked fun at its stodgy corporate reputation. The campaign was intended to showcase General Electric as a destination for software engineers and other technical talent.
The aim of the company’s ambitious new unit was to house the requisite personnel and lay the groundwork for GE to pivot towards a “digital-industrial” strategy. By developing software that links together sensor data from a bevy of industrial machines, General Electric could then sell additional services like predictive maintenance to its industrial customers. As machines become smarter, they can run more efficiently, use less fuel and raise alerts before costly breakdowns occur. Smarter machines lead to longer lived equipment.
GE Digital was eventually merged with the company’s corporate IT department. In this manner, algorithms or other development work could be leveraged by multiple business units which helped minimize duplication of effort across many silos. Pre-GE Digital, business units were making choices based upon local conditions which resulted in an inefficient bundle of technologies and platforms.
The Centerpiece of General Electric’s Digital Strategy – Predix
The most ambitious offering from GE Digital’s strategy is the development of an open source industrial operating system named Predix. The company has poured significant investment capital (more than a billion dollars) into its creation. Predix was partially developed to head off competition from traditional tech players who have been considering forays into the industrial internet space. Just as fellow “old economy” blue chip Wal-Mart has had to revamp its digital strategy to compete with Amazon, General Electric realized that it needed to go on the offensive to head off potential competition from more mature tech savvy players such as IBM and Google. Additionally, Siemens, a more traditional industrial competitor, has a competing product known as MindSphere which is also angling for a piece of the industrial internet pie.
Predix was developed as a cloud based platform-as-a-service which enables asset performance management. The product aims to be the “Microsoft Windows” of the industrial internet, in that it functions as an operating system and enables third party application development. In a similar manner to Amazon expanding the market for cloud computing with its Web Services offering, GE is betting that there is a similar market opportunity for Predix in the industrial internet space to derive value from the cloud, data and analytics.
General Electric has also partnered with Apple to create a Predix software development kit for iOS. This move expands Predix’s potential reach to a popular mobile operating system which powers millions of iPhones and iPads .
“The basic idea is that G.E. and outside software developers will write programs to run on Predix. This software might, for instance, monitor the health and fine-tune the operation of equipment like oil-field rigs and wind-farm turbines, improving performance, reducing wear and adapting to changing environmental conditions. It amounts to software delivering the equivalent of personalized medicine for machines” .
One component of Predix involves creating a virtual “digital twin” of a highly complex industrial machine (e.g. aircraft engine, turbine, or locomotive engine). This digital twin is a real time virtual model which displays a host of performance metrics. The digital twin leverages machine learning to gain insights from simulations and other machines and then marries that information with human input. “Though digital twins are primarily lines of software code, the most elaborate versions look like 3-D computer-aided design drawings full of interactive charts, diagrams, and data points” .
The company predicts that it will have developed over one million digital twins by the end of 2017 .
Image courtesy of 2016 GE Annual Report
GE has a built in competitive advantage in its attempt to become the dominant software player for the industrial internet. The company already has a sizable customer base that currently uses its industrial equipment. However, GE must generate enough of an outside developer following to make the Predix platform sustainable. The company hopes to generate up to 4 billion in Predix based revenue by 2020. In order to meet this goal, GE will need to cultivate an ecosystem of third party applications running on its Predix platform.
Non GE equipment typically forms the majority of machines in a company’s facilities. Therefore GE needs to incentivize other OEMs to write applications on Predix that can analyze data on their own equipment. There is additional value gained when customers can analyze data from GE’s sensors in concert with data from third party machinery. This combination of capabilities has the potential to provide customers a more holistic look at their asset ecosystem. MIT’s Sloan Review indicates that GE has encountered challenges with this step.
“..everyone loves the idea of benefiting from everyone else’s data, but is far less excited about sharing their own — a tragedy of the commons. The potential is there, but incentives are not well aligned” .
Consider that GE earns little from selling hardware and that a majority of its revenue comes from selling services . The company is betting that Predix investments will profitably augment its current array of service offerings. Contractual services agreements for a large piece of industrial equipment can run up to 30 years. Meeting agreed upon machine up-time metrics results in bonus payouts to GE. However, there is a potential downside to longer running machines; namely reduced demand for additional GE machines.
Internally, Predix has allowed the company to garner significant productivity gains but those gains have been reinvested back into Predix and associated applications. Thus, these internal productivity gains (up to a billion) have not shown up on the company’s earnings .
Additionally, the company’s large sales force must learn to incorporate software services into their repertoire as opposed to solely pitching traditional hardware products. Chief information officers and chief technology officers will now have a seat at the buyers’ table along with the traditional operational heads and plant managers.
General Electric’s Additional Digital Investments
In addition to Predix, GE has made other digital investments and formed partnerships:
- In 2015, GE launched a startup named “Current” which is focused on industrial scale smart lighting.
- A new GE subsidiary named Avitas Systems will use “internet-connected drones and other robots to perform high-risk equipment inspections in industries like oil and gas” .
- GE spent $1.4 billion to acquire two European 3D printing companies, Arcam AB from Sweden and SLM Solutions Group from Germany. The company has spent $1.5 billion on 3D printing investments since 2010, meaning the acquisitions will double what the company has invested in the last five years .
- GE partners with Intel for sensor technology as well as Cisco for network hardware and Amazon Web Services for cloud delivery . GE must be careful to ensure that a substantial portion of its digital offerings do not become non-proprietary.
Outgoing CEO Jeffrey Immelt’s transformation exploits have been criticized for sacrificing short term profit maximization for future earnings. Immelt doesn’t receive enough credit for running a leaner GE which enabled a massive investment in digital transformation. Immelt has stated that his initial goal was to hire a thousand software engineers to support the transformation . This prodigious commitment to ramping up digital demonstrates that General Electric was anticipating disruptive innovation to negatively impact its business. History has taught us that industry incumbents have been caught off guard at best and rendered obsolete at worst by rapid changes in technology. Immelt forced the company to see the need for change as “existential”.
“Half measures are death for big companies, because people can smell lack of commitment. When you undertake a transformation, you should be prepared to go all the way to the end. You’ve got to be all in. You’ve got to be willing to plop down money and people. You won’t get there if you’re a wuss” . – Jeffrey Immelt
It is a huge bet to shut down all of the company’s analytics based software ventures and redirect efforts to one platform. It takes guts to open up your software to competitors, enabling them to reap benefits. It is audacious to infuse senior personnel with new leadership from outside the company who specialize in a non core, forward looking discipline. As a result, there are now dedicated digital organizations and chief digital officers positioned inside each of GE’s businesses. Even the marketing organization is attracting individuals who can speak and sell digital.
However, bumps on the road to becoming a successful digital business should be expected. The desired financial gains from digital investments have not yet materialized for General Electric as indicated by share appreciation. Per Gartner:
“The IoT is emerging as a key enabler of our digital future, and global spending on IoT – including all hardware, software and services – will increase in the next five years. However, the path to capturing benefits will not be a straight line. It will have many twists and turns as companies pursue big plans, hit roadblocks, learn and adjust. Some will give up, while others will follow through and realize the transformational potential the IoT can have in helping them become a successful digital business” .
Jeffrey Immelt has moved on and new CEO John Flannery has signaled an intent to pick up and run with the digital baton. In my opinion, General Electric has more favorably positioned itself to compete and win in a challenging new environment that extends beyond physical engines and turbines.
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