Column: Take the Cabinet to GE Centre

By: | Published: February 9, 2016 1:00 AM

From health to railways, and disruptive technology, the range of solutions at the R&D centre is breathtaking.

Prime ministers, as a general rule, aren’t terribly interested in technology, but after Rajiv Gandhi, Narendra Modi seems to be the only Indian PM who is genuinely interested in the power of tech. That’s why he is pushing Start-up India in the manner he is, and that is why, in his last visit to the US, he went to the Tesla factory to get to know of advances in battery storage technology that are so critical to India’s ability to harness the power of solar/wind technology. That, of course, is also why Modi should go and visit GE’s John F Welch Technology Centre in Bangalore, along with his entire Cabinet.

Senior ministers like Suresh Prabhu will, for instance, be floored by the work taking place in GE’s transportation business—and yes, there is a real-life application of this taking place in Norfolk Southern Corporation, a US railroad company that operates 36,000 miles of track with 4,300 locomotives and 78,000 freight cars and does around $12 billion in annual revenues. A great offering is an artificial intelligence-based trip optimiser that, at one level, is a bit like a cruise control on a top-end car where, once you feed in a speed, the car drives at that speed. In this case, the optimiser takes into account the weight of the train, then figures out how long it will take to accelerate and slow down and, based on the conditions of the track, works out the best speed for the train to travel at since frequent braking increases fuel consumption and wear and tear. This, the transportation team at GE asserts, saves 34,000 gallons of fuel per locomotive in a single year and, as a result, a few hundred tonnes of emissions as well—this is not part of the engines Prabhu has just signed a contract with GE for, but it is certainly worth looking at given the benefits (GE has launched what’s called a Tier-4 locomotive in the US this year with limited levels of NOx and particulate matter). There’s also the safety aspect since, based on the number of level crossings for instance, the trip optimiser can even restrict the speed of the train in case the driver doesn’t.

If you think that’s cool, there’s more. GE is known for its leadership in health diagnostics—visit any hospital for a routine CT and that becomes clear. What it has now done is to use this learning to try and do diagnostics—real-time, it appears!—on the locomotive as well as on the track (video cameras scan the track). Since information of the track and the stresses on the engines are available 24×7, this is fed into what’s called a ‘digital twin’ on a PC—so, a control centre knows exactly the state of the engine at any point in time and, through this, GE can do not just predictive maintenance but also let the repair yard know just when to expect the train several months ahead and what kind of work it requires; based on engine-health, engines can be dispatched to take care of different loads—Norfolk’s efficiency levels have gone up significantly as a result since trains can now be run closer to one another, but with full safety since automatic track switching is also a feature—obviously, costs go up as each feature gets added, but it is important for the railway minister to know what is available for him.

The work in the healthcare division has got a lot more publicity over the years, especially after—the unit was begun to simply support operations at the Milwaukee headquarters for GE’s healthcare business—the first portable ECG machine was designed for India in early 2008. While the core of the basic machine in the US—the algorithm to decipher the signals from the heart—was kept unchanged, the rest was completely redesigned and, as a result, a $10,000 machine was transformed into a $500 one! With this, the cost of an ECG came down from R200 to under R10 and, with the fax-machine-sized ECG now portable—the US machine used to weigh 65 pounds—the addressable market suddenly became all 700,000 physicians in India who could, theoretically, even carry it from village to village to take ECGs. The MAC 400 was later scaled up—trickle up!—and taken to countries like China, Germany and even the US eventually.

Since 2008—and this is the classic Make-in-India story—GE has launched 28 products to basically map on to various diseases Indians suffer from, and the latest is a CT scanner that uses a completely new detection technology which results in doctors being able to see 4 times more of the body by way of each scan and the price of the machine has been brought down 40%, to $150,000.

That’s the hardware part. There’s also the software—the data analytics—that will be of tremendous interest to not just health minister JP Nadda, but to every one of India’s chief ministers who want to ensure top class medical care to their citizens. India’s medical colleges produce, according to GE, around 50 intensivists—people who run ICUs—every year while India has over 100,000 ICU beds, making surviving in an ICU in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities a nightmare. A pilot was done by GE connecting an ICU in Tumkur—30 km from Bangalore’s city limits—to the Columbia Asia hospital in Bangalore which allowed the intensivist there to monitor the Tumkur facility. Since no intensivist can possibly monitor all beds 24×7, the technology lies in making all the information available real-time on, say, an iPad and, more important, creating enough decision-support in the software that constantly gives not just alerts on patients but also suggests possible courses of action. How good the decision-support will be depends on what comes up from the research, the world over, on sensor technologies—sensors to analyse a patient’s pupils, the sweat, the skin, and so on and then linking this information to the ICU decision-support solutions.

While power minister Piyush Goyal will find the work on renewable energy particularly interesting, commerce and industry minister Nirmala Sitharaman will find the concept of the ‘brilliant factory’ fascinating. Most factories have a few assembly lines and take several weeks to switch over product lines; what GE’s done—the prime minister inaugurated GE’s Pune facility last year—is to create a multi-product factory that reduces this switchover time dramatically, as a result of which it can produce items as diverse as locomotive engines and wind turbine blades within days and from the same factory. Designs coming in from engineers automatically get converted into 3D drawings that are fed into the machines—overhead cranes take parts from one machine to another while an optimising solution reconfigures the assembly line depending upon the need of the day.

A lot of what GE’s doing, it is true, is being done by different companies. BHEL, for instance, does good work in building machinery and Infosys does great work in software—it helped deliver the driverless train for the Paris metro many years ago and artificial intelligence is something CEO Vishal Sikka is particularly focused on—but combining software and hardware is what makes GE’s a formidable combination. While there are over 4,000 people in the Bangalore facility, each of whom work in specific business areas like healthcare and transportation, the Global Research Centre principally focuses on disruptive technologies and, over a period of time, hands them over to the respective business teams which—apart from working on innovation of the sort we are seeing in healthcare and transportation—then take them ahead; it helps that innovation from the world over becomes part of the ‘GE Store’ where various teams can draw from or contribute to.

To get back to prime minister Modi, why take the entire Cabinet to GE when the work being done there is principally of interest to just a few ministers? While these ministers will take back specific learnings, the rest will learn the power of disruptive technology, of where global innovation is going and how India will completely lose out if it is not able to harness the power of innovative people—Start-up India is not just a fancy idea of an upstart prime minister—and prepare its population to take advantage and contribute to this process. Restrictive industrial and labour policies won’t stop change from taking place in India, all they will do is to make India irrelevant. The lesson for Modi’s ministers: lead, follow, or get out of the way!

Postscript: Modi and his Cabinet colleagues would do well to not just read Martin Ford’s The rise of robots on the flight to and from Bangalore but to draw the right lessons from it.

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