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Union Pacific Delivers Internet Of Things Reality Check

U.S.'s largest railroad uses sensors and analytics to prevent derailments, but it also shows where the next wave of innovation is needed.

The Industrial Internet

General Electric's moniker for the Internet of things is "the industrial Internet." For example, it has a center in Atlanta that remotely monitors about 1,800 GE gas turbines used in electricity power plants worldwide. Sensors on the turbines relay performance data so that GE can anticipate maintenance needs and try to avoid breakdowns.

Software is essential because GE isn't really selling a gas turbine; it's selling the ability to generate power.

GE is increasingly selling service contracts that are less about making repairs and more about guaranteeing performance. It has a pipeline of $147 billion worth of performance-based service contracts that will generate $45 billion in revenue this year, CEO Jeffrey Immelt said in the company's last annual report.

Like at UP, however, what's just as interesting is what GE can't do now but expects do in the coming years.

Until about three years ago, GE had to be selective about the data it collected from those gas turbines. It could collect only about three months' worth of data--about 50 TB--because its database and analysis tools didn't scale beyond that size. See the problem if you were in the energy business? It meant you couldn't trend the current heat wave against the last few years' heat waves. What's more, the software could analyze data from only the turbine itself, not data points from the steam turbine and heat-recovery equipment around it, which also might have clues to a pending breakdown.

Over the past few years, GE has scaled its software so it can collect and use data spanning many years and more equipment. It also acquired analytics vendors such as SmartSignal that let it handle more complicated data, like the effects of those machines connected to the gas turbine.

The next big obstacle GE's software faces is speed--which it will need to predict the future. Today's software can send alerts when it spots a potential problem, but it isn't nearly fast enough to do "what if" analysis of machines. "People call us up and say, 'Can we overdrive our equipment for the next two hours?'" says GE software CTO Rich Carpenter. Today, those answers are given based on decades of experience and engineering knowledge.

What GE wants to offer is the ability to ask, "Has any machine in our entire system ever had X, Y, and Z factors, and what happened four hours later?" GE's systems today would take about 30 days to answer that question--if they could even answer it. GE's working to combine its data management and analytics software with Hadoop-based data processing to deliver an answer in 30 seconds. GE Software has just tested a prototype architecture that delivers that kind of speed, says Erik Udstuen, business leader for GE's software and services business.

"It's being able to predict the future by having a very clear line of sight to the past," says Jim Walsh, global general manager for GE software and services.

Yet GE sees some of the same limits that Tennison sees at UP: sensors are pricey and networks to collect the data can be spotty. It's one thing to cover the 1,800 gas turbines inside power plants in sensors and collect the related data. It's much harder to do that for tens of thousands of wind turbines spread across often remote expanses of the U.S. and China.

This kind of reality check on the Internet of things is essential. People's faith in emerging technology gets to the point that they start to assume that all data is gettable, that all of it is crunchable to turn questions into answers, like those magical computers that spit out the answer in spy movies.

Union Pacific points to what's possible. Yet at the same time, its goal of driving growth through greater use of analytics, sensors, and networked machines shows how much work still lies ahead.

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User Rank: Apprentice
3/5/2015 | 3:00:32 PM
re: Union Pacific Delivers Internet Of Things Reality Check
The wheels are turning and the sensors are moving much of the time, it seems like the sensors could generate their own power (watches do it).
User Rank: Apprentice
8/17/2012 | 6:59:41 PM
re: Union Pacific Delivers Internet Of Things Reality Check
Excellent article. I have been reading the magazine for several years but have rarely seen an article that went into the technical challenges an IT organization faces from the user's point of view as deeply as your article did. You must have spent a lot of hours interviewing UP CIO Tennison and his team.

This is also a good PR for Union Pacific. It makes UP a sexy place to work for young technically-minded people. Maybe more and more of them will be interested in "Internet of Things."
User Rank: Apprentice
8/14/2012 | 4:44:17 PM
re: Union Pacific Delivers Internet Of Things Reality Check
Fascinating, great article! I had no idea of the level of IT integration in this industry. Maybe this points towards a renaissance of the Industrial sector in the U.S?
Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/9/2012 | 1:53:20 AM
re: Union Pacific Delivers Internet Of Things Reality Check
I love these kinds of stories - taking technology that we work with on a daily basis and doing something "real" with them.

As to the UP issue with battery-powered sensors, aren't the locomotives that they use diesel/electric? You basically have a small power plant up front pulling everything along, why not find a way to use that to power your sensors? Aren't all railcars connected pneumatically to allow for brake control? Seems like it wouldn't take much to plumb another connector along side the brake hoses to allow for electrical distribution.

Andrew Hornback
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