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GE Pushes Boundaries With New Research Effort

The 122-year-old industrial giant lays out its priorities for some bleeding-edge research.

General Electric, the century-old industrial giant, is acting more like a technology company all the time. With last year’s big investment in Pivotal, the software development outfit that is part of EMC, and other moves, it has been showing off its tech chops more often these days.

Today it announced a significant research and development initiative. Known as The Next List, it’s a set of guiding principles laying out the company’s R&D priorities for the next several years. Announced internally today, it was shared with Re/code, and we got a chance to talk with CTO Mark Little about some of the interesting things therein.

The first one that caught my attention was the Industrial Internet. GE has talked about this concept before, but it’s doubling down on it as a significant research imperative. The idea is that machines in factories and energy infrastructure and any other industrial process you can think of will get smarter by talking to each other. Eventually maintenance and downtime can be planned for and every step of the process can be made more efficient.

It’s already fairly well along in its evolution. GE has a platform called Predix that it uses to create a common way of connecting different kinds of industrial gear. The platform is already in use across GE, and Little says he’d like to extend it to third-party equipment. “Don’t be surprised if you see us take this to things that we don’t make so that our customers and others can connect up other devices smoothly,” he said.

Talk about smart machinery segues logically into a conversation about big data. All of those machines will be constantly monitored for their performance and conditions. GE is taking it a step further with a concept it calls “brilliant factories.”

Little said GE is building a battery factory in Schenectady, N.Y., that will have sensors constantly gathering data on every step in the process. “We can track the raw materials, what the humidity conditions were like when the product was manufactured, the temperatures,” he said. “We can track these batteries throughout their entire life cycle.” The point is to learn more about what works best and eventually build better batteries.

Aside from the sensors, another component of the brilliant-factories initiative is 3-D printing. Replaceable parts for factory equipment will be readily printable so that there’s little waiting time when one is needed, and less need to keep an inventory of replacements. “This goes beyond your usual Makerbot printer,” Little said. “We want to do 3-D printing with metals and ceramics.”

GE’s new Leap jet engine, due in 2016, will contain parts that have been 3-D printed, he said. “The parts have shapes that are so complicated that it’s difficult to control the tolerances, but it will allow us to make them in a cost-effective manner,” he said.

Another initiative worth noting is one that GE calls Mind Mapping, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to build a detailed roadmap of the human brain. “We know a lot about the brain and its structure, but we don’t know a lot of the specifics about the wiring of the brain and the way the pathways work and also how certain diseases affect it,” Little said. Understanding that wiring better will lead to new techniques to diagnose problems like Alzheimer’s disease earlier and treat them at earlier stages.

There are other items on the list: Extreme machines, or industrial gear that’s specifically designed to function in a wide range of conditions — deep underwater or underground or in extreme heat; “Super Materials” that are both light and incredibly strong; “Energy Everywhere” is a concept about getting power to places that are far off the traditional electrical grid.

While you can argue whether or not significant R&D spending is worthwhile at most companies, GE clearly takes it seriously — and it gets results. The company says it has a $220 billion backlog of orders stemming directly from its R&D projects over the last decade, of which at $78 billion is for the Leap engine.

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