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GE Software’s Bill Ruh Talks about Fundamental Changes Big Data is Bringing to Industry

GE may not be the first brand you think of when it comes to big data. But the industrial stalwart—a producer of turbines, locomotives, and other massive machines—is putting considerable investment into analyzing how big data is changing the way that GE, its customers, and others, operate.

Bill Ruh, vice president of GE Software, described the changes big data is bringing to industry as “the most interesting thing happening to our machines in a long time.”

Previously, data collected by large industrial machines was limited. In addition, much of it was discarded as useless. But the advent of cheap sensors has made possible an explosion of data collection. And industry must now evaluate how to handle it, how much and what types of data to save, and how to develop useful analytics to present data from becoming “a boat anchor.”

Speaking at Rock Stars of Big Data at the Computer History Museum, Ruh said developing quality analytics is the biggest challenge. “The ability to capture this opportunity and do something with it is dependent on your ability to develop useful analytics,” he said.

As little as five years ago, jet engines had as few as two sensors to gather information on key metrics such as average takeoff, cruise, and landing data. Now that number is likely to exceed 20, producing 100 terabytes of data per day from every aircraft. And in the next generation of engines, the number of sensors is expected to experience an order of magnitude increase.

“When you look at the kinds of things you can begin to measure, it’s starting to change things about the way you operate an aircraft. Every product we have is producing more data than we were prepared to consume,” Ruh said.

Understanding the implications of the changes big data is bringing is a work in progress. “We’re being driven by a change that is happening at a rate that we didn’t predict several years ago,” said Ruh.

The right sensors are important, he said, as is understanding the physics of those sensors.

Some interesting startups are emerging to seize the opportunities and tackle the challenges. But there remain many questions to be answered. “We’re not sure how everybody’s going to make money. We’re not sure how customers are going to consume this. We’re trying to learn about what this is going to mean for the industries we serve.”

There is one thing most people agree on, said Ruh: “It does mean that there is going to be transformational change.”

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