As the Process Engineering team celebrates Back to the Future day, we’re enjoying this little reminder of how our younger, sillier selves envisaged the future in 1989.
Glancing out of the window today, it is clear that Marty and Doc time-travelled to a far more flamboyant version of October 21, 2015 than this one.
But looking beyond their flux capacitors, hoverboards and man-eating 3D billboards, the movie contained more than a few nuggets of foresight.
Fingerprint recognition. Smart glasses. Waste-fuelled vehicles. Robotic automation (albeit in a petrol station). These are all with us in some form or other today.
What they didn’t see coming, however, was that huge network of connected devices that can share information via a cloud of invisible infrastructure, that we call the internet.
GE made a very similar observation about the industrial world this month at its annual technology hootenanny.
Jeff Immelt, its chairman and chief executive, notes that while the internet has transformed almost every business sector in a large and meaningful way, the industrial world has largely missed out on the party.
According to GE, industrial productivity averaged 4% from 1990-2010 and has slowed to just 1% in the last five years.
“Industrial companies need to become digital to survive,” says Immelt. “We must turn information into insights and insights into outcomes.”
So how has the internet managed to pass the industrial world by?
One of the main problems is capturing data from a process or piece of equipment. Only very recently have the emergence of wireless sensors offered a viable and cost effective solution to this problem.
The next issue is how to make sense of this huge flood of data flowing in.
Industry standards such as OPC UA, that provide a common machine language, have now reached maturity, which finally opens the door to the analytics software that many other industries have benefited from.
Now GE is oiling the wheels further by launching an app store for industry.
This new cloud-based Predix platform is intended to work with plant maintenance systems the same way Apple’s IOS operating system does with mobile phones.
GE has already demonstrated some potential applications. One of these is Digital Power Plant, which recommends ways of using equipment more efficiently by using data supplied by the sensors already installed around power plants.
In its bid to become the ‘Apple’ of the industrial world, the company is also undergoing a bit of a digital makeover.
A new series of TV ads see tech geek Owen land an ace programming job to great fanfare from family and friends, until he reveals he is not headed to Silicon Valley, but going to work for GE.
The awkward silences that greet Owen speak volumes about the huge technology gap that exists between the industrial and digital worlds.
But in the words of GE: the Internet of Things, combined with digital manufacturing and machine learning are creating a sort of ‘primordial soup’ which are on a collision course.
Lets hope this ’collision’ gives the process industries a real opportunity to head back to the future and embrace the digital opportunities enjoyed by many other industries.