EDITOR’S NOTE: In this week’s installment of our series to mark General Electric’s 125th anniversary, Business Editor John Cropley introduces us to some of the cutting-edge technology being developed and refined at GE’s research and development hub in Niskayuna.
NISKAYUNA — In one of the labs off River Road, the next big thing in General Electric's 125-year narrative might just be incubating under the intensive efforts of GE scientists.
Here is a look at some of the new products, processes and technologies being developed at the Niskayuna Technology Center, the headquarters of GE Global Research, the research and development hub for GE’s various businesses.
Sweat off his back
The sweat flowing from materials scientist Andrews Burns’ pores as he pedals away on his bicycle gives a lot of clues about him, but they’re not immediately readable.
In a research project interwoven with other projects and goals, GE Global Research scientists are trying to develop a way to remotely monitor the volume and content of a person’s sweat in real time, as it is shed. This would potentially offer ways to watch for signs of critical problems such as physical collapse and mental fatigue before they happen to workers in critical or high-stress jobs.
The sweat monitor works with an adhesive patch that catches sweat coming out of the skin, makes it flow through a tube past sensors into a pocket, and prevents it from flowing backward to mix with the fresher sweat. The data is analyzed and wirelessly transmitted to a monitoring station, where medical professionals or researchers can watch what is going on.
GE materials scientist Azur Alizadeh (in green) discusses real-time monitoring of sweat shed by colleague Andrew Burns as he pedals his bike at General Electric's Global Research facility in Niskayuna on April 28, 2017. (John Cropley)
Materials scientists Azar Alizadeh said this is an expansion of remote monitoring technology of simpler things such as heart rate and blood pressure. Traditional monitors keep patients in hospital beds attached to wires that grow more complex and complicated with the patient’s condition; wireless monitoring allows more freedom of movement and — if the condition warrants — lets patients go home, because their condition can be watched remotely.
As Burns cranks away one morning in April, his road bike motionless on a set of rollers, the little patch on the small of his back does its job, collecting his sweat. The wireless transmitter strapped to his leg sends data on that salty liquid to a nearby computer, where a steadily rising line shows he is shedding slightly more sweat with each passing second.
The research has progressed only to the point where the sensor can measure how much sweat Burns is losing, Alizadeh said. The goal is to also be able to analyze the content of that sweat for the presence of minerals and biomarkers that indicate stress and fatigue.
Such as system could have applications from health and wellness in athletes and patients; to occupational safety for people doing physical work who will make mistakes if they get too dehydrated; to optimizing performance in such extreme activities as military combat operations.
Many GE health monitors are in use in many settings, Alizadeh said, and to expand that to non-medical settings, the cost of equipment would have to decrease.
“We are making the system low-cost but we are not compromising performance,” she said.The potential here is to measure more than sweat, and get to the result of sweating -- the causes and consequences of dehydration are different in each case for a diabetes patient, a college football player and a special operations soldier on a combat mission.
Robots via phone
The problem is immediately recognizable, the potential solution readily appreciable:
Back at the home office, an error code or malfunction is detected in a facility thousands of miles away, where there has been political unrest and foul weather.
Pictured: Robotics engineer John Hoare demonstrates control of a distant robot through a virtual reality headset and handles. In this case, the robot is in the next room, but telerobotics offers the potential of controlling robots thousands of miles away with satellite links. (John Cropley)
Do you send a technician potentially into harm’s way, on a journey costing thousands of dollars and taking dozens of hours? Or do you send him down the hall to put on a virtual-reality headset, and try to repair the problem right now with the robot that is stationed at the facility?
John Hoare and other robotics engineers at GE Global Research are trying to make the second of these hypothetical scenarios a viable one through telerobotics, mating human problem-solving ability to robotic task-performing capability via satellite communication.
Hoare’s previous line of work -- involving police and military bomb-disposal robots -- makes the stakes of his current project very clear-cut for him.
“We want to keep our field agents farther away from danger,” he said.
In their corner of GE Global Research’s new EDGE Lab in Niskayuna, researchers have set up a small section of a mock oil drilling platform and have rigged up a robot to fix it.
Hoare dons a headset equipped with the same virtual reality technology employed in gaming systems and guides the robot through its motions with two handheld controllers.
The moves unfold in real time. But in an actual application involving a very distant robot, there might be a delay as signals between it and its human master bounce back and forth via satellite.
The imagery inside the headset is vividly three dimensional -- startlingly so, for someone who’s never experienced VR.
“Eventually, we’re trying to give it an even higher level,” Hoare said.
GE’s goal is not to go into robot production, but to create new ways to service GE machinery around the world using other companies’ robots.
Tiny robots and big machines
To repair a 150-ton steam turbine, one doesn't simply pop the hood and have a look-see.
The equipment must be taken out of service and potentially disassembled -- sometimes using a crane.
Diagnosing as much of the problem as possible from the outside is a valuable option. Snaking a camera into the turbine on a flexible stalk can provide a view, but the turbine blades can’t be turned while the snake is inside, which limits the utility of this technique.
A remote-controlled camera-equipped robot that can crawl into an electric turbine to perform inspections. (John Cropley)
“So what we want to do is get a robot into the turbine,” said Kori Macdonald, a robotics engineer.
One of the models being developed rolls on a track into the turbine blades and flexes to lock into position while the blades are slowly turned for a full revolution.
If the problem is a small enough, the same robot can extrude a patch material onto the spot and wipe it smooth.
The other model is a crawler equipped with lights, camera and magnet on the undercarriage.
The compressor portion of a turbine is made of magnetic metal, so the magnet lets the crawler defy gravity and explore anywhere its tiny frame will fit. The robot is controlled via wireless signals from the operator’s computer or smartphone. It is equipped with a fixed camera, but a moveable camera is being developed, said Macdonald, who is rotating through various assignments at GE Global Research as part of the Edison Engineering Development Program, a two- to three-year training/education option for young scientists in early stages of their careers.
Addition, not subtraction
A sound bite — “complexity comes free” — explains General Electric’s attraction to 3-D printing:
Objects previously impossible to fabricate because their details are too numerous or too small or too complicated for conventional manufacturing processes now can be created on a 3-D printer at similar cost to a simple object.
It is called additive technology because it starts with nothing and fuses metal dust with high-temperature lasers into the intended shape. So it is adding to what exists, rather than starting with a piece of material and cutting away pieces until the intended shape remains. That’s called subtractive manufacturing, logically enough.
Assorted components are shown attached to the build plate on which they were fabricated from metal dust using laser 3-D printing. Some would be difficult or impossible to create with conventional manufacturing techniques. (John Cropley)
General Electric has been in additive manufacturing for about 20 years, but it has recently boosted its presence with the purchase of Sweden’s Arcam and Germany’s Concept Laser, two pioneering companies in the field.
One of the tasks now at GE Global Research is to find ways to adapt existing metal alloys to additive manufacturing so that they will work in critical applications such as jet engines, where the potential to increase the complexity and decrease the weight of parts holds great promise for efficiency.
“That’s why we love additive technology,” said researcher Joseph Vinceguerra. An added bonus is that there is not a wasteful pile of scrap metal left over after a part is fabricated.
As a demonstration, the researchers at the Niskayuna fabricated a batch of bottle openers, each with intricately detailed handles that would be impossible to construct with conventional techniques. Lasers using the equivalent of just six 60-watt bulbs fuse a powdered cobalt-chromium alloy into solid metal at temperatures up to 2,000 degrees, melting each layer on top of the previous layer until thousands of layers form the bottle opener. An electron discharge process is used to cut it off the metal base plate on which it was fabricated.
The operation takes 12 hours to complete, whether one bottle opener is being fabricated or dozens -- as long as they were all on the same base plate.
As development of alloys continues, so does refinement of the manufacturing process.
“A lot of our efforts are about taking our machines and making them print larger and faster,” Vinceguerra said.
There will be a point of diminishing returns, a size above which it’s not practical or economical to replace subtractive manufacturing with additive manufacturing, but that point is a long way off, he said.
The glowing Christmas tree of smartphone-sized computers in a lab at GE Global Research could have a twin anywhere in the world.
But not an identical twin, or even a fraternal twin.
Instead, this is a mockup of a Digital Twin, a system used to track and improve the performance of General Electric products in service with customers internationally -- everything from a single part in a jet engine to the whole engine to the whole fleet of jets an airline flies. Or a farm of GE wind turbines. Or the health of people treated with GE medical equipment.
The Digital Twin initiative is one of GE’s biggest: The company has created more than 700,000 so far and expects to surpass 1 million by the end of this year.
The Christmas tree of little glowing computers is an indication how data-intensive a Digital Twin is. Over the course of years, GE mines performance data and repair/maintenance records for the subject that is being twinned. It can then use the twin to predict and avert problems, or find solutions, or devise an upgrade.
Component computers in a simulated Digital Twin glow as digital mission leader Masako Yamada discusses the twin's function at General Electric's Global Research facility in Niskayuna. (John Cropley)
Consider the amount of data on humans and their activity that is collected for consumer marketing, then multiply that many times and arrive at what is done for machines and industrial modeling, said Danielle Kalitan, digital growth leader for GE Global Research.
“The consumer space is huge,” she said. “The industrial space is even bigger.”
This level of data collection and analysis allows an advanced degree of management by GE or its customer, she said.
For example, high heat might be shown to prematurely wear out a particular part on a certain model of jet engine as hundreds of airliners record tens of thousands of hours of service over the years. The Digital Twin would spot this and suggest that the airline rotate its fleet geographically, so the same few planes weren’t always flying between equatorial cities.
Or a Digital Twin could program each turbine in a wind farm to spin in the way that best benefits the downwind turbines given the weather conditions of the moment, so that the wind farm as a whole would generate maximum possible electricity, even if some turbines were performing at less than their full individual potential.
Part of gathering and analyzing all this data on critical assets is a cybersecurity effort to keep it confidential, said Masako Yamada, digital mission leader.
“That’s not data you want being sent out to the world at large,” she said.
The industrial internet is more secure than the consumer internet for this reason, she added.
In its function, Digital Twin becomes a variation on the oft-quoted expression “past performance is not an indicator of future results” -- GE can look at past performance and change future results for the products it makes and markets.
“We’re not just trying to predict the future, we’re trying to make decisions,” Yamada said.
More than 16,000 scans are performed every minute by the more than 1 million General Electric medical imaging devices in service around the world.
GE was a pioneer in magnetic resonance imaging and other medical technology, and scientists at GE Global Research continue to work today on new tools for medical professionals.
Pictured: Principal scientist Fiona Ginty discusses a positron emission tomography display. (John Cropley)
One such system is positron emission tomography. In a Niskayuna bioscience lab, principal scientist Fiona Ginty displays readouts from PET scans on a high-resolution monitor and she is able to point out, one by one, the spots that could be the earliest stages of cancer, or even just a precursor to cancer. The small red spots on the lungs and the splotches surrounded by speckled fields of immune cells are all indicators of problems.
This particular scan on Ginty’s display is measuring glucose, which is a useful tool for spotting cancer because tumors absorb glucose at a fantastically high rate, as much as 200 times more than healthy cells.
Currently, she said, PET scans are used as research tools to help pharmaceutical researchers understand what drugs are working, and why.
Another procedure GE Global Research personnel are trying to advance is adoptive T cell therapy, in which a patient’s own immune cells are harvested, cultured externally in a lab, and then returned to the patient. The problem, said technical operations leader Nichole Wood, is that the procedure is expensive and the cells are fragile.
GE researchers are working on a closed system to make the process less costly and less vulnerable to contamination.
It involves an airtight bag for the cells, closed against outside air and sitting inside a small countertop rocker that sways ever so gently, like a boat at anchor in a harbor. T cells need a little movement, so the nutrients in the fluid will reach them, but they are vulnerable to overly vigorous movement.
“You can imagine a farm of these,” Wood said as the incubator swayed left and right in its hypnotic rhythm.
Trust and verification
With new technology comes new ways to make errors, and new tools to prevent errors.
As manufacturers increasingly use 3-D printers, operating from the correct set of instructions becomes critically important, as a tiny change can alter the fundamental nature of the finished product.
In the EDGE Lab, mathematician Stephanie Kuhne displays two seemingly identical plastic components, each with the same number of ribs, edges and surfaces, each as thick as the other and each with the same degree of curvature.
Pictured: These two plastic components created at General Electric's Global Research facility in Niskayuna seem identical, but one was printed with flawed computer instructions and has a hollow body. (John Cropley)
However, one was made to spec, with a solid body. The other is hollow.
The alteration in this case is intentional to make a point. In actual use, the alteration might have been a mistake, or it might have been sabotage; regardless of the reason, the hollow shaft could cause the part to fail under stress, with potentially expensive or damaging consequences.
The solution is trust and verification, Kuhne said, and the tools being developed to accomplish this involve blockchain technology. Blockchain is a way of establishing trust online between multiple parties unknown to each other. In the case of the cryptocurrency bitcoin, for example, blockchain serves as sort of a ledger.
Using a blockchain, GE can verify the correct code is getting to the printer.
This is important for GE, Kuhne said. The company is investing in 3-D printing capacity and is relying on it as well -- its new LEAP jet engine uses multiple printed components that are too complicated to produce through conventional manufacturing techniques.