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Making Machines Intelligent

Have you seen the TV ad that opens with the sleek black automobile with the flashing computer console of lights made famous in the series Knight Rider?  The familiar baritone voice says, "You know what is impressive…a talking car.  But I’ll tell you what impresses me…a talking train.”  The car, “KITT,” then speeds alongside a moving train.  “This GE locomotive can tell you exactly where it is and what it is carrying, while using less fuel, delivering what the world needs, when it needs it.”  It then concludes with, “What is the point in talking, if you don’t have something to say?”  On the screen the statement appears, “Brilliant Machines Are Transforming the Way We Work.”

Amazingly, the men and women who are working to make machines – like trains and the systems that operate and direct them – smart are right here on the Space Coast. GE Transportation is one of the primary locations where these wonders are occurring. As company President and CEO Lorenzo Simonelli described, “We are entering a new era where there is huge focus on machines becoming intelligent. It is about having systems in place that enable you to move faster through the network, be on time and be able to predict failure. We are able to understand at what speed the optimization of fuel will take place.”  Then, he explains why the advances in freight rail are so important: “You can take a ton of freight 436 miles on one gallon of fuel; that is huge productivity.”

This remarkable statistic may explain why 42.7 percent of all goods in this country are transported by rail. This $60 billion industry, with over 140,000 miles of railroads, are all privately owned and maintained. Simonelli, who is headquartered in Chicago, explained, “Railroads are the backbone of the economy. Freight rail is the most efficient, cleanest, and safest way to haul goods and commodities to communities across the nation. It is critical that the U.S. freight rail system stays economically vital so that small and large freight railroads alike can continue to invest their own capital in these essential transportation networks. We’re proud to supply the advanced locomotives, service support, and the signaling and intelligent control technology that fuels the nation’s freight railroads.”

A Long History in Trains and Innovation

GE, which was founded as the Edison Electric Co in 1878, is the only original member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average still in existence. Today, it operates in over 100 countries with over 300,000 employees and $147 billion in revenue. In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison invented an electric locomotive that helped launch GE. The company built its first diesel engines for rail nearly 90 years ago, and today remains at the forefront of technology advancements in the rail transportation industry.

GE Transportation, located by Melbourne International Airport, is the world’s leading manufacturer of diesel-electric locomotives with more than 15,000 locomotives operating around the globe. Diesel-electric locomotives use diesel engines to run generators, which in turn power electric motors to drive the trains. Their latest generation of locomotives will reduce emissions 40 percent and increase fuel efficiency by 9 percent. They are also a chief provider of on-board and wayside signaling, communications, control and information systems. It is these systems that the people at GE in Melbourne work to develop and perfect.

Peter G. Thomas, the general manager of Software and Optimization Solutions explained that GE is on the leading edge of what he called the “Industrial Internet” revolution. Most of us are familiar with the Industrial Revolution which fostered the modern era, and of course the Internet Revolution that transformed communications and the marketplace and gave birth to social media. The Industrial Internet is the on-going science of helping machines communicate with information networks and with people in a way that it makes monitoring, controlling and optimizing them ever more efficient.

“These systems are able to connect all the various pieces of something as complex as a railroad, as well as connecting all the intricate parts of the locomotive engine and train itself. Next it is able to aggregate all that data, run analytics and then harvest insights, which then can be communicated to the people who are managing the freight, doing service and repairs on the engines or actually operating the trains,” Thomas said. All of which will result in a $27 billion industry value over 15 years by reducing system inefficiency.

Imagination at Work 

Imagine for a moment a sensor onboard a train, which may be up to a mile long, that detects a crucial component is either failing or in need of scheduled maintenance. Such a part failure could result in a train stopping until a repair or replacement vehicle arrives on sight. According to a study done by the University of Illinois, there were 25,000 such failures in 2011, each causing on average 2-5 hours of delay. While the train waits, because many tracks are single lanes, no rail traffic can move on that track until the repair is made or the train is moved. But here is a different scenario; instead a message is sent by an automated system to a maintenance team and the repair is completed while the engine is at its next refueling station, before any breakdown occurs.

Or imagine this: Class 1 railroads (these are the seven large regional railroads in North America) spend about $10 billion in fuel each year. Thomas sighted, “Improving efficiency by just 1 percent results in a savings of $100 million a year. GE has developed systems that allow locomotive engineers to operate in a fuel optimum way that has a potential to save 4-16 percent in fuel costs!”  Rather than the engineer or conductor operating the train manually, a system similar to auto pilot controls acceleration and speed to maximize efficiency.

Because train length isn’t limited by the power of the engines, but by the strength of the couplings that hold the trains together, the system also allows communication between various engines that may be at the head pulling, in the middle, or at the rear of the train pushing. (Using these systems, trains in Australia and South Africa have reached up to 6 miles in length). So sophisticated is this technology that when crossing the mountains, the lead engine may be braking on the down grade, while the middle or tail engine is increasing power on an incline grade.

Thomas continued, “Shippers in North America spent over $40 billion in 2012 on overhead, administration, and warehousing. Improving efficiency by just 1 percent will result in $400 million in annual savings. Automating and connecting the shipper to the rail network further automates the railroad, creating a ‘network effect’ of additional productivity.”

On trains and in depots and maintenance facilities throughout the U.S. and around the world, the technology that GE Transportation is designing and producing, right here in Melbourne, is making rail transportation safer, more efficient and therefore more beneficial to all mankind.

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