Two sectors of the economy that have suffered hugely during the COVID-19 pandemic as lockdowns and social distancing measures persist are industrial and manufacturing companies. The physical nature of these businesses, as well as their reliance on people and global supply chains, means that they are likely to undergo significant changes in the coming months and years.
We got the chance to talk to GE Digital CTO, Dr Colin Parris, about some of the early conversations he has been having with customers in their response to the spread of Coronavirus and what it is likely to mean for the future of their businesses. GE Digital is owned by GE and aims to ‘put industrial data to work. The company's insights in this area are noteworthy, given that GE Digital helps manage 40% of the world's electricity and huge reach into a manufacturing install base through its Predix IoT platform.
We at diginomica have been covering extensively the impact of COVID-19 on the future of work and assessing how digital enterprises are responding. It's worth taking a look at our dedicated COVID-19 resource page here for further insights.
Dr Parris said that whilst it is early days, GE Digital's customers are already making changes based on the assumption that social distancing - and as a result less people on site - will be here for the foreseeable. In addition they are also thinking about how to stay productive and profitable for the long term if global economies suffer. The first point raised is about increased connectivity machines, in the same way that people are becoming increasingly connected to their organisations. He explained:
The first discussion that shows up is this concept of connectivity to the machines, in the very same way that we have in terms of people. People are working remotely now and we are interacting with people remotely, you want the same interactions with machines.
There are less people on site, because you have to do social distancing there. So you have to figure out, how do I actually do remote connectivity and can I monitor the machines that I have? Can I monitor the processes in a remote way? This is true even in manufacturing plants - what you're saying now is that less people need to be there. You can't just shut down the plant. Less people means that you need to have the IoT and industrial internet capabilities to find a way to give you more information remotely.
The inevitable consequence of this is, Dr Parris said, is that industrial and manufacturing organisations are thinking about how they can reduce risk in their operations if they have increased access to information and data. He added:
The second thing we are starting to see is that, if you have more information coming in, what does this information really tell me? Where should I now put these [fewer] people to focus on? Now I've got to really understand where my real problems are. In many cases in these industrial sites, you have people looking for anomalies. Now that less people are there, and you can't let people walk around for safety reasons, people will miss things. So now you need to figure out problems way in front. Can I see early enough?
You want to figure this out for safety reasons. But the other reason is, if something breaks in that plant, you have a problem with throughput. I'm not going to get a part to replace it quickly and you may not have the part that you need, so that capability is going to be down. Then I'm going to have to have people come in and change the part, which is going to be tougher because maybe I can't fly people into the country because borders are closed. So you need to have really early warnings and monitor this more closely.
So we have seen people come to us and say, give me the connectivity I need to read all these things. Give me greater awareness because the fallout is huge.
The impact of COVID-19 on global economies is anybody's guess at this point. Whilst it can't be denied that a short term slump/recession is inevitable, there are wide ranging theories about the path to recovery and growth. Some insist that economies will bounce back quickly when lockdowns are eased (assuming a vaccine/therapeutic treatment is made available), whilst others foresee a longer, slower bounce back.
Whichever scenario plays out, Dr Parris explained that GE Digital customers are already putting plans in place to ensure that they can boost productivity to ensure profits continue to grow. He said:
Now, the other part of this is more longer term - customers are now realising that they're going to have to live in that world for a while. But also the reality is that they're losing money right now and may lose money in the future. The economy may not come back in the way that I think it will come back. And it may be so for multiple years.
If that's true then that means I'm going to have to operate with a smaller workforce and I've still got to deliver profit, I need the digital capabilities to do that. Productivity becomes a factor. So in the immediate impact you see customers thinking about the practical things they need to keep them going. And then the long term impact is about needing more productivity, which means these things have got to be smarter. That's when the AI discussion shows up, the industrial optimisation discussion shows up, the analytics discussion shows up.
As I said, these discussions are early. But you get the feel that these things are not going to go away. This is a global economic impact that's not going to go away tomorrow.
GE Digital's shift from innovation to innovation at scale
Dr Parris also got the opportunity to give us some detail on the future roadmap for GE Digital. Over the past couple of years the company has experienced some volatility as its parent company debated spinning it off into its own company, which was later shelved. GE Digital CEO Pat Byrne recently outlined GE's commitment to retain the GE Digital brand, stating that the company would focus on bringing "simplicity, speed and scale" with industrial software that helps companies "better operate, analyze and optimize" business processes.
GE Digital's primary focus is to provide industrial software and services in four key markets:
Electric Utilities & Telecommunication
Power generation (gas, steam, and related plant operations and service support);
Oil & Gas industry and related adjacent markets; and
Select manufacturing applications and digital transformation projects.
Dr Parris elaborated on this and said GE Digital's focus is now going to be about implementation of its solutions at scale, not just about proving that they are ‘innovative'. He explained:
I spent a lot of time with invention and innovation. Now we really want to get implementation. Let me tell you what I mean by those words. At the simplest level, invention for me is all about ‘can i create things?', such as the digital twin, industrial AI. Innovation is about ‘how do I use them in an industrial context in a way that customers see value?'. The implementation is ‘how do I get them at scale?'.
The great thing about this implementation part is, this is where Pat [Byrne, GE Digital CEO] and Larry [Culp, GE CEO] refocus. The ‘at scale' stage is not about technology, it's about how do I put them into business processes at scale? This means it's a lot easier to do the digital transformation because you are talking about doing digital transformation within a business transformation, which is what we do at GE. Larry and Pat now have a way of looking at it in a way that we can operationalize it and scale it in a way that we never have before.