Controls: The Unsung Hero of The Industrial Internet Revolution

You’ve probably heard about Big Data, the Industrial Internet and the (Industrial) Internet of Things.  There are many areas within GE working in some capacity to take advantage of these new technologies. Did you know that a fairly old technology, by modern standards, is at the heart of making the GE value story here? I’m talking about control systems. Specifically, I’m talking about a program in GE called Controls Convergence. Haven’t heard of it? Not surprising. It isn’t likely to make the Cnet or ExtremeTech homepage any time soon. Controls convergence programs are combining older concepts of controls with the newer tech enabled by advances in networking, security, and cloud computing into a whole new age of asset intelligence and optimization.

Let’s look back for a moment, before we leap forward. Controls had its big splash on the world before the Internet was popular. As such, there were no social media sites or 24-hour news channels to spread the news rapidly about how specialized computers were revolutionizing industry and changing the world. In fact, control systems have translated the physical world into the digital world since the late 1960s when the microcomputer was applied to replace hard-wired relay logic systems. For us controls people, that was the start of something really big.

Fast forward to today where many GE businesses are focused on selling services for products like gas and steam turbines. We mount small ones on semi-trailers. We put larger ones in power plants. Those big assets require specialized control systems to operate. Tucked away in a protective cabinet, or a separate room, are usually several computing boxes that constitute the brains of the operation. They can optimize operations far better than any human could and keep everything within safe operating parameters. That has been going on for a long time.

The new angle here is how we tie advanced computing, optimized control models, deterministic networks, cloud analytics, advanced security, and virtualization together to revolutionize industry, again. That is a very big part of what Controls Convergence does. From GRC, we define the architecture and drive the technologies into new, highly capable controls platforms. Our goal is to optimize performance for our customers’ assets like never before. Here are a few areas we are focusing on IT and OT security, cloud-based software platform, virtualization, and driving standardization.

Controls_Convergence_Setup

We place a lot of focus and effort on cyber-security. However, a newer area of security focus is on ensuring a trusted supply chain. In today’s world, shipments can be intercepted and malware can be loaded undetected at deeper levels of computer operation, even deeper than the operating system.  These are particularly worrisome. Even if the malware is detected, you could wipe and reinstall at the operating system level and not remove it. There are Controls Convergence programs being managed out of GRC to implement methods of detecting these low-level threats on our embedded devices.

Predix, GE’s software platform for the Industrial Internet, allows us to leverage the industrial cloud to rapidly create and deploy industrial applications in a highly protected environment, so we can capture and analyze machine data for predictive maintenance and optimization opportunities.

Virtualization is another controls area in which we are making advances. In the IT world, virtualization has been used to implement several operating systems on a single piece of hardware for years.  The same concept applies in the controls world, but there are very unique challenges in dealing with the real-time operating systems required in our applications.  GRC is leading the evaluation and strategy of adoption.

Our group is also leveraging mathematical models of assets to drive optimization and predictive behavior. We have successfully deployed a few beta sites already in partnership with our Power Generation business. The models help optimize operations depending on whether the customer wants higher performance or longer life of the asset.

Another big effort is in standardization of programming for our GE devices and communication protocols. A big part of our Convergence name is driving the strategy for products from our different GE businesses to look, feel, and communicate like they are from one company. We are also driving adoption of standard communication protocols, like OPC-UA and IEEE standards for TSN (Time Sensitive Networks) across our businesses in order to enable controls on the Industrial Internet.

We have built proof of concepts and are driving products within our GE businesses that are set to hit the market in the first quarter of 2016. Controls are really at the heart of our Industrial Internet value story, and GRC is driving the revolution. Who knows, maybe we will get a tweet or two this time around!

Controls Convergence proof of  concept
Controls Convergence proof of concept

2 Comments

  1. Akshay Finney

    Hi Vince,

    This was a great article. Being a cybersecurity enthusiast, security controls cannot be compromised. PREDIX definitely changes the game.

  2. Joe Rassam

    It’s good to read about the import of controls in our society.