New Delhi: Vic Abate, a 27-year-veteran at General Electric Co. (GE), currently heads the company’s global research, engineering and product management teams as senior vice-president and chief technology officer (CTO). GE has global research centres (GRCs) in New York and Bengaluru. In a recent interview, Abate spoke about GE’s tech strategy, and shared his views on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and cross-pollination of innovation between research units and other businesses. Edited excerpts:
What does your “Technology+" strategy really mean?
The way we think about innovation at GE is (to put) technology at the core. What we mean by Technology+ at GRC is that “physics meets markets" and “research meets reality". Technology for technology’s sake is not nearly as important as getting it to be adopted. So when we talk about moving the world of healthcare or energy or transportation, it is about adopting technologies—that is how we measure the success of our team at GRC.
John Flannery, GE’s chief executive, has termed 2018 as a “reset year" for the company. What does this imply for technology at GE?
Our commitment to technology is stronger than ever. The reset has nothing to do with that commitment, but it has helped us focus more (sharply). The way I think about focus is “outcome and economics"—the real breakthroughs and the real game changers that are going to make a difference. And the way to get to those as fast and cost-effectively as possible.
How is Predix, your platform for IIoT, shaping up?
The way I think about the whole digital dimension, especially in the world of high-tech infrastructure is a big push first on “digital inside". Take additive manufacturing, for example, in which you have new breakthroughs in the supply chain. Laser technology, software, materials technology...all these come together in an additive manufacturing machine. Digital controls in the machine and making them the edge of the manufacturing ecosystem is key—and GE is focused on that in our additive business. Once you have those additive machines, there is a network of those machines where digital, over the top, can connect them.
When you think of Predix, there are two dimensions to it: one is the operating system at the edge of the industrial assets, which allows them to control physical properties; and the other is to look up (other industrial assets) and connect them over the IIoT.
How do the innovations by GE engineers typically get absorbed?
I just spent a week at the Bengaluru centre and came across engineers that work on jet engines, in automotive (technology) and on CT (computer tomography) scanners, among others. It is a cross-company technical community at our research centres and you may say they are all different, but here is the reality: the X-ray technology we are using in healthcare is being deployed in our aviation factories to inspect our new composite ceramic jet engine parts—without a human in the loop. If you look at the aerodynamics that has been done in a jet engine to manage the path of every molecule of air in the engine—that same technology is over there in our additive machines for quality purposes. At GE, the term research is often a misnomer; what we do is fast prototypes.
What kind of work is being done at your recently-opened science of product management lab in New York?
It is about how we see the future. What we are doing at this lab is finding what can create the most value for business. For example, in the healthcare business, having imaging machines with higher and higher resolution for better quality images was the key for years. Now if, using artificial intelligence, we can scan people faster, then that asset can have a higher capacity factor—which is hundreds of thousands of dollars in value per machine. Another example is from energy, which is a complex space. We consider all the sources and consumption patterns of energy—be it from the earth, sun or wind—and map it with all the numbers in a single view. We can see what would be the impact of electrification of vehicles in transportation or the impact of demand-side management of LED lamps or more regulation in an area. This gives us a sense: we can overlay our product portfolio on that map and stress-test it (for different scenarios). It helps us in our strategic planning.
What is your key challenge as the CTO of a large industrial conglomerate?
It is always a challenge to disrupt yourself before someone else does, but it is exciting. At GE, we have amazing businesses that are so good at what they do, and our job (at GRC) is to show them a different future.